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WITH VIDEO: Secret tree decorator's tradition continues after mom's death
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SWEET STORY OF A BITTERNUT TRADITION

WITH VIDEO: Secret tree decorator's tradition continues after mom's death

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A tree on Kennedy Drive has sprouted its annual assortment of festive ornaments again.

This leafless bitternut hickory with its buds barely noticeable has rarely been seen without decorations on Thanksgiving Day. And, for at least a decade, no one has really known who took to adorning it year after year.

Until now, according to Steve McAuliffe, whose wife Terri actually began the tradition some 12 years ago with another tree a few hundred yards to the south and closer to Lake Michigan.

Steve, who back then was training for an Ironman race and would go for runs at the lake, remembered a story in a magazine about a runner who would put Christmas bulbs weekly on a tree while running on the trail. One day after breakfast at the Coffee Pot, the couple went down to the lakefront for a walk and Steve noticed that a tree was fully decorated with the colorful bulbs.

“I said to her, ‘Look, somebody did that,” he said. “And then, she started laughing. It was her. She did that.”

Chiming in, her daughter Katie added: “She came down early in the morning to decorate it and surprised him.”

Steve thought her prank was “just really great.” That was the start of a Thanksgiving tradition for the McAuliffes.

There’s a little twist, however, because then a few years later they noticed a stone with someone’s name on it beneath that tree.

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“We felt terrible. We’d been putting the bulbs on somebody’s tree and they’re probably thinking: ‘Who the hell is doing this to our tree?’ So, we moved over here and we started doing this tree,” he said, pointing to the bitternut that he and his daughter decorated Thursday morning.

This Thanksgiving was bittersweet, however, as this is the first year the McAuliffe’s have been without Terri, an avid gardener, and seasonal prankster, who brought her special brand of joy that kicks off the holiday season for those who live lakeside and to many a passerby. Terri died in April at the age of 62 following a battle with “a non-smoking” related cancer, he said.

“We did this for all these years and no one had known we did it,” he said.

After her death, Steve remembers going for a run at the lake to clear his head. That’s when he came up with an idea to have a marker placed at the foot of the tree in honor of his late wife.

“We talked to the people in the parks department, and we had to go through City Hall and they approved it,” he said. The marker was placed in time for Thanksgiving — something they’d hoped would happen since this time last year a heavy snow had already fallen. Her stone not only has her name, but on it is etched “her perfect day.”

“Sunny and 82 (degrees) with a southwest wind at 5 … so there you go,” he said. “Now, she’s gotta be looking down on us here thinking, `This is a great thing.’”

Steve admitted, however, he changed up the color scheme this year. Terri, he said, would decorate the tree with everything BUT the traditional Christmas colors of green and red — favoring purple, blue, magenta and chartreuse and lime green. So, this year the tree is green and red.

But near the top of Terri’s tree is a singular gold ornament.

“She’s blond,” he said. “And that’s for her.”

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