Ghosts of Christmas-Letter Past

Ah, yes! The notorious "reindeer jumper" from Bridget Jones' Diary! It made me love Mark Darcy all the more.

Ah, yes! The notorious “reindeer jumper” from Bridget Jones’ Diary! It made me love Mark Darcy all the more.

End-of-year letters stuffed into Christmas Cards are like brightly-colored holiday sweaters—most people either love them or hate them, and those who love them, don’t really care that the haters hate.

As for me, I don’t own a Christmas Sweater. I’m proud to say that I have an applique-free wardrobe, and I refuse to don anything with jingle-bell buttons. As I write this, however, I am wearing a green fleece over a red t-shirt and Santa socks.

With that end-of-year letter, my feelings are equally complicated.  I love receiving them, but I find writing them to be an almost painful experience. I can stare at a blank screen for hours or rewrite the same opening sentence 400 times. As a writer, I feel a lot of pressure when it comes to personal correspondence. I think people expect me to write something good and most of what I write is really just okay. Writing a thank-you note is agony for me, and I have yet to write one that I think is worth reading.

More than that, however, I struggle to find that right balance. I want my end-of-year letter to be cheerful and up-lifting and brutally honest. “Dear Friends, My mother-in-law is still alive. She has bed-sores but seldom complains about them, and I’ve become the resident expert on dementia, atrophy, and geriatric dental care and have learned that bed-sores always aren’t always a sign of neglect…”

Certainly, care-giving isn’t my only frustration in life. Nor is it the only thing I do, but sometimes, it feels like it, and yet, I don’t think I would want my annual letter to say that. I want to sound like I have more balance—yes, the elusive, fictitious ideal of balance—and that my life is oh-so-rich in other ways, but how honest would that be? I mean, I’m sure that it is, but it doesn’t always feel that way.

Because I am debating as to whether I should write a year-end letter for 2013, I went through some old files looking for past letters. I discovered I haven’t written one since 2010, and I did so that year to assure people that we were all okay—really, truly okay—and to share my gratitude for all the help we, as a family, received that year. You see, my husband had a heart attack that year– just weeks after our son was born.

Well, rather than tell you about it, I’ll let you read the letter. This is it, word per word. I blanked out all the names because I’m a fiercely private person. Stop laughing.

“Merry Christmas!

Mentally, I’ve written this letter a dozen times, and so I finally decided to put the words on paper and share my thoughts with you. 2010 was certainly a year like no other, and I look forward to all that 2011 has to offer.

On January 12, we welcomed R_______ T_______ N_______ into the world. At the time, our golden haired, brown-eyed boy weighed just 7 lbs. 14 oz. and was 19” long. Today, he is almost 20 lbs. and crawling quickly to keep up with his big sister. E_______ loves playing with Baby T______ and teaching him all that she believes he should know. His first word was “E________.” That’s a mouthful for a baby and I was shocked to hear him say it so clearly, but then, he hears me yelling “E_______” all day, every day and so why wouldn’t that be his first word?

In early February, as we were settling into life as a family of four, the Mid-Atlantic States were hit by a paralyzing blizzard. If you weren’t close enough to have experienced it first hand, no doubt you heard about it on the evening news. During a power outage and with three feet of snow on the ground, A_______ suffered a heart attack. (If you are reading those words for the first time, I’m sure your mouth has fallen open and you are asking, “Is he okay, now?” Yes. He is fine now.)

He was taken by EMS to the Anne Arundel Medical Center where a stent was used to open one of two blockages. A couple months later, it was determined that a second stent was not needed at this time. He continues to be on medication, but his physical therapy has ended.  He is now as healthy as he appears. Amen!

When I think back on that time in our lives—the blizzard, the power outage, A_______’s heart attack, my c-section—I am overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of others. Friends from church provided us with a place to stay and transportation. Friends from Professional Moms at Home babysat and brought us meals. A neighbor shoveled the snow from our very long walkway. A_______’s colleague used a Bobcat to clear the snow from behind our cars. My friend P_______ came down from New Jersey and did everything from grocery shopping to clearing snow from our back porch. Daily, I received phone calls and emails from people wishing us well and asking what they can do to help. Many, many  prayers were said on our behalf. For all of this, I am eternally grateful.

By June, life as we know it had returned to normal—or as normal as life gets with a baby and a toddler. We had a wonderful summer with a quick trip to SC for my 25th high school class reunion. I admit that I loved saying, “My son is 5-months-old” and seeing the surprise on people’s faces. “Why, yes, he was born on my 43rd birthday.”

