The annual Christmas letter is my mother-in-law’s “thing.” I’d gotten used to bracing myself for its arrival with that special mix of stunned resignation that seems reserved for families. One typed page, single-spaced on cheery Christmas stationery, filled with news of immediate and extended family…and sent to everyone in her address book.
Would we see those tidbits we’d hoped had been buried? Unwitting sarcasm in sentence two? Inexplicable switch from third to first person by the fourth paragraph?
I’m not really a fan of Christmas letters in general. It’s not so much the overbearing cheer that bursts out of every typed letter that falls out of the card, unfolding to paragraph after paragraph of perfect grades, teeth, trips and promotions. It’s the feeling that even though all these highlights are being sent to me, I’m not actually a part of the joy. I don’t mean I need to be mentioned; it’s the laundry-list style that makes these seem so impersonal, so clinical, withholding that essential togetherness you want to feel with your friends and family, not just be told about.
But this year, the reason my mother-in-law doesn’t want to write it is because she can’t think of anything positive to say anymore.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I wouldn’t take away anyone’s joy in writing such a letter, my mother-in-law’s least of all. But the reasons she gave unfortunately made sense at first glance, and they’re not unique to our family either. The eldest brother living back at home at age 55, jobless and in denial about alcoholism and with more than a few social issues. The 87-year-old father slowly failing with emphysema, on oxygen and sneaking cigarettes. The 80-year-old mother herself with diverticulitus, a pacemaker and the kind of dizzy spells that can cause her to black out just from standing up. And so forth and so on.
What good news, she asked, is there in any of that?
At first glance, no, maybe not so much. But as we got her to talking, it came out how she had just finished another book for the State of Wisconsin American Legion Auxiliary Convention, faithfully typed from the recorded transcript–something she’s done yearly for more than 20 years, and was asked to do it again next year. How good she feels when she’s sitting at the computer typing. How glad she is that some of us at least still have our health. Even how the father’s perpetual luck had held at the local casino this year and he still can drive himself over there and have fun.
And how she’s always enjoyed writing this letter, reaching out to her family and the friends who are still alive while she can.
“Write about that,” we said. “It’s YOUR letter.”
She looked thoughtful and also a bit surprised, as if those positive experiences didn’t matter. Just talking about it seemed to show her that she does still have things to take delight in and be thankful for. Now I’m looking forward to seeing what she’ll do.
I never thought I’d be encouraging someone to write a Christmas letter, but I realized that sometimes, that letter really is for everyone after all.