Enduring Bonds Built Brick By Brick


Each December, families across the country gather to celebrate the holidays and partake in time-honored traditions. For the Elster clan, one tradition that has withstood the test of time is their annual Brickscelebration. 

I was fortunate enough to get a first-hand look at the Elsters’ charming keepsake book. Flipping through its pages, one can’t help but smile seeing photos of aunts, uncles, cousins and more enjoying paintball matches, lavish feasts, and creative costumes at gatherings through the years.

In addition to reviewing the book, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mark Elster, family patriarch and compiler of The Bricks tradition memoir, at his beautiful downtown Seattle office. Hearing Mark reminisce about the early days of the tradition and its evolution over the past two decades gave me even greater insight into what makes it so meaningful for the family.

Whether at their cabin in Cle Elum, their ranch in Oregon or beaches further afield, the Elsters have proven location means little when loved ones unite in the joyous spirit of this holiday tradition. Despite changes in venue or themes like pirates or television, the constant remains the deeply loved bricks and memories they continue to accrue.

It’s clear The Bricks celebration took on even greater significance after the passing of matriarch Dorene two years ago. Her infectious laugh now lives on in the event she so adored. I left knowing for the Elster clan, while tangible things may come and go, tradition helps keep family close in heart always.

A Brick story from Mark Elster: 
It all started in the 1990s at 6037 California Avenue Southwest, Seattle, when my Great Aunt Boppy set the family home on fire—she swore it was sanctioned by the fire department!

A pair of bricks (one later broke in half) were retrieved from the wreckage. These inspired Clark Elster’s award idea that quickly evolved into an annual party to bestow the same brick—festooned with a red ribbon upon a hideously ugly paisley–patterned tasseled pillow—to the family member who did the most outrageous or stupid thing that year. The winner must display the brick prominently in their home for a year and recount their tale to all who will listen.

Among the hundreds of stories and tales that have been told over the years since, there is one story that stands out as a memorable example of the sorts of stories we share…

For instance, one day I received a call at my office from my wife, who was in tears and a state of distress, requesting that I rush home to “save” her. After learning that she was a little hurt but OK, I urged her to explain what was wrong, because she seemed reluctant to share any details. Finally, she was able to relay between sobs that she had a vacuum cleaner stuck to her head, and that her hair had caught on fire, but was now merely smoking!

I rushed home, after promising my coworkers, who overheard the conversation, that I would take a picture. After snapping the incriminating image, I used scissors to cut her melted burnt hair out of the attacking vacuum and listened to her recounting of the story in more detail as she transitioned from sobbing to laughing heartily with me.

Lying in bed at home sick from work watching daytime TV, it seems she had seen a dust bunny blow across the floor under our armoire. Not able to ignore the offending fluff, she retrieved our new upright vacuum. This one had a hose attachment that would enable her to reach under the furniture piece and suck the little vermin right up. Unfortunately for her, the beater bar on this unit kept spinning while the hose was attached. In an instant, her shoulder-length hair wound around the spinning bar and was melted and smoking seconds later.

Almost in a panic, she flailed for the switch but couldn’t see or feel it (because a vacuum was stuck to her head!). She feared she would be unable to reach it when her fingers stumbled upon it and put an end to its ravenous consumption of her locks!

But because of the melted hair, she couldn’t loosen herself from its clench. Laying on the floor the next problem was reaching the phone over on the other side of the bed (this was back in landline days).

Finally, after several minutes of shimmying across the floor she was barely able to lever the heavy upright so she could flop on the bed and catch her breath before crossing her fingers that I was in and able to answer the phone — otherwise she was going to call the fire department to release her.

Later that year at the awards event, Nancy Ellen was the odds-on favorite to win in the multi-round runoff voting process (we had lots of contenders). In a last-minute twist, also typical of these events, the women in the family formed a faction and voted for me to get the brick for the unchivalrous choice to take a picture before releasing my damsel in distress! To this day, the family thinks she won the brick that year.

Such stories make us laugh at ourselves and with one another. It also models for our children that adults are far from perfect, and able to humbly eat crow when they have done something crazy or risky. Children that grow up with such healthy adult role models later become great storytellers in their own right and able to eat humble pie with the best of us.

Article by Mark Elster and Chris Ishii

Photography by Mark Elster

Originally published in Mercer Island City Lifestyle