Holiday heirlooms: Tokens that touch the heart

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2013 - 12:42 PM

In our annual holiday feature, readers share their most treasured keepsakes of the season – and the stories that make them precious.

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Pat Kuehn with an angel ornament, made by her sister, just like the ones that Kuehn and her siblings used to sell door to door.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER, Star Tribune

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When Pat Kuehn was a child, the holiday season was a magical time.

“We had the best Christmases ever,” she said. Her mom, who loved Christmas, always made it special — baking cookies and sewing and knitting gifts for her nine children. “Family was huge for her. She loved children, and loved having a large family.”

The family had many holiday traditions, but one sticks out. For about five years in the mid-1960s, when Kuehn was in grade school, her mother and older sisters would make angel ornaments — more than 100 of them — out of white felt, decorated with star-shaped sequins. Then Kuehn and a few of her siblings would pack the angels into a cardboard box and go door to door in their Hopkins neighborhood, selling the ornaments for 25 cents.

It was to benefit “a needy family,” they were told.

“It was fun,” Kuehn said. “Well, it wasn’t fun all the time. It was cold, and we didn’t have the kinds of coats and boots that kids have now. We were freezing, but those were sweet memories.”

After selling the angels, they’d bring home their box, heavy with quarters, and turn it over to their mother.

Then on Christmas morning, they’d open their gifts: nightgowns or pajamas sewn by their mom, and a toy for each child. “I got a doll, a candy-making kit,” she recalled. “Just things that didn’t cost a lot of money, but they were thoughtful.”

After five or six years, the angel-selling ritual stopped, and Kuehn never thought much about it — until years later, as an adult, when someone asked her mother who the “needy family” was. Turns out, it was them.

“Mom used the proceeds for our gifts,” Kuehn said. “I think my older sisters were in on it.” But she was stunned. “It never even dawned on me,” she said. Looking back, there were some rough years, when her father was struggling with health problems. But at the time, “We didn’t know we didn’t have money,” Kuehn said. Her mother wasn’t one to complain; she made the best of situations.

“My mom was the sweetest mom ever,” Kuehn said. “She was very simple and artistic, just seeing the beauty and joy in little things.”

All her children grew up to lead successful, productive lives, said Kuehn, a social work supervisor who lives in Plymouth. “She taught us perseverance and not to give up.” But her greatest gift to her children, according to Kuehn, was “the feeling that each one of us was special. … She was always present, always there for everybody. Our family has clung to that.”

 

A friend lost too soon

“He and I would go out together, too,” recalled Rod Martel of Minneapolis. “My favorite memory was going dancing with him.” Martel had suggested an outing to an Israeli folk-dance event, thinking his Israeli-born friend would be a natural. “But he was terrible,” Martel said with a laugh. “He actually had two left feet and lost interest quickly.”

Dance skills aside, Martel’s friend, Reuven, was a wonderful person, “totally dedicated to his family and to Judaism,” Martel recalled. “He had a really big heart and was always willing to help.”

Reuven had, at the time, recently started his own business, manufacturing signage, and Martel, an educator who worked for the Minneapolis schools, often turned to his friend when he needed a sign for his violence-prevention programs. “He refused to accept payment,” Martel said. “He always dropped everything and would just do it.”

When Martel’s twins were small, Reuven surprised them with two menorahs he’d made by hand, inscribed with both their English and Hebrew names. “It meant a lot to me — that he had taken time out of his busy life to do this for us,” Martel said.

When Martel remarried, his wife, Colleen, converted to Judaism, and Reuven was a witness. “He welcomed me into the fold,” she said, helping her pick out her Jewish names and having them engraved on a Kiddush cup for her.

But the two friends soon drifted apart. Both men were busy with their families and their work. Martel was spending time on a documentary about his grandmother, who was killed during the Holocaust. The two families attended different synagogues. “Our lives just kind of diverged,” Martel said.

In September 2012, Martel and his wife were watching the news when they heard about a workplace shooting in Minneapolis. Martel saw the building and recognized it as the firm belonging to his long-ago friend. “That’s Reuven’s place,” he told Colleen. “I started getting more and more worried.” Then they heard that the business owner was among the victims. Reuven Rahamim, owner of Accent Signage, was dead.

“I felt disbelief,” Martel said. “I had it in the back of my mind that we would reconnect someday. It closed that door forever. I have a lot of regrets about not being in touch with him.”

Martel attended Rahamim’s memorial service, where it was standing room only. “It was very emotional,” Martel said. “I hadn’t seen his girls since they were little. They were grown up. How proud he was of them, and [his son], too. It was a great loss for many, many people.”

The menorahs Rahamim made for Martel’s twins, Joey and Michaela, can no longer hold candles. But Martel displays them in a place of honor during Hanukkah. “Now they’ve become more of a memorial,” he said. “They represent the memory of a great man. I talk to my twins about him, to keep that memory alive.”

‘Scary’ Jesus rescued

Lorna Johnston was a child, the youngest of nine, when her eldest sister bought their mother a gift: a baby Jesus in a cardboard box.

“I was afraid of it,” Johnston recalled. “I never touched it or went near it.”

What was so scary about it? “I don’t know,” said Johnston, who now lives in Long Lake. “It didn’t have any clothes on” — just a molded cloth draped like a diaper — and it had the wide staring eyes of dolls from its era, the 1940s.

Johnston tried not to even look at the baby Jesus, which was displayed near her mother’s Christmas tree every holiday season. “Even when I got older, I never went near that box,” she said.

Many years later, in 1990, Johnston’s mother died at the age of 90, and the sister who had bought the baby Jesus for her inherited it. Then she died, just a year later. No one in the family wanted baby Jesus.

“Everybody’s got stuff,” Johnston said. The surviving siblings sorted the sister’s possessions and called Goodwill to pick up what was left. But as the Goodwill truck pulled out of the driveway, Johnston saw the box with baby Jesus in the very back.

On impulse, she chased after the truck and grabbed the box, just as the truck was turning the corner. Her siblings laughed. “What are you going to do with that?” they asked. Johnston herself was baffled. “I had to have it, and I don’t know why. Maybe I felt guilty for not even liking it. But it was my mother’s, and I loved her so much.”

Johnston opened the box to have a closer look. “To my surprise, it was just an old cardboard box that opens up to the Christmas story,” she said. And baby Jesus, whom she’d always assumed was made of china, was actually rubber.

Over the years, baby Jesus grew on her. “I cherish it,” she said. “It’s the first thing I get out for the Christmas season. I’m so happy I have it.”

Baby Jesus’ future is secure. Johnston’s daughter, Jane Morimoto of Bloomington, has already staked her claim to it. “I am very sentimental. I like all the stuff from my grandparents,” she said.

And now that Johnston is the only surviving sibling from her family, she’s glad to have the memento of their childhood Christmases. “I’ve never seen one like it,” she said of the rubber baby Jesus in his box. “It’s not worth anything to anybody else except us.”

 

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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  • Joseph and Michaela Martel of Minneapolis held the unlit menorahs made for them when they were children by a family friend, now departed. Their father, Rod Martel, at right with his wife, Colleen, displays them, with other lit menorahs, as a memorial to “a great man.”

  • Lorna Johnston, right, and her daughter, Jane Morimoto, held the family’s Nativity scene with the rubber baby Jesus that used to scare Johnston as a child.

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