A Little Matter of Christmas Cards

Marianne has a rule for herself: she never opens a Christmas card until she has sent hers out.

Cards start to arrive in the first week of December, and she puts them in a special basket which she keeps on the little half-moon table by the front door, handy to the mailbox. That week, she helps her daughter Phyllis settle in.

Phyllis is 36 and has recently left a bad marriage–to a lazy, lying man who has taken advantage of her for many years. Marianne has watched her sweet daughter grow grimmer and grimmer, watched her usual dance through life become a burdened trudge. She has wanted so many times to say, “Leave him! Come home and rest and get ready for something better!”

But all she said was, “If you need me, I’m here.” Marianne’s own first marriage was a mistake that had to be lived through; she did not appreciate people who pointed it out at the time. Her mistake, her decisions to make. She wanted to treat Phyllis with respect, give her some dignity. Leave her some hope.

Because after she finally gathered up the energy to leave that first man, Marianne had thought her chances of happiness were shot–that her life would be a single one, a working one, one in which she’d hope for invitations to a niece’s house so she could experience a family Christmas once in a while. And she had set about building a worthwhile, solitary life, plunged into work and joined a gym and found a church that spoke to her. And she was happy and not lonely at all.

And then she met Hank, Phyllis’s father. They had, in their mid-thirties, produced Phyllis and her younger brother Danny. Danny was a graphic designer who worked far away, on the other coast. Marianne and Hank had taken the train out to see him the year Hank retired; they meandered across the country, and spent two weeks in a cottage helping Danny settle in, exploring his new town.

Two years later–which was, Marianne realizes now with a bolt of shock, three years ago–, Hank had a sudden, swift heart attack. He clutched his chest, looked at her in total surprise, and was gone.

So, although she doesn’t rejoice in the reasons for it, it is still a joyful pleasure to have Phyllis with her this holiday season. Phyllis is a sweet, strong woman, sturdy and affectionate. She works at the library, 9 until 6, Tuesday through Saturday; she gives Marianne a certain sum each month, and Marianne puts it in a special savings account. She’ll give it right back to her at some point, all the money that accumulates, but it’s good for the girl to feel like she’s paying her way.

And Marianne has a life: she goes to the gym four days a week; she has a book club.  She plays cards. She meets friends for lunch, and she sews and crochets. She has her housework down to a science, and every year, she redecorates a room. She never stops missing Hank, but her life is full.

Still, it’s awfully good to have Phyllis with her.

So the first week in December, the two of them fix up Phyllis’s old room. Phyllis asks if, maybe, she could turn the spare room into an office space, and Marianne thinks that a great idea. They spend a bustle-y couple of days cleaning and moving furniture up and down the stairs, from basement to second floor; back down again with rejects. They survey curtains and ponder color.

After Christmas, Phyllis says, maybe she’ll paint both rooms. If that’s okay with her mother.

And Marianne, who loves the transformation of an underused space into one that’s vibrant, says that of course it’s all right.

She did get out the Christmas cards–two hefty boxes of beautiful cards; she’d bought them at an after-holidays sale last year, seduced by thick, creamy envelopes with a little golden inlay under the flap. One has a vintage Saint Nick on the cover; the old saint looks both jolly and wise. And the other has a madonna and child. Marianne’s cards aren’t usually overtly religious, but this rendering just spoke to her: the young mother’s face illuminated and alive, not saccharine or saintly sweet. She looks strong and scared and filled with wonder…which is pretty much, when you get right down to the bottom level, Marianne thinks, the human condition.

The baby sleeps in the young Mary’s arms, his dark eyelashes long on plump cheeks. The picture called to Marianne, and she bought the two boxes of cards and put them in the armoire where she keeps gifts and things to save.

Now the boxes sit, waiting, on her bookshelf.

In the second week of December, Phyllis’s church has a benefit for a children’s program they sponsor. It’s a wonderful program, providing before and after school care for kids whose parents can’t afford it. The kids get hot meals and transportation; the church insists on homework time before play, but they provide tutors and materials. Marianne has tutored math there, her accounting background coming in handy. The church makes everything fun, a challenge. The kids learn to cook in teams of five, and a different team makes dinner every week, and they can stay at the church until 9 PM if their parents work late.

It’s a tremendous program, a make-a-difference program, and it needs lots of money and resources to keep up.

