From the heady reports of careers on the rise when we were in our twenties and thirties to the sweet letters of the parenting years: cute sayings and even cuter pictures of children. I've kept these holiday pictures of the children of dear friends in a special album, watching many grow up from across the miles in these annual Christmas photos. Now, in some instances, I am pasting the pictures of their children in my album.
As time went on, the cards and letters began to reflect the first losses -- the deaths of parents and the slowing of careers.
And now, as we ease into older age, the character of the holiday messages is changing yet again.
There are fewer cards now. Every year I cross the name of a deceased friend off my Christmas card list. Half of my most cherished female friends from college have passed away -- including two of my three college roommates. It's hard to realize how many years have gone by until I get a note from my deceased former roommate Lorri's daughter Sharon, now, at 43, older than her mother ever lived to be -- and starting to talk about her retirement planning strategies. How is that possible?
And the addresses are changing -- from long-time homes in the Midwest and Northeast to sunnier locations in Florida or Nevada or even here in Arizona. There are messages of happiness, of adjustment struggles, of life regrets, of new passions as the friends of my generation begin to retire.
And, along with the passage of time and the challenges of our changing world, there are messages of distress -- of illness, heightened sense of mortality and fear and of aspects of life and each other previously unknown.
A friend in his fifties, struggling to establish his own business after losing his job a few years ago, is now facing an expensive divorce. He is stressed, worried and heartbroken.
A recently retired college classmate wonders if her thirtysomething children will be able to keep their jobs, support their families and, essentially, stay launched in this troubling economy.
And some struggle a bit to reconcile what they once knew with what they're hearing now. My first lover, a very kind and gentle man whom I have not seen in nearly 40 years, sent a Christmas card as he always does, adding a note to let me know that he reads my blog enthusiastically, though finding himself puzzled and a bit distressed at times to learn of the abuse of my childhood. This is an aspect of my life that, in my youth, I was unable to share with most people, especially men I was trying to impress with a facade of cool sophistication. This man, now 70, remembers my father as a amiable, funny and charming person who used to tease him about the rivalries of their college football teams. My father once played varsity football for UCLA while this boyfriend was a proud graduate of USC. Their good-natured sports talk, when my father was in his reasonably healthy mid-fifties, led to the only positive relationship my father ever had with any of the men in my life. And his memories remind me of the complexity of my father's nature and the truth of all perceptions. And somehow it pleases me that, through the years, he has held good memories of my father.
Another college friend wonders if he will ever be able to retire as his talented, hard-working and ambitious children struggle, with varying degrees of success, to get a foothold in their chosen professions.
And a dear friend from my acting days calls to talk instead of sending a Christmas card this year. He needs a listening ear. I smile when I hear his voice on the phone.
My most vivid memories of him are as a dashing thirty and fortysomething actor fluent in nine languages, with an ethnic look that made him a shoo-in for a great variety of foreign character roles -- featured in movies here and in Europe and in many popular television shows. He also sang and danced in major stage musicals in Los Angeles. I greatly admired his talent and abundant energy as well as his warm friendship through the years. He is still a busy working actor doing regular film and television roles. In his early eighties, he has just had a banner year due to a frequently shown national television commercial that has earned him an outrageous sum of money so far -- more money than he has ever made for a single day's work -- and he doesn't speak a word in it, simply reacts with lovely authenticity.
But now, over the phone, I can hear both sadness and fear in his voice. His mother, whom he cared for during the many years since his father's death, recently died at 104. He misses her more than he ever imagined he would. Despite relationships with a number of wonderful women -- the best relationship of all spanning 18 years --he has never married or had children. And now his health is a worry: he recently had a recurrence of the colon cancer he thought he had conquered twenty years ago. He had a quadruple coronary bypass three years ago. He is diabetic. And recently, he has been having episodes of "brain fog" along with loss of balance that is causing him to turn down roles lest people in the industry begin to suspect that he can't handle his work anymore. Most of all, he is feeling very mortal, very sad and very alone.
I linger on the phone with him, promise to call and encourage him to call more often. And, having known him in his prime, I ache for the heartbreak and physical toll that the passage of time, life choices and chance have exacted. And I ache for the losses that we all share, to varying degrees, as we age.
And as I look over all the cards, I envision their senders in a series of snapshots in my mind -- as college kids, as young adults establishing their careers, as parents proudly holding babies, as a sweet first lover, as a busy actor filled with energy and big dreams. Wasn't that just last Christmas or a few holiday seasons ago? How could so many years fly by so fast?
There is a different rhythm to all our lives these days. And to this day, I love these long-time friends and savor their cards and their messages.
My favorite part of this season, indeed, any season -- is to share feelings with dear friends whether these feelings are joy in new passions and discoveries, in the delights of grandchildren and in the adventure of retirement or feelings of pain and fear and uncertainty as our bodies and our lives change with aging.
Whether the messages of this year's Christmas cards are hopeful or sad or somewhere in between, I feel blessed by the lives that have intersected with mine and the chance we have, yet again this year, to offer each other words of comfort and hope and love across the miles.