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The Man Who Invented Outdoor Christmas Lights

I don’t know it yet, but this Christmas will be my most memorable. It starts in December, the day before the first snowfall of the year. My dad, doing his best to keep busy, idle hands, and all that brings me into what feels like a very adult plan.

“Warn,” he says, holding my coat, hat, and mittens, “Turn off the TV. I need your help.” I happily comply, despite the fact I’m watching Bewitched and it’s a Serena episode.

I follow him to the front yard, where a ladder, extension cords, a long string of lights, and a garden clipper with a telescoping handle await us. Dad starts trimming the tree in the literal sense, doing his best to make sure it is shaped well. He’s trimming it before trimming it. Chopping here and there as offending branches reveal themselves.

My job is to snake the multi-colored lights across the yard to ensure there are no tangles. Luckily, they were put away carefully last year, so it’s fairly easy. Soon the lights are stretched out past our property line. The cords are so long they nearly reach into neighbor Nabors’ yard.

“Now, Warn, you stand next to the ladder, right here,” he says, gently placing me into position. I’m going to start winding the lights around the tree. It’s your job to hold them up and keep the line moving.” He then patiently demonstrates what he means. It’s like a mime pulling a rope, but instead of a rope, it’s a cord, and instead of miming it, there’s something to hold. As dusk settles in, the lights are evenly spaced out and in place.

Mom comes outside without her coat on, which she’d yell at me for doing. She does that little jump up and down that people do when they’re trying to stay warm. She also rubs her hands together. For circulation, I suppose. Honestly, it’s just easier to grab your coat from the pegboard by the backdoor. As she stands next to me, Dad connects the extension cord and moves toward the outside outlet he installed last week. “Okay, family,” he says with a smile, “count backward from 3!”

“3-2-1!” we say together. Dad plugs in the cord, and … nothing.

That doesn’t stop Ray Barnes. Like the mechanical genius my father is, he slaps the side of the circuit box, and there is light. We all clap, including Butch, who is watching from inside, with our cat Ming, who also looks impressed.

For a second, I forget to breathe. Our tree is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’m unable to imagine anything better for all of ten seconds. Then something even better happens.

“Warn, I have one more job for you,” says Dad. He opens a box I hadn’t noticed before. After pulling away several layers of yellowed, fragile-looking tissue paper (my family loves wrapping things in tissue paper), he pulls out an angel tree topper.

“This is from England, where I was born. When I was your age, I used to put this on top of the tree, but now it’s your job. Do you promise to be careful?”

Nodding my head very solemnly, I say, “I do.”

“Good. This was given to me by my grandma. Someday it will be yours.”

My dad leads me up the ladder, holding my waist as we both climb. When I get to the highest wrung, he lifts me into the air. Mom hands me the angel. I fly higher than I’ve ever been and gently place the fragile figurine on the top of the tree. As my dad pulls me away, I notice she’s just a little crooked. I’m back on the ground before I can say anything. Maybe it’s best I didn’t. Moments like this are rare. They’re perfect enough on their own.

I can’t be sure but, in my memories, we were the first family in our neighborhood to have outdoor lights. As other homes begin to decorate, I’m silently sure everyone else is just copying my dad. Each time I stare at our tree, awash in Christmas colors, I’m proud to be the son of the man who invented outdoor Christmas lights.


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