So during the second week, Marianne bakes batch after batch of cookies. Julia, the director of the early childhood program at the church, drops off a garbage bag full of pretty quilted materials. Marianne takes that, and scraps and remnants from her own old projects, and she designs and sews fifty Christmas stockings. It’s like working again: she gets up at 6:00 each day, and by the time Phyllis leaves the house at 8:30, Marianne is at work, too. She breaks for lunch and finishes up just about 4:30, when she contemplates what to fix for dinner.

The pile of cards in the basket by the front door grows.

Marianne does get her Christmas card list out from the drawer. She opens it up at lunch one day, and spreads it out onto the table. It’s in alphabetical order; the list marches along with the names in her address book. And the very first name is Lisa’s: Lisa, her friend since she worked in New Concord, twenty years ago. Lisa, who died in April after a long and valiant fight against a cancer that started in her uterus and slowly, slowly, poisoned all the healthy parts of her body.

Lisa A. Marianne looks at the list smoothed out in front of her and folds it back up. Lisa’s name is not the only one that needs to be removed from the list this year.

Marianne goes back to her sewing.

Phyllis notices by the third week in December.

“Mom,” she says, “I can’t believe you haven’t done your Christmas cards yet! You’re always the harbinger of the holiday season!” Phyllis, in her quiet, organized way, has sent her cards out. She set up her computer and printer in her new office; she printed out labels for the cards she had ordered from the office supply store. She had her name printed on them, then added little personal notes on most.

Marianne liked to do her cards by hand; and there was never a question of sending cards out from “Marianne and Phyllis.” Phyllis was not a dependent child; she was a strong and independent woman who had her own life and friends.

“I’ll get to them,” Marianne says to her daughter now. She goes as far as getting the address book from the side table. She puts it next to the card boxes.

The address book is thirty years old, probably. Bits of envelope stick out–bits with addresses that have changed and that Marianne hasn’t yet had time to record. Some of the pages are thick with change. When she can, she cuts the address label off the letter and tapes it over the old address. Some people–Jenny Cobb, for instance, the student intern who worked with them twenty-five years ago, and has stayed close and in touch ever since–have moved several times. Her little address spot has a lump where six new labels have been carefully cut out and taped in.

The address book is a lot fatter than it was when Marianne picked it up at a clearance sale at TJ Maxx. She was out Christmas shopping that day, she realizes–out shopping with her beloved Hank.

**********

That week they decorate; they pull the tree boxes up from the basement. They lug the heavy plastic bins that hold wreaths and garland, ornaments, and the pretty ceramic nativity set Marianne’s Aunt See had made her when she was in high school.

They dust and polish furniture. They exclaim over statues of Santa and ceramic penguins and ornaments painted by Phyllis’s and Danny’s young hands.

The basket by the door is filling up; each day brings at least two or three more cards. After her initial comment, Phyllis says not another word, treating Marianne with the same respect she’s given. But she looks at her mother with concern.

And Marianne faces the fact: she’s got to get those cards done. So on Saturday, when Phyllis goes to work, she gathers everything–the list, the address book, a yellow highlighter, a green ball point pen, a black gel pen, a waxed paper envelope with three books of Christmas stamps. She gets the boxes of cards from the shelves; she puts them on the table. And she sighs–she feels reluctance; she feels dread. But she sits down, and she picks up the black pen, and she starts.

She pulls the list to her; she takes the highlighter and draws a firm line through “Lisa A.” She opens the address book and runs her finger over the three addresses she has for Lisa A–the first, with the partner who broke her heart, the second for an efficiency apartment. Finally, Lisa stayed at an assisted living complex that gave her the right proportion of independence and increasing care. Marianne remembers all the visits she made there; she remembers that Lisa had a big bulletin board where she pinned all the cards and letters she received. There was a whole section, Lisa had showed her proudly, just for ‘Stuff From Marianne.’

Marianne takes off her glasses and stands up. She goes to the powder room and brings back a full box of tissues. She takes her first weeping break with Lisa A.

She uses the whole day to do her cards, paging through the address book, looking at the history there. There’s a place in the beginning for ‘This belongs to…’ and ‘In case of emergency, contact…’ It still reads ‘Hank Byers’ there. She picks up the highlighter, but her hand hovers; in the end, she can’t quite highlight Hank’s name away.

She cuts out address labels and pastes them in place for an aunt who has changed retirement communities, and for friends who have adventured out to Arizona, snowbirds happily ensconced in an RV community nine months of the year. Nieces and nephews, young former colleagues–all of these entries are thick with change and exciting new events–many have added spouses and children’s names to their entries, along with new homes at new addresses.

