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Christmas Card Redux: How Losing My Mom Changed My Outlook On A Holiday Tradition

(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
This article is more than 2 years old.
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My mother saw the decor possibilities in Christmas cards long before Pinterest. She pinned them up, literally, to ribbons around our doorway with straight pins. Holiday guests entered our home through a halo of Christmas cards. Growing up, I wondered if our abundance was worth something, the way, say, S&H green stamps were.

I used my mom’s Christmas card list to reach people when she passed away two years ago. Her list could be a snapshot of anyone’s aging parent: three typewritten pages with handwritten redirects for people who relocated to Florida or California, and lots of cross-outs. My mother once told me she’d asked a stationary salesclerk if they sold sympathy cards by the box. When the horrified salesclerk told her certainly not, my mother responded in typical full-frontal style: “I’m old; I need a lot of cards because my friends are dying.”

Her Christmas card list has tiny handwritten notes on what she sent each year: cousin Carolyn got trees in '11, snowman in '12, and candles in '13, my mother’s last Christmas.

What was my mother thinking? Did she want to mix things up?

I used my mom’s Christmas card list to reach people when she passed away two years ago.

I sent those serious candles last year; I’ll send her frisky reindeer this year.

Did she think people would keep them or remember they got snowman two years running?

Saving Christmas cards ran in our family. More than once, my sister and I were made to go look at Christmas cards my grandfather had pasted into albums. He’d drone on about great-aunt Margaret who’d moved to Kenosha and we’d go crosseyed with boredom. Maybe that’s when I decided Christmas cards were as stale as the peppermint humbugs in grandpa’s milk glass candy dish.

With adolescent acerbity, I came to disdain people who just signed their names to prefab sentiments, or, even worse, sent smug Christmas letters. Decades later, I disconnected from an old grad school friend after her newsletter trumpeted how Nicky got into Harvard and Andrew had played in a string quartet at the White House.

Eventually, I married into Christmas cards: my husband’s relatives sent us lots. When my mother came at Christmas, she pinned them up, asking about the names she remembered from our wedding and updating me on everyone we knew: weddings, divorces, surgeries and cousin Glenn who had joined a cult.

Her last Christmas, after she’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, we didn’t get as many cards as we used to, for all the reasons that Christmas card sales drop 5 percent every year. The cards all fit on the mantel, but no one mentioned it.

After Christmas, I kept flying to Pittsburgh for my mom’s chemo treatments (chemo-lite, we called it; anything that would make her hair fall out was off the table). I’d make a dinner party the night before chemo for the women I called her Galpals. I admired that they still managed to laugh and party despite all the cross-outs on their Christmas card lists.

An odd thing happened after my mom died ... I used [her] list to send out Christmas cards.

I took a family leave to attend to my mother in her last weeks. The sad daily regimen was brightened by frequent calls from friends and daily trips to the mailbox, which often yielded a card or two to add to the pastel assortment on the old stereo console in the living room. My mother liked to say her friend Anne was single-handedly trying to keep Hallmark in business. It was a sad day when my mother lapsed into unconsciousness and couldn’t look at the cards I carried back.

An odd thing happened after my mom died. Woven in with my memory of this as one of the loneliest times in my life was an odd nostalgia for…what? My mom’s life there as I had come to know it? Daily interactions with her Galpals? I didn’t know. So I did something odder still: I used my mom’s list to send out Christmas cards.

I heard back from everyone.

One friend wrote, “There is hardly a day when I don’t think about her,” and her travel buddy said she had “needed some closure” as she prepared for the “exciting, frightening” move to assisted living. Many said they’d like to stay in touch, but would understand if I was too busy. Most reminisced fondly about my mother and I realized we shared a bond: the sorrow of living without her. The mantel overflowed with cards. I think this year I might hang a ribbon. I know where there’s a cache of straight pins in my mom’s wicker sewing basket.

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Cathie Desjardins Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Cathie Desjardins is an educator and writer who lives in Arlington, Mass. Her first book of poems is "With Child."

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