Remember each day is just the sum of your experiences. Martin Daniel
In 2014 I started to tell an important reminiscence story of a Christmas Eve. A number of distractions interrupted my storytelling. Some of our stories are more important than others and need to be told. This is one of those stories. Power of Family and Tradition Redux is dedicated to my sisters, Carla Mills, Vicki Mills, and to Connie Heard Meyer in honor of our parents, Marge and Dave Mills, and Jean and Alex Heard.
For me and I hope for you this is a season of great joy, but we recognize that for many it is a time of great sorrow (be it brief and situational or extended and systemic). The story that follows a brief preamble is one of great joy.
A theme is evolving for me over these past few days and weeks ‘as the stockings were hung by the chimney with care.’ That theme broadly based is about duality. I remember how, over pitchers of beer at the Orange Bull tavern on the strip at the University of Texas in Austin, we would insert in one of our philosophic discussions, ‘Oh the dichotomy of life!’ Little did we know and yet much did we know. My over-riding Christmas wish for this year is that we continue to evolve more our thinking, speaking and doing more consciously to ‘and’ versus ‘or’ and that the heavier hand of duality can become the lighter touch of commonality and unity.
I would be joining Carla at a holiday party that had its origins on Lynwood Terrace in Nashville on Christmas Eve 1963. The Mills family had moved from Dallas in June that summer and the Heard family had moved the previous January from Chapel Hill. Carla Mills and Connie Heard, best friends today, were 8 years old when they brought the two families together and a tradition was born.
For quite a few years it was just the Heard’s and Mills’s on Christmas Eve and those were rich and special times. For the first three years, the celebration took place at the Chancellor’s manse of Vanderbilt where the Heard’s resided. Our houses, on opposite sides of the street, were separated by five large rolling lawns on both sides with beautifully architected homes that were built in the 1910s and 1920s. All but the two that housed us were still in the hands of the original families.
In 1966 the Christmas Eve gathering was moved to Heard’s new residence at the relocated manse on Deer Park Lane a short drive away by car (or bicycle). The eleven of us were gathered around a blazing fire at one end of the drawing room off the entry foyer. The Heard family was Jean, Alex, and their children Stephen, Frank, Connie, and Christopher. The Mills family was Marge, Dave and their children Skip (David), Carla and Vicki.
Alex, the consummate host and regaled in his red vest and Christmas tie would take each person’s drink request personally (one at a time) recede from the room and return for its presentation and then to repeat the process with the next guest, ladies first. For the recipient, it was captivating and endearing attention. I watched him do this for decades to come and always marveled. This particular year, Christmas break of my sophomore year, Alex asked me if I would accompany him in helping with each of those presentations. I was the oldest of the children and the only one yet to have arrived at the legal age. The bar at Deer Park was out from the drawing room, across the entrance foyer, and into Alex’s library and office near the front of the house. On the way, he queried me about school and what things were like on campus. College campuses were in a state of foreboding change. The drinks were delivered first to Marge, and then to Jean, and then to my dad, and then to each of the children with the same decorum and respect. As you can guess the combination of the distance between the fireplace and the library and the number of trips, left a considerable time for Alex and I to be alone. Never had I been so thoughtfully interviewed and made to feel so important. Unmistakable was his genuine curiosity. In those days, for us, Santa’s visit was still to come. It was the night before Christmas and the parents had their helper’s chores to be done. Slipping into bed later that night, having just turned nineteen at Thanksgiving time, something in me had changed.
Marge (1921-2000) went on to become an accomplished interior designer in Nashville with ASID awards and she and Alex shared their very special love for all thing Christmas and Santa Claus to the end of their days. Dad (1920-2005) went on to become one of ten Regional Counsel for the IRS before retiring in Naples, Florida.
Jean (1924-2011), an accomplished musician, became regarded as First Lady of Vanderbilt and its libraries are named in her honor along with Alex. Alex (1917-2009) became Chairman of the Ford Foundation and served as an adviser to President’s Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
Each of the children has distinguished themselves in their lives and careers.
Fifty-four years of relationship establish no lack of takeaways. This brief vignette reflects three of the blessings I have received from the power of this family tradition and tried to capture here.
First is education. Education is beyond formal curricula and the acknowledgments of others, no matter how highly regarded. Second is respect. Respect is a personal intention and knows no discrimination. The third is practice. Practice is the daily heartbeat of living one’s personal intention. The three are inseparable and by that, I mean that any one of the three cannot exist without the other two for very long. The duality mentioned earlier will diminish in this light.
I hope that this remembrance and the thoughts that go with it have rekindled some of your own Christmas past and pave the way for a new Merry Christmas in the morning.