She consigns some entries  to the natural attrition of change–people who were present and important at one stage and era, and, that era having ended, who faded into their own busy lives, tenuous cords severed. Others names have reappeared–important friends from high school and college who have re-entered her life.. That, Marianne thinks wryly, is the joyful side of FaceBook.

She takes a weeping break at David’s name, too–Hank’s stalwart best friend died of cancer early in the year. After Hank passed, David and Annie had made sure Marianne was included in parties and adventures, had holiday invitations to their big, raucous family events–she never went, feeling an invader among the tumble of kids and grandkids, and last year, the first great-grand, but the fact of having an invitation to turn down had been a comfort many days. David came over at midnight once to chase a bat, and helped her connect to a company that would do that, too– “If ever,” he said, not yet knowing, “if ever I’m not available to do that for you.”

She thinks of Annie’s first Christmas apart, remembers how hard that is. She blows her nose and swabs away the dampness on her cheeks and writes a special note.

And Rita–oh, cancer has taken its relentless toll this year. Rita from her card club, tiny dynamo Rita, who often derailed the game with a wonderful story. No one could tell a story like Rita did, tell it at her own expense, making herself a hapless, Lucille Ball-style heroine, hoisted on her own petard. She would have them gasping with laughter,and when they were done, they had to think for 15 minutes to remember whose turn it was to lead a card. It’s so hard to accept that an elemental force like Rita’s has been quenched.

She finishes just before Phyllis walks in the door, and Phyllis hangs up her coat, puts down her purse, and comes in to see her red-eyed mother, hand flat on the last page of the address book, sitting at the table with three stacks of Christmas cards, stamped, addressed, and ready to mail.

“Pizza!” Phyllis suggests, but with a kind of firmness that doesn’t brook no for an answer. “Pizza and a trip to the post office.”

Marianne rinses her face and changes her shirt and grabs her coat. She closes the address book, folds up the Christmas card list and slides it inside, and they are off.

On Monday she begins to open the cards stacked in the basket. She reads each one, and she clips new addresses from envelopes if needed. And then she uses baby doll clothes pins she’s had since Phyllis outgrew doll-play; she hangs the cards from a tough green cord she’s strung over her picture window.

Many of the cards yield photos–smiling families, loved and missed; growing kids. Some folks include pictures of new houses or beautiful pets or vacation delights. Marianne carefully writes a description on the back of each photo. She pins these to a big canvas that hangs in the family room; after Christmas; she will sort through and put the keepers in a special photo album for Christmas card treasures.

Some of the cards have letters–newsy form-letters or handwritten scribbles, catching her up on what the year has brought and wrought for special people. There have been losses; there have. But there have been weddings and births, new jobs and new friendships. An old friend, at age 63, is headed back to college for the degree she always wanted and lamented. Another is taking an exciting trip through Europe. There are seven retirement announcements.

Marianne takes her time, opening five or six cards over her morning coffee, savoring the artwork, pondering the choices and what they reveal about their senders, absorbing the news she’s been sent. Opening that once-stuck door, reveling in reconnection.

She opens the last card on Christmas Eve, shows Phyllis a new-baby photo, clips the address and sticks it in the drawer with her address book. And then she runs up to change.

Phyllis has twisted her arm; she’ll go to church services, bask in candleglow and sweet music (tonight, Phyllis assured her, is a sermon-free zone). They’ll come home and have their annual toast and open their gifts to each other. Tomorrow, they’ll Face-Time Danny. And they’ll have an unexpected crowd around their table–a neighbor, Sis, who’s had a falling out with her family, will join them, and Joey, a young colleague of Phyllis’s, who can’t get back to Buffalo because of the blizzard his hometown is enduring. And Jannie and Kevin, Phyllis’s oldest friends, who had a miscarriage this year, have decided they wouldn’t go to Detroit for the riotous family Christmas.

Marianne and Phyllis have warned them all: they are cooking their shared favorite meal: a giant tuna casserole. Kevin said he was bringing a sliced ham to augment it, and Sis is bringing bread and a green salad.  Joey commented on their motley-crewness, and asked if it would be okay if he brought a Rudolph DVD. It’s a film he watches each Christmas, and maybe, he said, they could relate to the Island of Misfit toys. Of course, said Phyllis, and she touched her mother’s arm and smiled.

It will be a Christmas laced with the knowledge of loss, thinks Marianne, pulling on a velvety blue tunic and fastening her silver snowflake necklace. She will not be able to look too long at her daughter’s face as the carols play and the candlelight flickers in the church, to know the aching pain of her little girl and not be able to assuage it. She will reach across the miles to her baby boy, hoping he is safe and happy.

