It fell to Kristina Whitaker to explain why a rag-tag group of mourners had suddenly descended upon a house at 115 Pikeview Road in College Township.
Her audience was a receptive officer from the State College Police Department, who listened patiently as she explained that her father — a man whose formative years were rooted at that very same address — had died just a few days prior.
Earlier that morning, she had been preparing for the funeral, distracting herself from unpleasant thoughts with a leisurely scroll through Facebook.
Someone had posted the location of the 75-foot-tall Norway spruce that had recently been anointed as the next Rockefeller Center Christmas tree — and it looked familiar.
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“The timing was so miraculous. It was a present to find out that day,” Whitaker said.
Hal Musser met his wife, Inger, in Germany, he was a member of the United States Air Force and she a nursing student with a supplementary job at an international bank.
They married abroad, settled in the United States and had children not far from the house where Hal grew up on Pikeview Road, putting Inger’s family in Sweden at a distinct disadvantage when it came to sharing grandchildren Lisa and Kristina.
“We went to Sweden but not, like, after school,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker was a sixth-grader when her paternal grandfather died in 1986, which would have put her in high school when her grandmother passed just five years later.
The Mussers sold the house on Pikeview Road and their daughters went on to create families of their own.
Igner died of cancer in 2011. Hal had just turned 72 years old when he passed peacefully in his sleep in October. When his daughters saw the unread newspaper waiting outside the door, they knew he was gone.
“It was losing that second parent that I did not realize was going to be so devastating,” Whitaker said.
We hadn’t even taken our kids over there before.
Revisiting the past
After the memorial service at Koch Funeral Home, Whitaker and her sister, Lisa Strickland, gathered their respective families — a total of five children and two husbands — and drove them to a neighborhood tucked in Lemont.
“We hadn’t even taken our kids over there before,” Strickland said.
The tree was massive, bigger, perhaps, than they remembered. There were more workers, too, busying themselves with the unenviable task of trying to shrink a 50-foot diameter with some netting and a few meters of rope.
The police officer was helping to keep a small crowd of neighbors at bay, pausing long enough to snap a few photos of the extended family spread out in front of the tree.
There have been other images since, images of a fully dressed spruce uploaded to social media by friends visiting Rockefeller Center. The sisters and their families will see for themselves next weekend when they stop by the area for a leisurely New York brunch with Santa.
Strickland is still marveling at the serendipity of a perfectly timed distraction and a welcomed alternative to grief.
“It seems like a gift really that this happened when it did,” Strickland said.