When it comes to Christmas traditions, the Riley family followed the same routine for decades — a Christmas Eve drive around Santa and his flying reindeer in Balboa Park followed by dinner at a restaurant, then a turkey feast with all the trimmings at home on Christmas Day. And when it came to the Christmas tree, nothing but a noble fir would do. Only its sturdy branches could bear the weight of the La Jolla family's many treasured homemade ornaments and souvenirs from their travels in New Mexico, Germany, Mexico and Japan.
But Christmas hasn't been the same for Bob and Frances Riley for a long time. Frances, 78, was diagnosed in 2005 with primary progressive aphasia, a rare form of dementia that has gradually robbed her of the ability to talk, walk and care for herself. Overwhelmed with his wife's needs, 80-year-old Riley stopped decorating for Christmas altogether seven or eight years ago.
"I just haven't bothered with it," he said. "It seems like too much of a hassle, and I don't have the energy for it anymore."
But thanks to a free tree-decorating program launched last year by an interior decorating company in Point Loma, Christmas returned this month to the Riley home. One day last week, volunteer "elves" from Scout @ Quarters D delivered a lighted tree to the Rileys' home and spent the next two hours decorating it with all of the family's favorite ornaments. They'll return after Christmas to cart the tree away and box and store all the ornaments for next year.
Scout's creative director Paul Scott Silvera came up with the idea for his tree-decorating program — named Shiny Brite, after the glass bulb ornaments popular in the 1940s and '50s — because he noticed that many of his elderly Point Loma neighbors weren't decorating anymore.
"Maybe they weren't well or their kids had grown up and moved away, but they weren't putting a tree up anymore. They have all these boxes of decorations at home and they haven't pulled them out in years," he said.
The fifth-generation San Diegan has a degree in art history and says Christmas combines many of the things he loves — vintage ephemera and historical items that people connect with their most treasured memories.
"I love anything with artifacts and Christmas is an annual way of revisiting your family's artifacts," said Silvera, 42. "You're celebrating your past, enjoying your present and looking forward to your future."
Last year, Silvera developed the idea for Shiny Brite and put the word out to friends, family and customers of his Liberty Station store. Eventually he chose four older San Diego residents. One of them was a Point Loma woman who hadn't celebrated Christmas for 30 years since the day she saw her husband and children killed in a small plane crash while on a Thanksgiving family vacation in Montana.
"She invited us into her home and I wasn't sure if she'd even let us put up a tree. Finally after we talked for a long time, we did bring in a tree and decorate it. And when we were all done, she said she thought she was ready to bring down the (children's) stockings and hang them on the fireplace," he said. "Now she's Mrs. Christmas and she's going on a Christmas cruise this year with her friends. That has become my favorite Christmas memory."
The Rileys didn't apply for the Shiny Brite program this year. Their adult daughter, Bridget Riley Santos, read about it on Scout's Facebook page and wrote an appeal to Silvera. When he picked the couple as one of this year's four Shiny Brite recipients, she surprised her dad with the news on Thanksgiving Day.
Since 1970, the Rileys have lived in a modest, hacienda-style home on Mount Soledad that he designed and built with his earnings as a water desalination scientist. He admits he was hesitant about pulling all the Christmas boxes out of the attic and disrupting his wife's routines. But as the noisy decorating chaos filled his living room, he seemed utterly delighted.
Among the items the "elves" pulled from storage was Riley's favorite holiday decoration, a humble wooden manger that he cobbled together with sticks and nails at the age of 9. Spread out on the kitchen table were an assortment of ornaments that Riley and Santos hadn't seen in many years — each one with a memory attached.
Santos picked up a tiny taco that she and her mom made with salt dough and paint when she was in high school. Nearby, a woven straw burro recalls the family's many Christmas-break camping trips in Mexico in the 1960s and '70s. There's a glass red chile pepper from Frances' native New Mexico and a plaque labeled "Greetings from Kansas," Riley's home state. There are white silk balls hand-beaded 40 years ago by a carpenter friend in San Diego and tiny wood gnomes from the year Riley was a visiting scientist in Germany. There's even a box of fragile Shiny Brite bulbs that have survived in their original box for more than 60 years.
As Silvera and two volunteers gradually filled the boughs of the 7-foot artificial tree with ornaments, Frances sat nearby taking in their every move with her eyes. Earlier in the week, Santos bought a recliner for the living room, so her mother could sit and enjoy the tree this holiday season. From her chair, she seemed focused and fascinated and repeatedly smiled.
Standing by her chair, Riley said he didn't realize how much he missed Christmas until he saw the ornaments and the lighted tree taking shape in his living room.