She will ache, remembering the people she cherished and laughed with, cried with and leaned on,–the people she will never see again.

And they’ll eat their unconventional dinner; they’ll learn about their guests. They’ll watch a silly movie and maybe play a rousing round or two of Apples to Apples, or deal out some cards. They will laugh and hug and share a day together.

And later, she and Phyllis will look through Christmas card photos, share this year’s news from both their batches of holiday greetings, pondering the ebb and the flow and realizing they can’t make sense of it. The pattern–if one is there–only emerges, she thinks, when the tapestry is completed, and Marianne is in no hurry for that to happen. She is lonely; yes, she is, but she is filled, too–with love for her children, with the need to contribute, with the potential of new friends and new discoveries.

She may well be sending Joey a Christmas card next year–who knows? He might be one of those ‘keeper’ people, someone she thinks of every time she hears Burl Ives warbling about holly jolliness. Other friendships may deepen; other losses may accrue. Her arms may be needed for comfort and her smile for celebration.

Her address book will fatten a little. Marianne knows that this is the truth; she dreads it and she welcomes it, and she runs downstairs to let her daughter take her to church.

A Good Friday Ledger

Easter

The bricks and cement of the back patio are slicked and wet when I run the kitchen garbage out, ducking into the carport to wrestle with the recalcitrant trash can, which is always unwilling to surrender its lid. The app on my phone did not predict rain–clouds with periods of sun, it promised–but rain seems fitting.

It is Good Friday, and steady somber weather feels just right.

“The pubs are closed in Ireland today!” Mark said this morning, looking up from the early paper. “They can’t buy alcohol!”

He seemed shocked. (I feel the Irish ancestors rising up in dudgeon. “Tell that boy,” they demand testily, ” we could easily forego a drop on this most serious of sacred days.”)

The alcohol ban seems fitting to me, Good Friday being a day of fast and abstinence. Although—I remember a daring Good Friday when my friends and I went to a hometown bar and tasted our first Manhattans and Rob Roys. And ordered up cheeseburgers to go with them, flagrantly flying in the face of tradition, proud rebels of spirits and cuisine. The drinks were unimpressive–I don’t think I’ve ever tried either concoction again,–and the burgers cold and uninspiring. (So that was meaningless and uneventful–real rebellion should inspire some sort of thoughtful, lasting transformation. That silly mini-binge night: huh. It didn’t change a thing.)

Coffee, in my family canon, is okay on Good Friday–it’s a day when I still do not eat meat, nor do I nosh between meals, but I drink coffee all day long today without a twinge of conscience. This morning I dump the too-dark syrupy dregs of my morning pot and set up fresh water for the next pot of decaffeinated brew.

I pull the duster and the vacuum from the back closet. This is a good day to clean, a good day to clear surfaces and suck up the dust and grit of the week, to organize clutter. The sacrifice of Good Friday demands austerity. The celebration of Easter is best painted on a clean slate.

I wick away the cobwebs and, to the crabby little dog’s dismay, I fire up the vacuum. She flees, staying a room away from its high-pitched whooshing noise. I curl the excess cord over my arm; I push forward and I pull back, and the rhythmic motions release tamped thoughts. Sadness flows, and sense of loss.

Last Monday, deep into planning a workshop on holding effective meetings–the irony of planning a meeting to talk about meetings bouncing in front of my awareness like a silly balloon–I felt the raw, insistent blatting of my cell phone. An electric jolt coursed. I knew before I picked up the phone that the text would tell me Kim had died. She was ready; she was at peace with knowing the end was near. She was suffering. This was a blessed Lenten release. And yet: the sadness and the loss were immediate and very real.

And this is the season of new life–of religious festivals of death and rebirth. My mother died a Lenten death, too, and she was buried from an Easter church. There were flowers and banners with butterflies-emerged, and we sang about eagles’ wings in the glowing of the Paschal candle. Symbols of resurrection everywhere: great comfort for my father.

A celebration for Kim might be a different kind of thing, I think, held in an outdoor ‘scape where grass pushes into woods. There would be wine and poetry; the singing might be softer and more yearning. Scarves would float and billow in honor of the lost one. There might, in fact, be drumming, pagan and pulsing, thrumming from those woods. Kim would like to hear some Wendell Berry recited well; she’d be lulled and transported by some authentic rhythm and blues.

