Monday, December 26, 2011

Life According to Christmas Cards

As I take one last look at this year's Christmas cards from friends far away -- relatives, high school and college friends, friends from my careers in publishing, in acting and in psychotherapy -- I'm suddenly struck with the thought that these have changed with the passage of time -- as have we.

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.


  1. Beautiful, just beautiful. I suppose like many others review my cards at the end of the Christmas period on 12th night. I keep the cards until the next Christmas and all the letters and pictures are in a special file. But I love the fact that you have kept a photo album over the years -- oh how I wish I had done that... Best wishes to you and Bob for a very Happy and Blessed New Year!

  2. Very well said. I've had the same feelings this year. Our Christmass was so different from earlier years...not bad, just different. For some reason I was more aware of the changes that all my friends and family had experienced and this led me to reflection. Change seems to be a constant these days. Perhaps it's because my days have slowed down and i have the time to notice.

  3. How nice that you still get cards. My friends(and I) tend to think electronic communication throughout the year is enough. Sad and why the Post Office is suffering so.
    You are right how the tone changes through the years. My cousin and I who mainly communicated in long letters at Christmas, this year, she sent only a card with the message "I'm now 84. Still waking and talking. Hang in there." Time does take its toll.

  4. So true! So glad the tradition of sending Christmas cards has not died down.

  5. It's a pleasure to meet you ... Rosaria's blog led me here! I am looking forward to reading your blog in 2012! Happy New Year.

  6. I love that you've kept a photo album of Christmas cards over the years. I keep mine in a file that I look through occasionally, but an album is a great idea.

    Aren't written Christmas cards, notes and letters nice? I really hope the tradition of mailing written cards doesn't end, as it's one of my favorites.

  7. Stop by and wish Johanna a Happy Birthday on Tuesday, December 27!

  8. I really enjoyed reading your reflections on aging as a part of this post.

    As for Christmas cards themselves, for me they have been a tradition rather than a means of communication. The people whom I want to keep in touch with, I do so on a regular basis by phone or email. Those whom I do not want to keep in touch with are let gently go when they naturally edge out of my life. Perhaps this is also partly a function of having a smallish number of friends and of living in the same place all my life. With your travels and career changes you must have met many, many friends, and cards at this time of year are an excellent way to regularly connect.

  9. I think I lost the comment I had written by touching the wrong button.

    Kathy, this post was such a beautiful reflective post. It truly enriched my day to read it. I will ponder what you said for the rest of the day.

    I miss those dear ones who have gone on also. I think of those I knew in their prime and also am saddened by their decline. I dated a man for quite some time when I was in my 40's who was seven years younger. Like your friend, he never married. He still is living with his mother. In his early 40's he had a quadruple by-pass surgery. It breaks my heart to see how much of life he missed out on because of health issues when he was the picture of health and vigor throughout his 30's.

    I didn't write my letter this year. Too much going on. I love getting the letters I got. I hope the tradition doesn't die out.

  10. You write so eloquently, Kathy, about a subject Rick and talked about as we sat to write cards. I, too, crossed off several names in the book this year, having said goodbye too soon. I've read the stories of the parents who have died, the jobs that have been lost, the concern of the caretakers, the recovery from the hurricane. Even those putting the best spin on it (and that would probably include us) have somewhat circumspectly shared their challenges if the recipient is wise enough to read between the lines.

    Like you, I keep a number of the cards that have photos or letters. I look now through some of the older ones, of the friends who have since moved on to another life, another universe and think how grateful I have at least this one tangible thing I can hold when I cannot hold their hands or give them a hug. I've received cards that sent me to the phone to make a call this year. And those from our friends across the sea that trickle in over the course of the next month are welcome too. To savor in our own time. Thank you for stating so well what is in my heart.

  11. This post has expressed thoughts I had this season, but in such an articulate way. I find myself at the age of receiving fewer cards just because I have lost another friend or family member. It's not that that has never happened before. It is just that that I can no longer think, "but she was so old..." or "it was such a freakish accident." I can no longer think, "but that won't happen to me." Aging is happening.
    Thanks to Grandma Yellow Hair for sending me here.

  12. Wow my thoughts have been on this same subject. Thank you for this post.

  13. Hello Kathy, I came over from Maggie's blog to visit you! Your post on her blog was very interesting so I needed to come by and read about you for myself...I hope you have a Happy New Year!

  14. Hi Kathy, I met you on Maggie's blog and enjoyed your post so very much. I have enjoy reading your blog tonight. It is so true as we get older. You are right about the fewer cards, but we do cherish the pictures as we watch little ones grow into adulthood. Have a wonderful New Year. A Missouri Friend.

  15. Dear Kathy,

    I will make this short and sweet!!
    Mostly because it is almost 1:000AM.
    I have happily become an instant follower of yours. One of my best friends in the world is Maggie and any friend of Maggie's is a friend of mine!!
    I have read some of your posts on your blog here tonight and love how you think and feel about life!!

    I look forward to visiting you here often and I will bring some goodies and you can put the kettle on!! :)

    Blessings to you and your family for a Happy and Healthy New Year!!


  16. Thanks so much for putting into such eloquent words how so many of us feel as we get older, Kathy. This years cards and letters (always a lot of them, as in the ministry one gets to know a lot of people) brought plenty of good and happy news but also some sad. Even though sending out so many cards and letters in my turn is time-consuming and expensive, I love to do it for the joy or renewing the bonds of old friendship.

  17. I'm just getting caught up on reading my favorite blogs...which, of ocurse, you're at the top of the list. Christmas cards? This year we only sent to our family and friends over 90. It means so much to them. Everyone else got an e-card or an e-mail greeting or a phone call. We paid personal visits to our children and grandchildren before Christmas as they spend it in their nuclear families. How it should be, I think. if we don't expect them to be with us they are relieved. We dined at home and enjoyed escargots, grilled steaks, scalloped potates, fresh cranberry sauce and grown-ups. Lovely and romantic!
    In bed by 9, earlier on New Year's Eve. Can't stand all the "hoopla" these days. Happy and healthy 2012 to you and Bob.