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Spending the holidays with the L.A. Christmas angel

Brandon heaved the massive bottom portion of the now famous amber-colored Christmas tree over his shoulder and came staggering quickly down the stairs, trying to make it down without dropping it.

"Watch the wall," I called from the foyer below, trying to be helpful.

Relieved, he made it down the steps, set the enormous piece down and took a deep breath, trying not to gasp for air. "Miss Ronda, isn't it too early to be putting up your Christmas trees?"

It was several days before Halloween.

"We're not putting up the trees," I said. "We're bringing them down from the attic. We're getting ready to put them up."

"Oh, I see." He grinned and then began his annual comments about the "amber, not orange" tree and even went so far as to comment that it would make a good Halloween tree if I wanted to go ahead and put it up.

"I'm going to bop you," I said, picking up a chest of ornaments and hauling them off to my bedroom where I always have a tree beautifully trimmed in clear, sparkling ornaments, white lights and glistening, dripping baubles. Two weeks and a few business trips later, I was unpacking those ornaments when I came across the angel that I have used for 20 years. The price on the box has faded but is still readable.

"$29.99," I said softly to myself, again thinking how expensive that was for a young career girl back then. Yet it is the only thing I still have from that first tree of my own, so it was a good investment. I lifted the lid and gingerly picked her up. I fingered the lace dress and pondered how much it seemed to have yellowed since last year.

I thought - as I always do - back to the day I bought it and - as I always do - I smiled and said, "An angel from the City of Angels. How appropriate."

It's funny how some memories have complete recall. They bounce around the walls of your mind like a rubber ball that never loses its spring. It was a Monday and the Southern California day was perfect, as are many of its days, even in late November. I left my hotel in Riverside, in plenty of time to make my flight out of LAX, cautious because the traffic can be so difficult.

The previous day, we NASCAR folks had ended our season at a track that was long ago bulldozed and replaced by condominiums or a shopping mall or some such commercialism that laid to rest the stock car ghosts of victories, defeats and deaths. Next stop for us ragamuffin, vagabond racers was New York City's Waldorf-Astoria where we would honor Dale Earnhardt as champion and pretend for an evening that we country bumpkins and rednecks belonged in the hallowed halls of ritz and glitz.

Traffic that day in L.A. was unexplainably light and I found myself with time to spare, so I exited quickly off the interstate and hit the mall. I bought two items that I used immediately and still, to this day, continue to use: a black, beaded evening clutch and the angel.

I didn't hesitate when I saw her. I picked her up on a table in the back of a specialty shop and in my youthful recklessness, didn't blink at the price. She was so pretty. Later in Indianapolis, as snow fell outside, friends gathered to help me put up the huge cedar. Someone snapped a photo as I stood on tiptoes and then stretched to place the angel at the top.

That sweet angel has seen a host of Christmases with me. She and I have shared a lot. She's become a beloved friend. Now, every time I look at her atop the tree, I smile.

I like spending Christmas with my old friends.

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SideBar: If you watch

· What: "Dixie Divas in the Kitchen" - a cooking show featuring Georgia recipes and the stories behind them

· Who: Show is hosted by Ronda Rich and Barbara Dooley

· When: 2 p.m. today; 6 p.m. Sunday; 8:30 p.m. Dec. 29

· Channel: Georgia Public Broadcasting