Pacific Northwest | November 23, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 23, home
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Outside In
Past, present and future are woven in stitches of green

Photo The Christmas tree is the focal point of the Kaplan family's living room. Karmann Kaplan learned the art of bringing the outdoors in from her mother and grandmother. Except for the tree, all the decorations are "up and away," leaving the house spacious and clutter-free.

Some 3,500 white lights grace the front of the Kaplans' 1920s Laurelhurst Tudor. The house was originally built for a man from England who presented it to his wife as a wedding present. The couple lived here for 40 years. The Kaplans moved into the place in 1995.
FOR KARMANN Kaplan, winter is a time to honor a family tradition of bringing the outdoors indoors. Karmann learned the art of decorating with greenery from her mother and grandmother. Her Finnish mother, who grew up in the Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon, made fragrant indoor swags at Christmastime from the surrounding pine, fir and cedar trees.

"I sort of carried on my mother's love of greenery and fragrances, pine cones and bringing the outside in," said Karmann, who lives in a 1920s Laurelhurst Tudor with her husband, Rich, and their two high-school children, Matthew and Lauren.

Integrating the indoor and outdoor worlds is one important tradition among many that give meaning to the Kaplans' winter holidays. On every bough and in every corner rests a story of personal significance.
Wooden nutcrackers and reindeer candleholders stand guard under an oil painting by local artist Lane Gwinn featuring characters from "Star Trek" and from real life.
In "Composing a Life," author Mary Catherine Bateson writes, "There is no way to know which fragments of the past will prove to be relevant in the future. Composing a life involves a continual re-imagining of the future and re-interpretation of the past to give meaning to the present."

The Kaplan home is the canvas on which the past, present and future are artfully intertwined.

Each year after Thanksgiving, Karmann starts planning winter decorations. Greenery and lights take center stage. Some 300 feet of natural cedar garland grace the balconies and iron rails in front. About 3,500 white lights stud the Italian cypress trees, the house and walkways. Evergreen wreaths come from the annual Roosevelt High School fund-raiser.

Inside, garlands of all kinds drape festively throughout the house — strands of mercury glass, pewter, wooden cranberries, gold bells, colorful fruit and, of course, evergreen branches. When displaying greens on tables, Karmann puts the stems in small florist vials or, to use an old trick of her mother's, pokes them in potatoes to keep them fresh longer.

She also borrows her mother's method of making pomander balls out of oranges, whole cloves, orris powder and spices. The fragrant balls make great gifts, or hang from garlands with beautiful ribbons in favorite colors.
The newly remodeled dining room features new cupboards and an inviting window seat where an overhead garland of greens complements the view outside. Red walls show off a painting by artist Mark Horiuchi.
In the living room, the tree is the focal point, itself wearing about 1,000 bulbs. Every year the family adds new ornaments to a cherished collection. The children each receive a sterling-silver or hand-blown glass ornament that relates to the year. For example, last year a silver ball painted with a Puget Sound ferry represents the time the Kaplans spent at their house on Whidbey Island. Karmann's goal is that the kids leave home with "memories they can hang on their own trees."

On top of the tree sits another personal story: Twelve years ago, Rich's mother, a doll maker in California, made the cloth and porcelain angel.

The family's Christmas stockings hang by the chimney with care, thanks to a set of four pewter flower pots. Karmann fills each pot with a small evergreen such as cypress or holly that will be planted in the yard, come January. Inside and outside meet once again.
Every year the children receive new ornaments that symbolize the family's year. Here a Puget Sound ferry reminds the Kaplans of good times spent at their house on Whidbey Island. They have a fondness for sterling silver ornaments, which their two golden retrievers can't break.
For years the Kaplans have collected large, free-standing figures made of pine wood, such as a 30-inch-tall snowman and a Santa Claus. These cheery characters greet visitors at the front door. "We've found them anywhere from Miller-Pollard Interiors, where I get my artificial greens, to craft shows in San Luis Obispo, California," Karmann said. "I like them because each is hand-painted and unique, and they store well flat."

Another collection harkens back to the 1970s when Karmann's oldest daughter (Nichole) danced in the Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker." Ever since, the family has snatched up German nutcracker figures. The set of eight nutcrackers ranges from the traditional soldier to the Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," a play the family enjoys annually at ACT Theater.
The family's stockings hang from pewter flower pots on the mantel. The Italian cypress trees were chosen so they could be planted outdoors come January.
Karmann skillfully blends past and present, inside and out. As the poet e.e. cummings says, " ... placing carefully there a strange thing and a known thing here ... and without breaking anything."

Halls decked thusly, the Kaplans open their home to friends and neighbors for an annual holiday party. Guests enjoy catered food and an open bar surrounded by the special decorations Karmann has chosen for the year. A crackling fire glows downstairs while a fire pit outside warms the more adventurous. In this season of generosity and hope, the Kaplans invite guests to bring nonperishable foods to benefit the hunger-relief agency Northwest Harvest.

On every other day, the children have their own party. A pot of spiced cider brews on the stove; the inviting smell of apples and cinnamon greets the kids when they and their friends return from school. A self-proclaimed Christmas-cookie fan, Karmann makes "melt-in-your-mouth" fudge and other sweet treats during the season. Carols are played either from CDs or in person: Matthew plays clarinet in the Roosevelt band and Lauren plays the violin. It's a wonder the whole neighborhood doesn't camp out here all winter long.

Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle free-lance writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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