I am trying to find a way into this story, one that will help you understand The Project, and by extension the man behind The Project, namely my Dad.
This isn’t easy, because the story has a lot of moving parts. It spans several decades, and it has a ridiculous number of characters—none of whom can be given short shrift, because this is an ensemble piece; each member of the cast carries as much weight as the next.
I’ve gone around in circles trying to find an opening or a window into the proceedings. All roads lead back to the family Christmas tree at 441 Highland Terrace, my childhood home from the age of five and the only place I ever remember spending Christmas Day. I’m dialing all the way back to a time when our tree was adorned with hand-painted and glittered walnut shell ornaments. Our tree was then dusted with fake plastic snowflakes, which we also liberally sprinkled on each other, accidentally on purpose of course.
Let’s call it 1967, although any Christmas Eve in the mid-1960s will do—the only difference being how many of us were still wearing fuzzy, footsie pajamas.
Dad finally wrestled a sweet-smelling, slightly lopsided Christmas tree into place and untangled the string of lights with fragile, tube-shaped bulbs, already in their second decade of service. He had managed to drape them around the tree evenly enough to secure Mom’s approval. As the oldest child, I helped a bit but, at only nine-years-old, I could not reach too high. So, I mostly just unpuddled the lights from the floor and handed them up to Dad, who was using a kitchen chair as a stepladder.
Mom was still in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner, thinking of all the elfish work still to be done before she could call it a day: supervising the rest of the tree-decorating and stocking hanging, then bundling the five of us off to bed. (On Christmas Eve in 1967, there were still only five siblings, although we knew twin babies were expected sometime around Easter.)
After we were nestled snug in our beds, Mom would still have to fill the stockings with care, then wrap, label, and stack what must seem like (and could well be) a hundred presents. Those included a few for her and Dad, as well as some for our Pop-Pop and Uncle Mickey. So she was savoring this patch of relative peace in the kitchen, knowing Dad had the next little while sewn up in the playroom.
Those of us old enough to remember our Christmas Eve tradition could hardly contain ourselves. We didn’t want to spoil it for the little guys, since Pete was only three, but we wanted them to know it was going to be so great. Angie and I might have been jumping up and down in anticipation. There might have been just the teensiest bit of jockeying for position between Brian and Dennis when they could tell Dad was almost ready to begin.
With one look he settled us, and, in a flash, we were all flat on our backs with our feet under the lowest branches of the tree, faces pointed toward the ceiling, one big gap more or less in the middle where Dad would squeeze in among us.
Then, Dad turned off the overhead light. He crawled to the outlet on the wood-paneled wall near the back of the tree.
“Is everyone ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” we cried out in one voice, “Plug it in!”
And there on the playroom ceiling, a whole new world opened up—a land of shadows, projected through the branches of the tree, tinted by the red and blue and green and yellow bulbs. Dad wriggled in among us and pointed to a spot just to the left of the treetop. “Up there,” he said, “is a road that leads into the forest. I see a group of boys and girls walking along that road. I wonder where they might be going.”
That one tiny suggestion was all it took to set our storytelling in motion.
We pointed, we gestured, we invented.
We laughed, we gasped, we sighed.
We found rivers, roads, and birds in the shadows—bad guys, good guys, and angels. We were sure we could make out a team of flying reindeer and a jolly fellow in a red and white suit driving a toy-stuffed sled. We interrupted each other—but not too aggressively, as Christmas Eve swayed us all to be on our best behavior.
Our story twisted and turned across the ceiling as we tried to impress Dad—and outdo each other—with improbable plot detours, magical discoveries and strange sound effects. By that point, Mom was hovering in the doorway, enjoying Dad’s annual ritual. We stayed there on the floor for as long as we were allowed to, until it was time to finish trimming the tree and hang up our stockings.
Dad succeeded in calming us down and working us up at the same time. He had gotten us thinking, and playing and dreaming along with each other, head to head, toe to toe, right there under the Christmas tree.
Fast forward to Christmas Day, 1990.
We were now too big to squeeze in under the tree, and a little old for the game with the Christmas lights, even though not one Christmas had passed without somebody recalling that old tradition. And there were several more of us: Angie, Brian, Dennis and Pete were all married, and Dennis had two little daughters. We didn’t know it yet, but by spring there would be two new babies born in another part of the world who would be joining our family as adopted siblings in time for next Christmas.
Some of us spent Christmas Eve in our own houses or apartments, or maybe with in-laws. But we all managed to come home for Christmas dinner, and this was one of the last years we would all be able to organize ourselves to be there like that, geographically speaking.