And Spring nature itself proclaims the message–what was dead is bursting into life; what was dormant is transformed. Liturgical, ecological: truth interpreted whatever way the listeners need to hear. A death, a release, requires celebration.

On Good Friday, though, I recognize the loss and let the sadness stay.

************

I line up vases and pretty, thick-walled jars. When the rain stops, I’ll go and harvest daffodils and the waxy white flowers, drooping bells like giant lilies of the valley, that have blossomed in the sunlight behind the house. I’ll check to see if there are blooms on the stalky unkempt lilac bush neglected in the farthest corner of the yard. I’ll trim and sort and arrange, and carry flowery offerings to brighten all the common rooms. I’ll bring the promise nature makes inside to my dark corners.

On a basement shelf, I find a box; it’s labelled “Easter Stuff.” Some scant ceramics nestle inside: two bunnies, a little egg-shaped house, a pink-faced Easter lamb. I let them share a sunny table top, punctuated by candles, awaiting the arrival of blooms.

***************

I shake the crumbs from the toaster into the sink; I remove the little trays hidden beneath and wash them sparkling clean. I completely clear the countertops and wipe all crumbs away. I fill the sink with steaming water, dollop in some cleaner, and plunge my damp mop in. I am mopping when the dog erupts, and the mail slides through the slot.

While the floor dries, I read my letter of acknowledgement from my pension system. More paperwork is coming, it tells me, but my retirement is on track. (The letter also offers helpful advice, like, “It’s important to let your employer know that you have plans to retire.” Aha. I make a note.)

Retirement will not mean, for me, an end to work, but it will bring great changes to the acts and facts of my working life. Another portent of new life coming, arrived on this mindful day.

************

I open the refrigerator to pull out salad dressing and celery to mix my tuna salad for lunch, and I smile at the turkey breast defrosting on the bottom shelf. We’re having a family mini-rebellion this year: Away with the Easter ham! We’ll have us some turkey instead!

So Sunday, we’ll chop veggies and sauté them into stuffing, mixing in the rich broth we made from roasted chicken bones last night. We’ll mash steaming potatoes with cheese and a touch of garlic, whisk the gravy, pour whole cranberries in their tangy sauce into Grandma’s old glass dish.

We will dine as if it is Thanksgiving, and maybe Thanksgiving is an undercurrent of this season:


Thank you for the safe end to winter.

Thank you for the joy of new growth.

Hams are good; they’re lovely, in fact. But this year, we’ll eat turkey.

**********

There will be treats, too, of course. One day last week, James and I did a Granville run and stopped at our favorite chocolatier. We bought three scoops of special treats–English toffee, sea salt caramels, salted caramel turtles,–and had the lady wrap them up in bright Easter papers. We hid them in a pot on a way-high shelf, so we’d forget and let them be until triumphant Easter morning.

We bought a frozen custard cake, just the right size for three appreciators. It is tumbled high with chocolate chunks.

We will have much for which to thank our Easter bunny.

***************

This afternoon, I’ll steal the time to read a new book* about the poet Robert Lowell, who studied at Kenyon College, not so very far from here. Lowell was a genius; Lowell was bipolar, and his periodic bouts of mania would whisk away his right mind and replace it with a wrong one. Every time the mania hit, he’d turn away from his wife and to some young and inappropriate lover. His tongue would leap with cutting, harsh words he couldn’t control, and he would hurt and shame his friends. He would stalk and drink and dance the night hours away–sleeping be damned!–until the whole thing got so bad the police would arrive to take him away.

Once he made them sit at his kitchen table and listen to a  poem before he went off willingly to his next institutionalization.

And then would come the pain of stabilizing, the long time of healing, until his right mind returned. And always he’d both embrace the return of life and burn with shame for all he’d done. A quirk of Lowell’s illness was a perfect memory of everything he’d done when he was out of control.

Lowell was a man who understood Good Friday, with its grim and unforgiving sacrifice. He was a man who knew that new life follows darkness.

******************

I sit at the dining room table, and I watch, though the bay window, white petals floating from the tree that’s just outside. They stain the once-mowed grass–the lawn that needs mowing again tomorrow. They float to earth, making way for the leaves pushing themselves into the light.

The rain has stopped; the clouds are lightening, and here and there the sun cracks through.

The messages of loss and growth abound. It is Good Friday. I move a ceramic bunny closer to the brass candlestick, and I go to eat my lunch.

********************

*Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire; A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. Kay Redfield Jamison. 2017; Alfred A. Knopf.