Rick’s tree: A reminder of the stars, even when the sky is dark

Around this time of year, you can’t miss the towering blue spruce tree on Guinea Road. Aglow with string lights, it’s a popular landmark and a reliable harbinger of the holiday season. The tree is so much more than that, though—it’s a marker of the passage of time, a tribute to the bright life of a young man gone too soon, and a symbol of the concurrent threads of grief and celebration that commingle as a loss moves farther into the past. Lynn and Rich Nurczynski light the tree every year in remembrance of their son Rick.

An outdoor enthusiast and talented artist known for his mischievous grin, golden blonde hair, and a taste for adventure, Rick was a student at Northern Arizona University when a routine day of snowboarding ended with an avalanche and ultimately the loss of his life. Rick was barely 21 when he died on January 30, 1995.

Lynn said the tree was initially a gift from a friend shortly after Rick’s passing. The Colorado blue spruce had layers of meaning; Rick moved to Breckenridge, Colorado, when he was 17, after he graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School. (He also attended Charlotte Central School.) “It was symbolic of when he first flew the coop,” Lynn said.
“After his accident,” she said, “we planted it in the spring, facing west, and we decided that on his birthday we would put lights on it…we had a little celebration. The tree was probably five feet when we planted it.”

That December 6 celebration turned into a small ritual of remembrance that has remained mostly the same over the years as the tree grows – the intimacy of it a comfort to the Nurczynskis, their family and friends, and Rick’s friends. Lynn said they have a special dinner every year on his birthday, turn on the lights, and have a glass of wine under the tree. They pour a little out in a toast to him, she said, and then go back inside and send a photo of the spruce to a list of those who loved him.

Their responses are comforting, she said. “They always say how much they miss him, and how much they love the tree, and how much it means to them: they feel closer to him.”

Rick’s girlfriend from his high school and college years, Nicole Auletta, grew up in Shelburne and now lives in Hawaii, but said she’s still connected to his family.

“December is always a time that I’m in touch with the Nurczynksis,” she said. Though she doesn’t make it home often, this December she was in Vermont and stopped by to see Lynn and Rich and have wine under the tree with them.

“His tree represents many different elements of his life and our memories,” she said. “One that astounds me (especially after this past visit) is how tall it is. Hard to believe so much time has passed since his beautiful soul was in our lives.”

Auletta said she remembers with affection his quirk of making up nicknames for things, and using “cool snowboard lingo,” and said she remembers most fondly, “other than his handsomeness!” his sense of humor and his smile.

The peaks and valleys of grief can be unpredictable, but the time around the holidays is reliably difficult for many when the celebration of the season is marked by an undercurrent of sadness and loss. The bookends of Rick’s birthday and his last day surround the holiday season.

“The anticipation of December 6 is always very difficult,” Lynn said, “and when we light the tree, it makes us feel sad, but more peaceful inside, and it makes us, and everyone else that loved him, feel closer to him—like they’re actually here when they’re not.”

Lynn said the ritual is helpful for them and that their neighbors, many of whom know and understand the story behind the lights, look forward to the tree’s lighting. Sometimes, Lynn said, she sees a car sitting outside in the driveway, taking it in, and though she doesn’t usually go out to say hello, she doesn’t mind when people stop to look. She assumes it’s someone who loved him, stopping by for a visit and some memories. “He’s still in a lot of hearts, you know…all of his friends are still in touch with us, and it’s been 24 years. When we hit 21 years of lighting the tree, then 22, then 23…it was like, whoa! We’ve been lighting this tree longer than he was with us physically.”

“It’s very comforting,” she said, “to look out on those lights. We can see them from our living room, we can see them from our kitchen, we can see them from our upstairs bedroom. It’s still really hard, but it’s a ritual that we actually love to do.”

The lights were originally blue, Lynn said. “This whole thing about an avalanche was like a ‘once in a blue moon’ kind of thing—like, how can this happen? But then we returned it back to white because Rick was a winter guy, and he loved the snow, and he loved the night sky, and it looks like stars out there.”

On January 30, the day of Rick’s accident, the Nurczynskis turn off the lights until December comes again. “It’s hard to believe that those years go by so quickly: It feels like yesterday, yet it feels so long ago,” Lynn said.