When I moved to Seattle in the early eighties, our next-door condo neighbors were a gay couple who had been together for close to seventy years. Among their many friends was a guy named Jim Hunt who operated a flower shop in the business lobby of our mixed-use building. When After the Fire came out as a self-published chap book in 1984, he took several copies and sold them on consignment. One of his customers, Diane Bingham, was a Vietnam War-era widow who started WICS—Widowed Information Consultation Services of King County. After reading the book, she contacted me and invited me to do a poetry reading at a widowed retreat in the early summer of 1985. That’s where Bill and I first met. We married six months later, so the fact that we’ve been together for going on thirty-eight years is all Jim Hunt’s fault.
After marrying and moving to Bellevue, I lost touch with Jim for a number of years. Then, in the nineties, when we were renovating our second Bellevue house, Bill and I went to a plumbing supply place where I recognized Jim’s voice long before I saw him. It really is a small, small world because he was there with his new interior design client who just happened to be our next-door neighbor. After that chance meeting we resumed our friendship.
Jim grew up gay in Texas in the forties and fifties which would have been tough enough all by itself. The situation was made worse by his having less than stellar parents. Several times during his childhood Jim was rousted out of bed in the middle of the night when his drunken parental units set various houses on fire by smoking in bed. He told us that, years later, his father actually died as a result of smoking in bed. Jim’s best ally throughout those years was a loving grandmother who told him, “Jimmy always keep your place neat. That way people will think you’re nice.”
At age 16, Jim graduated from high school and went off to the school of design at UCLA on a full scholarship. By age 21 he was living and working in New York City. Between them, he and his roommate had one good suit and one winter coat, but they made it work. I don’t know exactly how or when he ended up in Seattle, but for years he did Christmas decorations for any number of downtown buildings including several condo associations. For that part of his business, he started buying Christmas supplies in July and eventually he came to dread the whole idea of Christmas.
After reconnecting with Jim, Bill and I tried downsizing and moved to a condo unit in Bay Vista. He did our interior design. When we discovered we weren’t good at downsizing and bought our current home, he came here and sat in the house for hours on end. Trying to figure out what to do with it. When it came time to buy furniture, he took me to Dania on a Saturday morning. We were there for a total of one hour and fifteen minutes. In that time I picked out four easy chairs, a sofa, end tables, a dining room set, a bedroom set, and office furniture. He maintained that never before and never afterwards had he been on a shopping trip to match that one. (My idea of shopping is “get in and get’er done!)
By that time Bill and I had a flock of grandchildren. I’m not sure how the subject of Christmas decorations came up, but somehow it did. Jim allowed as how, since he wasn’t doing Christmas decorations for anyone else, he could tackle ours, letting us know that he would show up on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to start the process. Believe me, it was a process all right, one that lasted from Thanksgiving weekend until dangerously close to our Lil Jul Aften gathering on the Sunday before Christmas.
Jim was a perfectionist. He would put something down and then stand there examining it for several minutes before, likely as not, moving it to a someplace else. He wasn’t happy until every flat surface in the house—upstairs, downstairs, and bathrooms included—had some deft bit of Christmas decor. Once finished, our whole house looked like a department store window. He didn’t believe in just one Christmas tree. There was always a flock of white trees in the family room and a similar grouping of green trees on the front porch. The white trees came with blue decorations; the green ones with red. He once created a peacock diorama in our bedroom which has remained there ever since like a long treasured piece of art work.
When Colt was five, he was “helping” Jim decorate. While assembling the creche, somehow the porcelain figure of Joseph came to grief and lost his head. Grandpa glued Joseph back together with super glue, and the process continued. I was in another room at the time, but I overheard the conversation as Jim began putting the various figures in place. “Is that baby Jesus?” Colt asked. “Yes,” came the answer. “Is that Jesus’s mother?” Colt asked. “Yes,” Jim replied. When it came time to put the recently repaired Joseph in place, Colt asked “Is that Baby Jesus’s father?” What followed was a long, thoughtful pause on Jim Hunt’s part before he finally responded. “I believe you’ll have to ask your mother about that.”
Three years later, the day before we were due to leave on a Rick Steves trip with the kids and grandkids, our dog-sitting arrangements fell through. We called Jim in a panic and asked for help. He graciously agreed to come and stayed with Bella for the three weeks we were gone, and he spoiled the dog rotten. That’s why, when our downstairs powder room got redone as a result of some broken pipe water damage, a mural with Bella suddenly appeared in the corner of the wall hidden behind the door. It’s a life-sized portrait of Bella with her peeking into the room through what looks like a torn piece of wallpaper. Jim told me that every house needs a piece of whimsey—and that picture of Bella was it.
Jim did our Christmas decorations for years, starting the planning and buying process in July. Because we were his only Christmas customers, it was fun for him again, and it was fun for us, too. When the grandkids showed up once the job was completed, they were always thrilled to see the house dressed up to the hilt front to back. And every year, when Lil Jul Aften came around, Jim was here with us as a beloved member of our extended family.
After reading all of this, it should come was no surprise Jim Hunt has been J.P. Beaumont’s decorator, too, both for his downtown Seattle condo and later for Beau’s and Mel’s new place in Bellingham. As for Mel’s rolling carts of properly labeled, color-coded Christmas decorations? Guess where those came from? Jim’s responsible for those as well.
Several years ago, Jim let us know that he could no longer manage step ladders. As a consequence, he would be unable to do our Christmas decorations. That year, the kids and grandkids came over on a Saturday morning and, in three hours flat, they completed the full-meal-deal, including installing the blue decorations on the white trees in the family room and the red ones on the green trees out on the front porch. They had been raised on Jim Hunt decorations and knew exactly where everything should go and how it should look. The end result may not have been quite as extravagant, but it worked. Once it was done, we invited Jim over to see the kids’ handiwork. After touring the house, he shook his head sadly and said, “I’m really disappointed. I had hoped it would look a bit more forlorn than this!” After the tour, the three of us—Jim, Bill, and I—went off to dinner at John Howie Steak.
In 2018 when we sold the Tucson house, he flew down to Arizona with us and helped sort through what should stay and what should go. Then when the saved stuff arrived here, he came over and helped incorporate what we had brought back with what was already here. Bringing home our collection of artwork was a problem because there just wasn’t enough wall space. We have tall ceilings, though, and the only way to hang all the paintings was to stack them, one above another. The next time Colt came to visit, he looked around and said, “Grandma, it looks like an art gallery exploded inside your house.” It did then and still does, and we have Jim Hunt to thank for that.
Then the Pandemic intervened. The last time I spoke to Jim he mentioned he’d been having issues with long Covid. Another mutual friend and I had talked about driving up to Arlington to have breakfast with him, but somehow we never quite made that work. Jim passed away last week. It would be easy to beat myself up for waiting too long, but this way I get to remember him as he was the last time I saw him—standing poised in the middle of our living room, directing Francisco, the guy on the ladder, as to exactly where he should drive the nail to hang the next painting.
Jim had no kids of his own, but he adored his nieces and nephews. When one of his great nieces had a baby girl, he went straight out and bought her a little black dress, because, according to him, every girl, no matter what her age, needs one of those.
This year, when we put out our Jim-Hunt-selected silver reindeer, whether it ends up on the mantel over the fireplace or on the credenza by the front door, you can be sure that even though Jim won’t be there in person, he will be in spirit.
Rest in peace, my friend. We will miss you, but we still have all those boxes of hand-selected, color-coded decorations to remember you by.