Mary Sullivan looked forward to spending Christmas in Lake Tahoe with her family all year long. After seven decades of Christmas celebrations, she still felt the same wonder and joy for the winter holidays that she had as a child. Outside the large windows of the cozy log cabin on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the clear blue sky was quickly giving way to clouds. The thermometer hanging on the trunk of a nearby pine tree told her the temperature had dropped ten degrees since morning. Mary had already lit a fire in the commanding rock fireplace that her husband, Jack, had built so many years ago with the help of his brothers.
The first snowfall of winter was always beautiful, but tonight, sharing it with the people she loved most in the world would make it pure magic.
This year would be a truly special Sullivan Christmas, because her family—eight wonderful kids and their families, who had filled her life with so much love and joy—would be arriving by nightfall.
She couldn’t wait to see them all, but before they all arrived and every room of the log cabin erupted with constant chatter and laughter, she wanted to have a little quiet time with her precious memories.
Moving away from the window, Mary headed for the large storage room in the back of the house. Stepping inside, she spent a few minutes admiring the marks along the inside wall.
She and Jack had measured each child’s growth spurts over the years, from toddlers to full-grown adults. Smith and Chase had badly wanted to catch up to Marcus and when, at sixteen, Smith had finally topped his older brother by half an inch you could have heard his bragging for miles. The twins, Sophie and Lori, had thankfully grown at exactly the same rate. Different in many ways, her girls had the most important thing in common: big hearts.
Jack and his brothers had built this log cabin nearly forty years ago, and she felt the love of the entire Sullivan clan on every shelf, every tile, every nail. Taking down the medium-size box from the middle shelf, she carried it back into the living room and placed it on a glossy wooden table near the bare Christmas tree.
Mary had several friends who put up elegant Christmas trees using only red-and-gold ornaments or silver-and-white decorations. Their trees were holiday showpieces, so carefully put together that even Mary was nervous about knocking off one of the pristine ornaments. She always kept a good distance from those architectural wonders.
No one would ever call the Sullivans’ big Christmas tree a showpiece or anything close to elegant, with its jumble of mismatched decorations…but Mary would never change a thing about it, even though her kids were all grown now. Every ornament on her tree had such a beautiful story behind it.
With a smile of anticipation, Mary reached into the box and pulled out a thin, flat, bubble-wrapped package. She carefully undid it to reveal a Popsicle-stick masterpiece. Six wooden sticks had been glued into the shape of a star. At the center of the star was a hand-drawn picture of the growing Sullivan family from more than thirty years ago.
Even as a little boy, family had meant so much to Marcus, her firstborn, who now owned the very successful Sullivan Winery in Napa Valley. Only four years old when he’d made this ornament, he’d drawn Smith as a toddler, dancing for their attention. Chase was crawling off in his diaper to discover a new adventure. Marcus stood between Jack and Mary, grinning as he held their hands. Already, Mary’s eyes were slightly damp as she hung Marcus’s ornament on the tree.
The next bubble-wrapped package she chose was the heaviest one, which was how she knew it had to be Smith’s. There had never been any doubt in Mary’s mind that her second oldest son had been born to be a star. She’d been applauding him with pride in every play, every musical, and every smash hit movie he’d been in for more than three decades.
One day near the holidays when he was six years old, he’d pulled out a small bag of concrete from the basement. After mixing it into the perfect consistency, he’d made his handprints in the concrete, signing his name with a flourish beneath them.
Almost exactly two decades later, Mary had watched Smith place his hands in wet concrete again…only this time it was for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Finding an extra-strong branch to hang his handprints on, Mary placed Smith’s ornament on the tree.
The next ornament came in its very own box, one that was as beautiful as the treasure it protected inside. When Chase, her third oldest son, was eight years old, his third-grade teacher had sent a note home asking the kids to bring in family pictures for an art project. Rather than pulling photos from the albums Mary had put together over the years, Chase took the pictures himself, using the camera Jack had given him for his seventh birthday. Already, her talented son had been on his way to becoming a world-renowned photographer.
On the last day of school before Christmas break, he’d come home with this wonderful box, covered in a collage of the family photos he’d taken. In one photo, Marcus was swinging his youngest brother Gabe around in a circle as both boys laughed together. In another, Ryan was a blur as he ran after a ball. Zach was captured setting up a complicated toy race-car track in the basement and there was a shot of Smith as the star in a school play. In the photo beside that one, Mary and Jack were sitting side by side on the couch, each of them holding a baby girl. Chase had taken a picture of himself, too, in front of the mirror, half of his face covered by the large black camera.
Inside the box was a round plastic ornament with one big picture of the whole family together glued around it. A few years later, one of the kids got hold of the ornament and, with a black felt tip pen, had drawn mustaches on everyone. Somehow, Mary thought with a grin as she hung it on the tree, she l