The presents had all been unwrapped and the stockings emptied. Because of grandchildren in the mix, the number of presents increased exponentially.
We had just about cleared up all the paper and bows and bags when Dad waltzed into the living room with a big brown cardboard box. Mom came in from the kitchen to watch. With great ceremony, Dad presented each of the seven siblings with identical unpainted wooden birdhouses, which he had constructed himself that fall while recovering from a heart attack (his first, but not only). He instructed us to paint or otherwise finish his handcrafted objects, turn them in to him by early March, and be prepared to let the guests at Angie and Rich’s St. Patty’s Day party vote on who had delivered the best “project.”
And just like that, Dad had turned us into kids again. He had gathered us around the tree, at the home we had by then renamed “Club 441,” he had figuratively plugged in the lights, and had given us the beginning of a new story. He had gotten us thinking and playing and dreaming along with each other once again, right there in the shadow of another Christmas tree. It was “game on.”
We were already imagining all the ways we might impress him—and outdo each other—when March rolled around. It was safe to assume there would be improbable plot detours, magical discoveries, strange sound effects, and, as always, lots and lots of laughter.
I know, I know. According to Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Not that any family is happy all the time, and I suspect even the unhappy ones have occasional moments of joy, but, somehow, the opening line from Anna Karenina has been twisted into an unwritten rule against writing about happy families. Mr. Tolstoy, I beg to differ—but you haven’t met my family, and I’ve never met anyone else with a family tradition quite like ours.
Now, fast forward one more time to March 2014, as we teetered on the brink of a quarter-century of playing along with The Project and telling our stories year after year after year.
Only in hindsight did it occur to me that our first project, Dad’s hand-crafted birdhouses, might have been a not-so-subtle reference to my parents’ rapidly emptying nest.
Really, though, I think Dad was just trying to mess with us. He had figured out a new way to tap into our creativity, while he stepped back and waited to see what we’d do with his unfinished carpentry work.
The birdhouse competition was a big hit at the 1991 St. Patty’s Day party. So, the next year he gave us bits of wooden scraps and dowels. The next year, we got children’s playing blocks. Then the following year, it was popsicle sticks.
Echoes of childhood, placed into the hands of adult siblings, each time challenging us—and our respective and often-expanding households—to turn them into individual creations, while simultaneously turning us loose on each other as fiercely friendly competitors.
Over the years, the raw materials we have received had sometimes been sentimental (family photos), sometimes seemingly random (bags of clear marbles), and other times just plain weird (cans of SPAM). The projects delivered have included well-made pieces of furniture, working robotics, musical performances, short films, essays, appetizers, poems, puppets, and overly elaborate costumes.
Often, our assignments were delivered in plain #10 envelopes, with the words “Project Control” typed in the top left-hand corner. Sometimes, the letters were businesslike, other times they were philosophical, reflective, or nostalgic.
Sometimes, the rules were incredibly specific: “You have each received a total of 450 craft sticks. You must use at least 425 of them.” Other years, they were deliberately vague: “Make a contemporary work of art out of the materials I have provided.” (Those materials included circuit boards from old computers, which had fallen into Dad’s hands through volunteer work at our old high school.)
The earliest letters began with “My Dear Boys and Girls,” although many of us were well into adulthood. I was 32 when we got our birdhouses, and the twins, Amy and Jen, were 22.
Over time, “My Dear Daughters and Sons” became the most common salutation, although Dad tried to be inclusive; for example, once he went with “My Dear Daughters and Sons (Outlaws included),” using the nickname my sisters- and brothers-in-law gave themselves years ago. But he likes to mix it up: once he referenced our birth order with “My Dear Daughters (2), Sons (3), and More Daughters (2).” Once, he went with “My Dear Sons and Daughters (used to be Boys and Girls).” Over time, he tipped his hat to the second—and now third—generation of Projecteers, addressing one letter to “Ladies and Gentlemen… Boys and Girls of All Ages.”
In addition to being the most inclusive salutation in Dad’s repertoire, that last one best established his role as Ringmaster in the family circus he orchestrates every spring as we enthusiastically present our projects to be judged, and The Project to be celebrated.
The project letters have been signed by “Dad,” “Santa Claus (the real one),” “Project Control” and (since the arrival of grandchildren) “Pop.”
As if we didn’t know.
Eileen Cunniffe has been writing nonfiction for nearly 35 years—but the first 25 were without the benefit of a byline, as a medical writer, corporate communications manager, and executive speechwriter. Her writing has appeared in journals such as Hippocampus Magazine, Bluestem Magazine, Superstition Review and Stone Voices. Three of her essays have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and another received the Emry’s Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. Read more at: www.eileencunniffe.com.