Later that same month, we went to the Bahamas for the wedding of our niece C______ and her high school sweetheart T______.  Ahhh! The sun, the sand, the crystal-clear Caribbean water, time with family, and the picture-perfect wedding celebration of a sweet, young couple! Yes, we had a wonderful time. In addition to being with the entire S_______ clan, R___, S___, and E___ flew in from Norway. Grandma and Grandpa N____danced at the wedding of their first-born grandchild. What a blessing! E________ still talks about kissing and feeding Kelly, a dolphin, she befriended at the Atlantis Resort.

My sister G____ and her family visited us in July. In August, we went to Delaware to visit my sister A_____ and her family before they moved to Missouri. We didn’t see L____ and her family this year, and I miss them terribly.

In September, E_______ started pre-school. At three years old, she continues to be adventurous and out-going. She loves her classmates and her teachers. She knows the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes. For Christmas this year, she wants Santa to bring her a sled. If we don’t get snow this winter, we will be making a weekend trip to the mountains just to try it out.

Everything else about our lives is just the “same old” story. Our project-filled farmhouse continues to reveal its many needs to us—most recently we had to replace the subfloor in the bathroom. A______ still works long hours as the Chief of Natural and Historical Resources. We are still active in our church. I still edit the newsletter for PMAH, and I work from home on whatever project comes my way. I’m currently doing website calendar edits.

Our immediate and extended family members have experienced many highs and lows, many big and small changes, in the past year. Through it all, everyone has persevered! Looking back on it all, I see that we are truly blessed.

We look forward to 2011 and all the challenges it will bring. May God bless you and yours in the New Year!”

I didn’t write a letter in 2011. It was a much less erratic year. No one in our household was born and no one nearly died. By sharp contrast, 2012 felt unspeakably tragic because my mother-in-law fell and my father-in-law died. So, 2013? Is it time again to tell people we continue to persevere and be grateful?

There is something both haunting and beautiful about that 2010 letter. I do remember seeing my in-laws dance at the wedding reception and being filled with such awe and gratitude that they were both alive and seemingly healthy. I also remember being vividly aware that they wouldn’t be around for my own children’s weddings—or even high school graduations.

While we were all in the Bahamas, I became aware that my in-laws seemed to need a little more help physically and mentally. Travel—something they had always loved—was now arduous for them. They relished their time with family, but it wasn’t easy for them to move about in a new environment. In the course of one thirty minute conversation, my mother-in-law asked me no fewer than a dozen time about our flight. “What day did you arrive?” “Tuesday.” “From what airport?” “National.” “And when did you arrive?” “Tuesday.” “What airport?” “National.” And so on and so on.

On that same trip, I complimented my mother-in-law on the amethyst necklace she was wearing, and she replied, “You like it? I will give it to you for Christmas.” Yes, a very kind and generous statement, and at the time I thought, “Oh, by Christmas, you won’t remember that I like it. You will give me a calendar and a nightgown two sizes too small.”  And I would have been happy with the calendar and nightgown because I’m not a things-person. If you promise me a thing and don’t deliver, I shrug. I’m really okay with that.

On Christmas morning, she presented me with a gift, and when  I opened it, I found the necklace AND the matching earrings and cocktail ring! “Wow! You remembered! You remembered that I liked this necklace!” I shouted in delight and surprise.

“Of course, I remembered. I remember everything.” Of course.

The other thing that strikes me as I re-read my own letter is that I have yet to really write about what happened on the day of the heart-attack. It’s surreal, and I know that if I were ever to write an autobiography, my opening paragraph would have me standing in an ice-cold house, holding a newborn and a cell-phone with a dying battery. I know I would describe the hard-breath of paramedics wading through waist-high snow with their equipment held high on their shoulders, a tiny girl peeking in from the next room to silently watch the paramedics shave her father’s chest, and the void that came when they finally drove away and I looked around wondering what to do next. We couldn’t leave, but we couldn’t stay either.

So, what would I say about 2013? It was better than 2012, and I believe 2014 will be even better. Really, that is a start—and it’s true. With my mother-in-law’s house rented, I do feel as though time has opened up a bit and I will be able to do things that I have been putting off—maybe work on my own house, take a class, maybe even go away for a weekend. Yes, these are the little things I have missed.

I could write about my children and how they amaze me. Through all the ups and downs of their short lives, they have remained resilient. They are kind, loving, and very inquisitive.

The same is true of my husband. In additions to all the stress here at home, he deals with a lot of people and situations at work and does so with a smile. And knowing what some of these situations are and how some of these people operate, I applaud him. I don’t think I could do it.

As for my mother-in-law, she is still with us.

And yes, I guess, that’s an end-of-year letter for my Christmas card. If anyone wants to know more, they can just read my blog.

You do have to wonder about the role of the time-honored letter in an age of social media.





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