I remember my mother writing out her Christmas cards each year; she was so organized. Her address list was neatly handwritten on a legal pad, updated each year to ensure the addressees received her holiday greeting. Everyone on her list received a short personal note jotted out on Five and Dime Store bought stationery which was then smartly folded and inserted in a tasteful card that was hand addressed and posted with an official Christmas stamp. Also included in was the latest school picture of me in wallet size – my name, age, grade and the current year printed on the back.
My mother also received many such pictures in Christmas cards, some of children I recognized, but many I did not. For instance, my mother had a cousin Stanley who lived in Texas and as far as I could tell Stanley and his wife had about 15 kids. I think I met part of clan once when Stanley put the younger ones and the missus in a RV and drove to Pennsylvania, but if I recall correctly (and I’m not sure I do) by then even the younger ones were much older than me.
Because the Christmas card was such a solid, time-honored institution to my mother, never to be questioned or taken lightly, she continued to sign my name to her cards for a couple of years after I had moved out of the house. She would not have such an impertinent daughter who cared not one whit for a tradition that, in my mind, seemed to only favor the post office and card companies. When I married she began passing along addresses of people to whom I was obliged to send Christmas cards. I bristled at the rigorous act of sending so card to so many – aunts, great aunts, cousins, second cousins and lifelong friends of my mother. Also I was horribly lazy and disorganized and after a few moves, the final one being to San Francisco, I lost many of the addresses. I also patently refused to address the cards properly. It seemed too patriarchal to include only the husband’s first name, so instead I included everyone’s first name and left off the titles that denoted matrimony.
Once in San Francisco I realized that I did not have to send out traditional Christmas cards at all. The card itself could be a hint at my feelings towards this ridiculous tradition. Haight Street, my neighborhood, was full of kitschy shops that stocked cards that ranged from traditional to downright raunchy. I never had the gall to offend my relatives, who without reservation celebrated Christmas as a Christian holiday, but I did seek out and cards that were completely non-committal to the spirit in which the card was sent. Also I had acquired some Jewish and Pagan friends so it just made sense to be as inclusive as possible with my season’s greetings.
When my first son was born it became clear that a portion of my Christmas card list wanted photos. I confess to being pretty inconsistent with sending out photos through the years. Usually I would grossly misjudge the number of people who should be receiving photos and order what I thought was a reasonable amount. Plus I’m pretty cheap when it comes to buying anything other than musical equipment, and photos cost money.
My mother died on December 17, 2007, just four months after my second son was born. She never had a chance to reprimand me for not sending a photo of my new son to Mrs. So-and-So. She never had a chance to tell me Aunt So-and-So thought her second grandson was the most adorable baby ever. She spent her last holiday season in hospice in a nursing home and I don’t recall many Christmas cards my mother would have loved to see, reaching her. I don’t doubt that the idea of getting her cards out was on her mind when she had a lucid moment.
This year. This year I got it together. I thought about who would get school photos in their Christmas cards and I ordered generously. Then I sat down with my Christmas list spreadsheet, not updated since 2012 and began to edit. I have but one aunt left. One of my favorite aunt’s passed away just a month ago. I hadn’t been in touch with her in the past few years other than our yearly Christmas card exchange, although I had been meaning to call or write. . . My mother’s lifelong friend, who I had continued to correspond with out of a sense of a shared connection with my mother, has been moved to a nursing home. The great aunts all long gone, the addresses of the second cousins long lost, but I do wonder where they are and what has become of them. I have enough pictures of my kids, but there are fewer people to receive the photos. And when it comes to addressing the cards I find myself reverting back to the traditional Mr. & Mrs. Still Married Couple, because when I get to the friends on my list who are separated or divorced or never took their husband’s name in the first place, I’m a little stymied. Did she go back to her maiden name? Did the children keep their father’s last name? Frankly I’m back to writing just the first names on the envelope. If I have the extended zip code I know it will get there.
When I moved my mother out of her house for good I came across a nightstand that appeared to have every greeting card she had ever received crammed in its drawers. Clearly those cards meant something to her. They were proof of a connection, somewhere someone cared. It was a brief, brightly colored nod and wave across distance and time that said “We share history. I know you and remember you even if we don’t see each other very often. I want you to know I still think of you and I want you to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. (Because who knows how many years any of us have left.)”
Finally I get it, mom.