This week, First Person celebrates the joys of Christmastime.
In the 1950s, every year, just after my birthday in mid-November, my dad carried the card table from the basement into the living room, so that my mother could write her Christmas cards. The card table commanded a presence in the living room. It sat in front of my mother’s chair, boxes of Christmas cards neatly placed at the top corners. The left corner held the religious cards, for churchgoing friends; the right corner held “seasons greetings” cards, for those who might not appreciate manger scenes or Christian blessings. A carefully handwritten list of addresses and sheets of stamps sat at the head of the table. A little bowl of water and an orange sponge were ready to seal the envelope flaps and glue on the stamp. Sometimes sealing envelopes or gluing stamps was my job, if I was careful and didn’t get water everywhere.
My mother did not like the idea of a photocopied family letter; she thought they were pretentious and braggartly. She preferred a personal touch, and so she carefully wrote a handwritten letter to each recipient. For good friends, she used her special writing tablet and wrote a long letter. For acquaintances, she added a brief handwritten greeting. If the recipient was my father’s friend, my dad might jot a few words, but the pleasure of choosing the right card, thinking about the recipient, and sending love was all my mother’s.
She had a clear goal: to mail the cards by Dec. 1, so that the recipient could enjoy their card well before Christmas. With the cards safely mailed, my dad would carry the table back to the basement, unused cards would be stowed away, and my mother would begin the daily ritual of checking her front porch mailbox, hoping to receive Christmas cards.
My mom and dad moved often, always making new friends. Their Christmas list travelled with them and, over the years, it grew. Until it stopped growing. As my parents aged, each year the list became shorter. Spouses of friends died; then friends died; eventually, a list of hundreds became a handful. At first, individual names were struck through or addresses were changed; then pages and pages were struck through. As my mother’s eyesight began to fail, I replaced the handwritten list with a typewritten one, in large font, so that she could read it and continue to write her cards. My dad would help her by writing a few lines, but mom always signed the cards, in her endearing, not always readable script.
When dad died, mom was left alone to write her cards. She was now legally blind and so I accompanied her on her Christmas-card journey. By mid-November, we would begin. Mom and I would settle in at the kitchen table, with a warm cup of tea, and travel together through her memories of friends. It would take me minutes to transcribe the message she wanted to send and hours to hear her stories. We always met the deadline of Dec. 1.
“The next address is for Gabriella Jamieson, mom. Does she get a religious card or a seasonal card?” Mom would sometimes deliberate over that question, sometimes a friend would fall from the religious category to the seasonal category, but when I asked who Gabriella was, mom’s words flowed. Gabriella was a Spanish teacher with whom dad’s roommate at the University of Western Ontario had fallen in love and married. Mom thought Gabriella was beautiful and her story romantic. I heard about Freda and Ron who stored dad’s fishing boat on the Mississippi River and often welcomed dad in for a warm meal. People I had never known came alive in my mom’s kitchen.
When mom moved into a retirement home at the age of 90, I sat beside her in her wheelchair with the cards on my lap, easily balancing the few cards we needed. Mom regaled in telling me the same stories I had heard for a decade. I listened each time, as if for the first time. As the list grew shorter, the time spent writing cards together grew longer.
The mailbox was no longer outside her door, but that created a special destination on our walks through the retirement home. After Dec. 1, we would watch for the Canada Post truck and check mom’s box in great anticipation for Christmas cards. She was always curious if she did not hear from a friend. “I haven’t heard from Sally for two years,” she would say. “I wonder if she is still alive?” And I would begin an obituary search for Sally. Mom would ask me to read the cards to her and to check the return address. “Is Gabriella still living with her son on his farm?” One year, my answer was “No. Gabriella is also now living in a retirement home.”
In the last years of her life, mom had little memory of the friends on her Christmas card list. “The next card is for Gabriella Jamieson,” I would say. Mom would look confused, “I don’t think I know that person.” And so, I told her Gabriella’s love story. Gabriella, this woman I had never met. And mom smiled and laughed and she remembered.
Just before my birthday in 2016, when my mother was 97, she was declared palliative. I knew we would not write Christmas cards that year. But after her passing on Dec. 2, I held her Christmas card list one last time, chose the appropriate religious or seasonal card, and wrote to her few remaining friends. I wished them a Merry Christmas or Seasons Greetings and told them how much my mother had cherished them. For the first time, I missed the Dec. 1 mailing deadline. That was the last time I wrote a Christmas card.
I have been thankful many times since the pandemic was declared that my mother is not isolated in her retirement home, worrying how her Christmas cards will be written or who will pick up her mail and read her cards to her. I suspect there are few, if any, names left on her list. This year, I think back on the decades of Christmas cards my mother wrote, the many lives she touched. Perhaps this is the year to send cards again.
Diane Gorman lives in Manotick, Ont.
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