Pierce Huxtable’s Christmas gift to his family last year cost nothing, and required not an inch of glistening wrapping paper.
But the 24-year-old’s invaluable present shined then and shines still. And his story bears repeating even on Christmas Eve, because there’s still time to offer the same gift to the people you love.
All you need is a memory.
“I realized, after listening back to the finished products, that I received a Christmas gift as much as I made one,” said Huxtable, of Minneapolis, who works as a food server and freelance radio producer.
Radio, in fact, is where this story starts.
Huxtable, born in South Dakota and raised in Neenah, Wis., has been soothed by sound since childhood, contentedly lulled to sleep by his mother, Cindy, reading “Goodnight Moon” and “I’ll Love You Forever” to him and his brothers, Ken and Tom. He devoured Books on Tape and studied electronic journalism at Northern Michigan University, later working as an assistant producer and host on Minnesota Public Radio.
He keeps voice mails he receives, some for as long as five years, returning to them to ground him on days when life doesn’t feel as steady as he’d like it to be.
In the fall of 2014, Huxtable was helping his girlfriend, Rachel Thorson, cull through old photographs after her mother died. They came across a “silly video” featuring the family cat, Huxtable said. Thorson’s mother was in the background, laughing.
“It was one of the only recordings of her mother’s voice that she had,” Huxtable said. “It became a prized possession.”
As the “Big Huxtable Thanksgiving Blow-Out” in Neenah approached, Huxtable laid the groundwork for his family’s Christmas present. He crafted an e-mail and sent it to relatives in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, New York and California.
“I want stories from everybody,” he explained. He would record those stories when the family gathered.
“Think of a story, a fable, a teaching moment, something to make people laugh. Whatever you want to leave behind, because it will likely be around longer than you.”
The response was nearly universal: “Confusion,” he said with a smile. “ ‘What do you want me to say? What’s the purpose?’ ” his relatives asked.
Huxtable assured everyone that there was no right or wrong way to do a personal recording. “It’s whatever you want to offer.”
On the first day of the reunion, Huxtable set up a little recording studio in his parents’ walk-in closet, attempting to keep out noise.
“You can still hear the HVAC system and a baby screaming,” he said, “but it reminds us of where we all are.”
A few relatives shared right away. Others held back for a day or two. Eventually, more than two dozen stories poured out, ranging from a few minutes long to more than a dozen.
“I was expecting amazing events, feats of heroism or life-altering revelations,” Huxtable said.
Instead, he recorded stories that were “far more meaningful.”
“I got little glimpses into the quiet, unassuming lives of the people I love,” he said. “I heard stories about a car ride, or making a blueberry pie. People spoke about time together and sunrises and children’s books. My family focused on the simple, everyday moments made extraordinary somehow through connection or insight or change.”
His father, Paul, fondly remembered lying on the bed at night with his three little boys, sharing made-up stories about a heroic fish named Herbie. In one captivating installment, Herbie saves his cousin from an untimely death after being tempted by a worm.
“The moral of the story,” Paul said emotionally into the microphone, “is that love conquers all. If you love someone enough, you’ll stand by them and support them and encourage them and fight for them.”
Huxtable’s mom, Cindy, followed a similar path, reciting the titles of nearly 50 cherished children’s books that she read with her boys.
“My mom actually broke the rules,” Huxtable said. But he didn’t mind that she didn’t tell a personal story, “because her message was that reading stories to your children is as important as any personal story you could tell.”
Aunt Jean from Green Bay recalled returning home after driving in a harrowing storm as a recent college graduate. Grateful for the simplicity of safety and warmth, she baked a blueberry pie in her tiny apartment at 2 a.m.
Uncle Tom from Omaha went through many stories in his mind before deciding to share a long-ago trip to California for a wedding where he, around age 10 or 11, experienced his first earthquake.
“We ran outside and threw ourselves on the lawn,” he recounted, laughing. “Then we got lectured on proper earthquake etiquette.”
Huxtable, himself, recounted busking with his mandolin in hopes of earning enough tips to see the musical “Once.” He didn’t quite earn enough. Then, out of the blue, a man walked by and handed Huxtable his ticket to see the show.
When everyone had recorded their story, Huxtable “felt full” — in the best possible way.
“Without meaning to, my family told me about what will mean the most to me as life goes on,” he said. “And, honestly, most of that meaning simply comes from being with those you love.
“Life’s too short to make the holidays about anything but each other.”
He uploaded the recordings and e-mailed an audio link to every family member, with a simple wish, “Merry Christmas!”
There were many thank-yous, and one “This is so cool!” He says there were no tears shed, but I’d question that. More likely there were just no tears shed that he knows of.
Huxtable is considering launching the concept for people in hospice or on active duty. Brother Ken is currently serving with the U.S. Marine Corps; Tom is with the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Huxtable hopes his Christmas gift will grow more meaningful to his family as time passes. The project already has presented him with an invaluable gift.
“The 20s are a period of feeling like you’re drowning in self-discovery,” Huxtable said. “Because of social media, everyone’s accomplishments are in your face. ‘Oh, God, am I keeping up? What am I doing with my life?’
“It’s refreshing to know that when people look back, it is the simple, everyday things that matter. It’s reassuring to hear that I don’t need to do all the things I expected to live a meaningful life or to help others.
“It’s a blueberry pie that will, ultimately, keep you going.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum