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A Christmas farewell

Kathy Shorr
Kathy Shorr
Kathy Shorr

My father was a resourceful man. He had to be. He was the youngest in a family of seven. His father died when he was eleven, and he had to quit school to help support his family. But his lack of formal education didn’t discourage his appetite for learning. When he turned twenty, in the depths of the Depression, he took a correspondence course in engineering, which gave him the equivalent of a GED degree. That in turn helped him find a job in a local Dupont factory, a company he worked for until he retired in 1975.

My father was a thrifty and organized man. Every Monday evening he would sit at the dining room table figuring out the expenses for the coming week, using bank deposit envelopes for each item in the family budget – Rent, Electric, Coal, Water, Newspapers, etc. In his basement workshop, he built a large cabinet with dozens of small, labeled drawers: Toggle Bolts, Castors, Furnace Parts, Lag Screws, etc.

My father was a practical man. When I brought home some prize or honor from school, his first response was always to ask if it came with any monetary award. If not, he would say sardonically, “Another star in your crown,” though I knew he was proud of me. I’m sure he would have been pleased if I had chosen a more lucrative and secure profession than writing, but he never criticized my choice or tried to discourage me.

When he died in 1987, I went through his workshop, taking tools and other items I thought I could use. The one that had particular meaning to me was a box containing three strings of colored Christmas lights. These were not the miniature LED lights most people use today, but large, brightly colored incandescent bulbs of saturated Red, Orange, Green, Blue, and Yellow that he would hang on the house eaves, transforming for a few weeks our ordinary suburban house into a magical dwelling.

Every December for the past thirty years I have hung those same lights on my boat shed and taken satisfaction in continuing a holiday tradition. When my father bought those lights, electricity was a cheap power source, and there was not a lot of motivation to conserve it. That, of course, has all changed, and like good environmental citizens, we have taken steps to make our electrical usage more efficient. Except, that is, for my father’s lights, which I have continued to put up every year.

For the past several years my wife has diplomatically suggested that perhaps the time had come to switch to the more efficient LED strings. I was surprised to find how strong my opposition was to this idea, and I basically ignored it. Each year, though, as the cost of using these old lights continued to rise, she brought up the subject of replacing them with more efficient lights. Environmentally and financially, I knew she was right, but I continued to resist.

At some point, though, I realized it wasn’t just that the lights connected me to the memory of my father, but in the very act of hanging them, I was reenacting his ritualistic motions in a way that physically connected me to him, keeping him, in a way, still alive for me.

This year, as usual I went into our basement to resurrect once more my father’s Christmas lights, and as I did, I heard, as if inside my head, a voice – reasonable, practical, fatherly – saying, “Don’t be silly, Bob. They’re just lights. Get the ones that are cheaper to run. It’s what I’d do.”

And so, this year, I’ll be saying farewell to the old lights and stringing the new LED ones – another legacy of practicality from my father. I think he would be proud of me.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.