‘In memory of Andee’
By DIANNE REBER HART /Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Ed McCormick knows he’s a bit over the top when it comes to decorating his home for Christmas. He admits it. But he doesn’t apologize for it one bit.
His stunning outdoor display, with more than 25,000 twinkling lights alone, is a tribute to his late daughter, Andee McCormick.
The spirited and fun-loving brunette died in a drunken driving accident when she was just 17 years old. She was one of three young people killed early Thanksgiving morning 17 years; the lone survivor in the single-car crash was the driver, Andee’s boyfriend.
Devastated with grief, McCormick and his wife, Jonnie, shut themselves away from any acknowledgement of the holiday season. “There was no Christmas,” says Jonnie McCormick.
The many Christmas tree ornaments the family collected during their travels together stayed boxed up that year. Ed McCormick didn’t even consider his outdoor display.
“But we didn’t want to go that route the second year,” Ed McCormick says.
While still mourning the loss of their only child, the McCormicks decided to honor Andee with a dazzling holiday extravaganza, one she personally would have enjoyed.
Ed McCormick says his daughter was a big fan of his outdoor display, with her teasing in typical teen fashion that he was “a lunatic” about his neighborhood attraction.
“Andee always got a kick out of it. She thought it was fun,” he says.
Today Andee’s name takes center stage, a specially-made neon sign at the rooftop announcing, “In memory of Andee.”
The McCormicks’ house, on a corner lot just blocks from Sonoma Plaza, attracts plenty of attention from passersby. Even a humbug can’t overlook the lighted snowflakes hanging from the eaves, the singing polar bear, the towering 8-foot-tall Santa, the life-size toy soldier Jonnie McCormick once tucked into bed to surprise her husband, or the many other holiday elves, Disney characters or mechanical animals artfully displayed by Ed McCormick.
“Everybody in town comes here to look at it,” says Jonnie McCormick. “We’re really known as the Christmas house in Sonoma.”
Well-known in the community for their countless hours of volunteer work, the McCormicks have been touched by the kindness and compassion of friends and strangers alike. There have been notes, phone calls and knocks on the door, cash offers to help with the electricity bills, even a little girl who came by to share a decorative angel each year.
One evening, the McCormicks peeked outside just in time to spot a little boy in their front yard, kissing their lighted windows.
Another time, Jonnie McCormick was at the kitchen window doing dishes when she noticed three boys, young teens perhaps, standing at the front of her walkway, skateboards and headphones in tow.
“They bowed their heads, crossed themselves and prayed,” she recalls. “To see that, to be that compassionate …”
While the display is intended to bring holiday joy, the McCormicks hope Andee’s tribute delivers a message as well: don’t drink and drive, don’t get in a vehicle with an impaired driver.
“The only good ride is a sober ride,” Jonnie McCormick says.
After her daughter’s death, McCormick ran a local Teen Safe Ride program for seven years, then organized a voucher program offering free taxi rides on Friday and Saturday nights for Sonoma Valley teens.
A retired banking and business executive, she now owns Ed and Jonnie’s Wine Trolley with her husband. Ed McCormick, a retired airline captain, is now captain of their motorized vintage 1900s San Francisco cable car. They offer trips to local wineries, serving as tour guides and designated drivers for visitors on wine-tasting excursions.
This year the McCormicks are incorporating their trolley into their holiday festivities. They’re offering weekend tours of lighted homes and historic sites around Sonoma, with their house as a final destination. Visitors can walk around, pose for photos and visit with a real-life Santa (Ed McCormick’s alter ego).
The trolley is this year’s addition to their ever-evolving holiday display.
The McCormicks figure they’ve invested $20,000 for lights, decorations, extension cords, specialty circuits, electricity bills and repairs. Although they frequent after-Christmas sales, sometimes fate intervenes. When Jonnie McCormick spotted an especially beautiful bigger-than-life Santa at a local hardware store, she knew they had to have him – at the jolly full price of $800 plus shipping.
The couple’s PG&E bills typically run from $350 to $500 each December, when their front yard lights up from 5 to 8 p.m. daily through Christmas Day (with extended hours to 10 p.m. just before Christmas). There are 2,000 tiny white lights just on their fruitless mulberry tree, so fully illuminated “they can see it from the space station,” Ed McCormick quips.
The costs can’t compare to the joy their display brings to countless children and to the McCormicks themselves. They admit the annual decorating process has been therapeutic.
Ed McCormick meticulously handcrafted the many wooden decorations in his display, including a three-dimensional sleigh complete with Rudolph and his high-flying friends. When he asked his wife to paint the figures back in 1996, he had little idea it would lead her to a hobby as an acrylics painter.
“For the next two years I worked my way in front of a canvas. It was a great way for me to soothe my own grief,” Jonnie McCormick says.
When Thanksgiving comes around, marking the anniversary of Andee’s death, Ed McCormick immerses himself into the task of unpacking box loads of lights and cords and Christmas decorations for his daughter’s tribute.
He devotes four or five days to decorating, sometimes 10 hours a day. Despite offers of help, Ed McCormick is a one-man crew.
“I’m the only one who knows how to set it up and get it done,” he says, noting he’s more than a bit of a perfectionist. “If you look up ‘anal retentive,’ it says ‘See Ed.’ ”
In all the years of their display, only once has something been stolen: spotlights illuminating a wooden gingerbread couple. Another time, a string of lights disappeared, but quite unintentionally. An elderly woman riding a motorized scooter unknowingly caught the lights on her safety flag, dragging them home behind her. Just as a police officer rang the McCormicks’ doorbell to return the lights, the apologetic woman was on the phone assuring their safe arrival.
The McCormicks never tire of the work, the expense or the many visitors traipsing around their front yard. It’s all for Andee and their community.
“It reminds me of everything that was fun about her,” Jonnie McCormick says. “She was always doing something fun. It reminds me of her sparkle, wherever she is.”
The McCormick home is located at 735 Third St. W., adjacent to Sonoma Valley Hospital on Andrieux Street. Visitors who stop by on Christmas Eve can chat with Santa and receive a candy cane. For information or reservations for the McCormicks’ weekend Christmas trolley, call 484-9897 or visit ejtrolley.com. The cost is $25 per person, with $5 from each ticket donated to FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping).