PLYMOUTH, Minn. - Up from the basement, or down from the attic, Christmas emerges out of boxes.
When Terry Haak pulls the lid off a 50-year-old cardboard shirt box, emotions swell for a lost eight-year-old daughter. "I have a lot of happy memories of that little girl," she says softly.
Paula Miller was seven in 1963, when she was diagnosed with a blood disease.
Her mom remains proud of the courage shown by someone so young. "Only once did she say to me, 'Mama when can I go out and play with the other kids?' She didn't cry, but I cried."
Terry Haak was told to care for her oldest daughter like she'd handle a carton of eggs: no bumps and bruises. Paula spent a year tucked safely in her room, tutors coming and going. She received her first communion in her bad.
When her mother suggested she make a popcorn chain to decorate the family Christmas tree, Paula happily dove in. "I just thought this will keep her busy," says Terry.
Day after day, Paula used a thimble and needle to string hundreds of popped kernels into garland that would circle the tree several times over. "It was a very special Christmas," recalls her mom.
It was also Paula's last Christmas. Six weeks later, after an unsuccessful surgery, she died from complications of her disease.
But every Christmas since, out from storage Paula's popcorn has come to decorate the family tree.
"This is my time with Paula," says Terry as she strings the fragile kernels.
How those popcorn chains have not deteriorate after five decades is a family mystery. Maybe it's the company they keep. Terry pushes aside the popcorn box for others. They are filled with angel ornaments.
"When she died you have to explain to your children, your young children, Paula went to heaven. She's an angel now," explains Terry. From that point forward no one has ever had to ask, "What should I get Terry Hack for Christmas?"
Terry looks into the tree and asks a question that can't be answered. "See what you started Paula?" she asks, before explaining to a visitor, "It's part of dealing with my grief." she says, looking around the room for space to place more angels. "This will go up on top of the cabinet there, and maybe I'll put a few up there," she says, pointing to a curio cabinet.
After filling every available space in the tree, for her 80th birthday Terry decorated herself. Her left shoulder now sports an angel tattoo.
Smiles and laughter come easily to Terry now, but make no mistake a mother never forgets. "You never get over it, but you just get used to it," she says.
In Terry's tree this 50th year, all is calm, all is bright.
Mother and child.
Tender and mild.
Terry has found heavenly peace.