PLYMOUTH, Minn. — Need proof that a mother’s love never dies? You’ll find it in several strings of popcorn garland and a 58-year tradition.
“I have a lot of happy memories of that little girl,” Terry Haak told KARE 11 in 2013.
Terry’s daughter, Paula Miller, was 7 years old in 1963 when she was diagnosed with a blood disease.
“And only once did she say to me, ‘Mama when can I go out and play with the other kids?’" Terry recalled. “She didn't cry. But I cried.”
Terry was instructed to care for her oldest daughter like she'd handle a carton of eggs.
No bumps, no bruises.
Paula spent a year tucked in her room, tutors coming and going, her first communion received in her bed.
Terry suggested that Paula string together popcorn chains.
“I just thought, 'This will keep her busy,'” Terry said.
Day after day, Paula used a thimble and needle to string together hundreds of popped kernels destined for the family Christmas tree.
“It was a very special Christmas,” Terry said.
It was also Paula's last.
Six weeks into the new year, the disease took her life.
But every Christmas since, the first decorations out of the box at Terry’s house have been those popcorn chains.
“This is my time with Paula,” Terry said.
How those fragile kernels have not disintegrated, after nearly six decades, is a family mystery.
Maybe it's the company they keep.
“Now we start with the angels,” Terry said.
Then, dozens of angel figurines began emerging from boxes.
“When she died you have to explain to your children, your young children, ‘Paula went to heaven, she's an angel now,’” Terry explained.
From that point on, no one has ever had to ask, “What should I get Terry Haak for Christmas?”
“It's part of dealing with my grief,” Terry said.
Over the years, her collection has grown to 450 angels.
Terry surveyed the room.
“This will go up on top of the cabinet there, and maybe I'll put a few up there,” she said.
“See what you started, Paula?” Terry asked in a moment of reflection.
After angels had filled every space on the tree, on her 80th birthday, Terry decorated herself with a tattoo of an angel on her shoulder.
Holiday joy bubbles up more easily now, but a mother does not forget.
“You never get over it, but you just get used to it,” Terry said.
Terry steps back from the tree, her eyes taking in the popcorn chains and angels.
“I like it,” she said. “Now it's Christmas.”
Revisit your favorite moments from Boyd Huppert’s Land of 10,000 Stories by subscribing to Land of 10,000 Stories: The Complete Collection on YouTube.
Have a suggestion for the Land of 10,000 Stories? Fill out the form below.