When the boys began to get in jams, Marie's letters didn't even hint at their trouble; and as scrapes turned into felonies, she still didn't reveal that anything had gone wrong.
Christmas letters. I don't know their history, who first wrote one, or where and why. I suspect they began to be written in the I Love Lucy Eisenhower years when all Americans, even though in fact they didn't seemed to be living in suburbia and eating tuna-fish casserole made with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. And I suspect, too, that no matter how much fun some of us may make of these letters, we love to receive them. I do.
Whatever. Every year about this time, when the postman unburdens himself of mail at my door. I find myself fretting to get at the fir tree green and holly berry red square envelopes, addressed in everybody's best by-hand writing. I hope to find folded into Christmas cards' snowmen and gilded Virgins, pop-eyed reindeer, and jelly-belly endomorph Santas one of these homey homely letters with paragraphs about halfback sons who rushed 2000 yards for the season, promoted husbands, genius babies, and grandfathers who blessedly, after a year's suffering (he never complained), died. I read breathless. I am fond of accounts of monstrous watermelons and new shingles, mortgages paid off and chocolate standard poodles nicknamed Fudge who win best-in-show. The more workaday detail, the happier I am.
My guess is that these letters proliferated in the post-World War II decade, when families found themselves moving farther and farther from home. Summarizing a year's events, the letters seemed an effort to close that distance and keep ties bound. They were mailed to family members and neighbors left behind, to friends from school and military service, and once on a mailing list, you were rarely scratched off.
The letters observed certain conventions. They seemed always to have been written by wives and mothers. (Although in many instances the lady of the house composed opening and closing passages and then coerced each family member to contribute at least one paragraph toward the letter's body.) Careful writers managed to mention each immediate family member, including pets, at least once and to mention that member or pet in connection with some triumph. While illness and even death made acceptable content, bad behavior didn't. You wouldn't read about Johnny's doing time in juvenile hall or Papa's adultery. And when particularly bad things happened, you sometimes never heard from that family again.
Among our friends in a large family, six children. Bud is dean in a private college, and Marie, his wife, spent the first 25 years of marriage cooking, cleaning, and mothering and the last seven as a hospital dietitian. Bud and Marie's four boys and two girls were healthy, bright, freckle-faced, button-cute creatures. Bud and Marie were good parents, attentive and loving. But for all their love and attention, for the piano and dance lessons and family vacations and Mass every Sunday, for all that, when five of these six children entered adolescence, bad things happened. So bad that two boys ended up in state prison, and one girl, in quick succession, twice married men who beat her, returning home after the second marriage failed as mother to a shriveled, underweight baby with big, sad eyes.
Marie wrote Christmas letters. The letters sent during her children's early years offered tales of Bud's rise through academia, each new pregnancy, larger home, additions to those homes, children's grade school successes, vacations. When the boys began to get in jams, Marie's letters didn't even hint at their trouble; and as scrapes turned into felonies, she still didn't reveal that anything had gone wrong. The elder felon was a "whiz at math," the younger lifted weights and had glorious muscles, bigger than those Charles Atlas built. Their daughter had given them a beautiful grandchild, and she and Bud were blessed to have that grandchild living with them, at home.
The letters Marie wrote, as year followed year, continued to portray her family life in the rosiest light possible. Her letters broke my heart but also left me feeling foolishly humbled. Because I knew Marie and I knew that from her perspective, what she wrote wasn't untruth or distortion, nor was she trying to hide from her readers the grief she and Bud suffered over their offspring's crimes and bad choices. If I talked with her over coffee, she faced those facts. Yet when she sat down to write her Christmas letter, she wrote what I believe once was the classic Christmas letter: She wrote the life that she had hoped against hope, when she and Bud exchanged vows, their lives would become.
I used to get many more Christmas, and you probably did too. I miss them. So here's what I hope. I hope that this year, everyone will write a letter.
You don't have to celebrate Christmas to write a Christmas letter. Call your letter end-of-year or New Year's letter. Call it summing-up. Call it your op-ed letter on the year. But write a letter. Write if only to find out what you have to say.
You have nothing to say? Tut. Having something to say is overrated. you hate to write? Don't write writing. Talk to the page. Your mouth will fill up with so many words you'll be hungry to get them onto paper.
Maybe you don't want to read about promotions or remodeled kitchens or a kitten's exploits with catnip mice or your child sitting on the floor scooping up jacks. Write what you would want to read.
If you need help getting started, start with you. Get out a mirror. Get close. Lean into your reflection. Look into your own eyes. Write what you see. Then lean out your window. Get on your paper late afternoon light's powdery hazy quality. Get that corny religious effect of light slanting down through dust motes.
Go deep. Make believe you're writing to someone you love who has only six months, or three, to live. Risk sentiment. Offer hope. Go down deeper. Make believe you have only six months, or three, to live. Write what you wish someone would say to you.
But no matter what you write, or how, don't skimp on the ordinary. Don't be afraid to get mired in minutiae. The more spelling-bee victories, baby's first steps, office promotions, new cars, refinished woodwork, legs broken skiing, and kitchen fires miraculously quelled, the more pounds lost and poundcakes baked, the better. In these letters, as in life, the epiphany's in the ordinary humdrum details that make music of our years.
And after you've signed it, send a copy to me.