TRAVERSE CITY — When it was time to move again, the girls knew what to do.
The four Allen girls — sisters LuAnn, Susan, Cindy and Karen — packed and labeled their boxes for their future bedrooms, rooms they’d likely leave again soon.
Cindy, now Cindy Bartz, remembers moving about 40 times during her childhood. Motion was normal for their family, as their dad, Max Allen, built homes for a living around the Traverse City region.
For all their rootlessness, Max liked to plant trees at the houses he built. Blue spruce trees.
So when sister Susan, now Susan Radcliffe, caught the newscast about the downtown Traverse City tree, a majestic blue spruce cut from the intersection of Cass and Keystone in a lot destined to become a roundabout, she felt her dad’s spirit, she said.
“He’d be so proud, so happy,” Radcliffe said. “He always thought Christmas was a special time of year.”
Max, one of 15 children in a Kalkaska farming family, loved Christmas. He didn’t have a lot growing up, and always tried to do a little extra for his family and friends during the holidays, Bartz recalled.
He’d dress up as Santa and visit relatives. He’d insist on real trees, sometimes cutting them down himself — even though his daughters would choose the jumbo ones that barely squeezed under a cathedral ceiling.
One year, the kids had to shimmy up a partial wall to get the star on top, and a neighbor stopped in to make sure they were OK after noticing their picture window “was just branches,” Bartz said.
One year, Max told them “Santa went by early” and had them open their gifts because he couldn’t contain his excitement.
Another year, while driving his family around to look at the lights after church, he told his family his Christmas wish would be to replace the dilapidated homes in Grawn with the nice ones he would build.
“He was more of a kid than any of us,” Bartz said.
Max died in 1996; his wife Margaret, of Buckley, died in 2019. All four of their children, the sisters, live in the region, and once they confirmed the tree was their dad’s, met outside downtown to take a picture in front of it this week.
They once hung bulbs from that blue spruce when it was just 6 feet tall. They’d tied a yellow ribbon around it when Radcliffe’s husband was deployed to Operation Desert Storm.
Bartz remembers seeing it out the window during her first baby shower.
The house at the intersection had been sold several times since the Allens lived there, but the sisters were glad to know that it would be moved to another location, not demolished.
As for the 30-year-old tree their dad planted, to end up being downtown’s 2020 Holiday Tree feels like a fitting fate, the sisters said.
Downtown was quieter than usual when the sisters met in front of the tree, but they felt a profound thrill, Radcliffe said.
“It just felt that he had just given us a little light in our hearts — like he had given his light onto everybody, to show that after all the trouble of this year, that everything will be OK,” Radcliffe said.
“He was a very giving person — and at a time like this when people have lost their loved ones, even if we can’t be together, we should keep doing the little things to show that we’re all in this together. This year, it’s going to be more about the spirit of Christmas,” Bartz said. “My dad would be so happy; it’s like he’s giving to the city, his way of saying ‘have a holly jolly Christmas.’”