Trees in the Bay legacy handmade and handed down, mother to daughters

For Sara Mais and Emmy Jacobs, “free time is tree time.”

For the past month or more, the two sisters have spent countless hours outside of their professions, gluing, painting, wrapping and marketing ornaments fashioned after the floating, wooden, lighted trees Long Beach locals and visitors look forward to seeing annually during the holiday season.

It’s a decade-long tradition their mother, Suzanne Beck, started in 2010 when she wanted to send a friend in Seattle a gift that screamed Long Beach, but couldn’t find a thing. So she figured out a way to make her own.

One evening, out on a stroll with a group of girlfriends and gazing out at the trees in the bay, Beck said all the trees “looked about four inches tall.” So, she thought, “Well, those would be perfect little ornaments.” The idea started a frenzied search for craft supplies to make it happen.

At first, it was friends, family and the neighbors who asked for them. Then, it was a realtor friend who bought 500 for his clients who’d closed on homes. Then, Beck started attending small craft fairs and starting selling them out of a local business, while hosting open houses at her home where many a sale was made.

Hers “was a little operation out of the house where people would come in and I’d have to have a whole bunch of help, you know, somebody to manage the money, somebody to run up and down the stairs and collect, and it was really fun,” Beck said. “Really the best part is hearing people’s stories, their connections to the trees on the bay are just absolutely heartwarming.”

Beck has become affectionately known over the years as “the tree lady,” her daughters said. So how did the single mom, with a full-time job, make a fun craft-turned-demanding-business work for the past nine years? At times, it took a village.

From her daughters and their friends, to her girlfriends and neighbors, at any given time there could be up to eight people around the dining table at their Naples home, chatting and snacking and working a tree ornament assembly line. Some were truly passionate about the trees and some just wanted to spend that time together.

“But, for the most part, it was myself in the evenings and on weekends,” Beck said. “And literally I was covered in paint, in my cuticles, all over my toes from this stuff, but it got done.”

But just this May, all plans to continue Trees in the Bay were put on hold, when Beck found out she had brain cancer and had to have a tumor removed. After several attempts to source supplies for the trees proved unsuccessful, and shipping was bungled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Beck was certain the trees wouldn’t happen this year.

Then her daughters, and their husbands, stepped in.

“It’s fun helping the girls, and the boys do this, but I knew I couldn’t have done this on my own,” Beck said. “It’s pretty much been passed down, they have taken over and it’s pretty much theirs to run with. I’m incredibly proud of them and watching how they’re coming up with better ways of doing things, that’s the best part.”

With the tumor removed, Beck is enduring her second round of chemo and radiation treatments, trudging through that middle ground of not being able to say she doesn’t have cancer, but not being able to say she’s in remission quite yet. But with no flare-ups to report, “It’s a really good thing.”

Asked if getting to continue their mom’s legacy, with their mom by their side, has been a healing experience, the two answered that the best aspect of it all is simply getting to spend more time together as a family.

“I would say it’s just providing more time, and time is everything when you have a sick family member,” said Mais. “I mean, we already spent a lot of time together, but it’s 10-fold now. It’s been awesome.”

Jacobs, who drives in weekly from Costa Mesa to help with the trees and see her mom, said the task has provided some reassurance, something to look forward to.

“It’s healing in the way of, you know you’re going to get to see each other once a week and all that stressful stuff about everything going on with her kind of goes away a little bit when you’re doing something as a family we’ve done for so many years,” said Jacobs. “I think honestly overall it just makes her so happy.”

A portion of this year’s sales will go toward the American Brain Tumor Association and Partners of Parks, one of the local organizations that maintain the floating trees. For more information or to place an order, visit treesinthebay.com and follow along on Instagram @treesinthebay.

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Asia Morris has been with the Long Beach Post for five years, specializing in coverage of the arts. Her parents gave her the name because they wanted her to be a world traveler and they got their wish. She has obliged by pursuing art, journalism and a second career as a competitive cyclist.
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