The younger of Joanne Vosler's nine children can't really remember their mother
But on this seventh Christmas without her, the Vosler kids can once again enjoy her gift for motherhood.
"Everything that's happening in the kitchen right now? That was her," Rich Vosler says as his children merrily bake cookies in their Shamong Township home.
"We still hang up Joanne's Christmas stocking," he says. "We want to keep her memory alive."
Vosler, 46, fulfills that goal with the help of Mommy's Light, a Chester County organization that encourages families to preserve traditions after a mother's death.
Joanne Vosler was only 39 when liver cancer claimed her in 2005.
Mommy's Light has helped Vosler and his children continue the homemade-pizza nights, game nights, Christmas baking bashes, and other special events Joanne loved to orchestrate.
"I so understand these children," says volunteer Betty Christopher, 59, of Mount Laurel. "I lost my mother when I was 11, and all these years I've kept her traditions."
As Laura Munts, president of the Mommy's Light board, puts it: "Traditions are a great connector. They're kid-friendly and they help get the family back to shallower water."
That's no simple task in a single-parent clan, where merely "keeping everyone in clean clothes" is a challenge, says Munts, of Downingtown.
With priceless assistance from his mother-in-law, Maryann Marrone, Vosler is bringing up Nicole, 20; Richie, 18; Matthew, 17; Jessica, 15; Sarah, 14; Alyssa, 12; Anna, 11; Emily, 9; and James, 7.
Vosler and his brood share a spacious but hardly ostentatious house that also is home to a cat, a snake, a rabbit, a lizard, and an utterly huggable golden retriever named Valentine who greets me at the door.
I've arrived to find that Mommy's Light volunteers have dropped off containers of dough, squeeze tubes of icing, and a bakery's worth of cookie-decorating paraphernalia.
Under the calm guidance of big sisters Nicole and Jessica, some of the kids unload a box of cookie cutters on the kitchen center island while others pat dough into trays.
Nearby, Alyssa and James decorate aprons - also provided by Mommy's Light - at an enormous table flooded by winter sunlight.
Everywhere is the cacophony of life in a big family - a stream of gentle teasing, in-jokes, and spontaneous renditions of Christmas tunes.
I find myself back in my own childhood, the big brother to five siblings, at Christmas.
But we had our mother. We still do.
"I think our mom would think this is really good for us, because it helps us move on but still hold a piece of her with us," Jessica says.
"I really think she would be so proud of us, sticking together through everything, helping each other out, and just being a family," Nicole says.
Her father, who was just laid off from his banking job, presides over everything with aplomb.
"I've got a lot of people depending on me," Vosler, a gentle bear of a guy, wryly notes, as barely a minute passes without a small voice calling, "Dad."
Marrone ("Grandmom") arrives from her home in nearby Leisuretown. The Mommy's Light program "helps fill a little bit of the void" left by the death of her only daughter, she says.
Vosler also cites the help of neighbors, the wider community, and the family's church. The devoutly Catholic Voslers would not have made it without their faith, he says.
He has written and self-published The Vosler's Nest - 45 Short Stories of Faith, Hope and Encouragement, a collection of what he calls inspirational essays.
He's lost the love of his life, but not his hope.
"I absolutely have hope," Vosler says. "I see Joanne every day. I see her in the kids."
And besides, he adds, "she said she would watch over us from heaven."
Burlington County widower Rich Vosler and his nine children keep Joanne Vosler's Christmas traditions alive. www.philly.com/traditionEndText