"No more of that, I pray you, in your letters. When you shall these deeds relate, speak to me as I am; nothing extenuate..."
- Othello, William Shakespeare
It's that time again, cards arriving in the mail, your own list waiting for names to be crossed off because their cards have been sent - or you can no longer remember the person you've faithfully honored with once-a-year greetings since you were in college.
But, as you've probably noticed, with the popularity of e-mail rising with the cost of postage, there's a noticeable trend away from the traditional, overstuffed mailbox syndrome these days. Still, if you are one of the nostalgia set who continues to send bunches of cards each year you have a choice to make.
Will you add only your name and note to the card, or - gasp! - will you include a form letter?
I confess: I've been sending form letters for years. Living miles from my ancestral home, and far from friends left behind at multiple military addresses, makes the form way the only way for me. But I try to be brief, and sensitive to my addressees. They only hear about some of the exploits of my grandchildren. I take my cue from the less than perfect "10s" others have sent me:
A friend I haven't seen in 40 years once wrote six, single-spaced pages telling about her three daughters, their husbands, and I've forgotten how many grandchildren. I also heard about her father's 89th birthday party, and complete details of the remodeling of her house.
Then there's the relative who rarely misses a detail about her medical condition. I'll spare you all but the following: "Healthwise, I'm about he same. I felt bad the last of July and part of August, so my daughter took me to the doctor. He said there was nothing seriously wrong. I had three tests and x-rays done on Nov. 13. I have a lot of pain in my knees, legs, and back. I'm just happy I'm as good as I am..."
One year my retired, globe-trotting friend documented every place she had been, including the name and quality of service of each hotel, and a description of everyone she met. Her four-page, single-spaced letter then listed the trips and accomplishments of two daughters, two granddaughters, and a niece. She also included her husband's golf scores, which she must have assumed someone who lives down the road from The Augusta National would be dying to know.
But some of the letters I receive each year are cherished gifts. They're beautifully written, full of substance, and sent to me only because they are copies. Time wouldn't allow these writers to send such quality individually. Some examples:
"Pennsylvania's first winter storm is happening as I pen these words, large flakes falling gently, placing ermine shawls across the shoulders of the hemlocks along my driveway...."
Nancy, the single mother who has raised two children alone, earned two university degrees, and who has risen above the financial insecurity of divorce: "My circle becomes ever wider with those who have encountered deep tragedies and losses. I find I have fewer answers now, but a deeper capacity to hold both joy and pain in my hands."
Maine cousins Martha and Steve sold their grocery store and adopted a simpler life: "We're relatively penniless, but we treasure our time... Once in a while we consider getting back into a business of our own, but then we wonder when we'd manage to climb new peaks, discover new waterfalls and relax with the family."
Sheryl and Dave, my cleverest of friends, sent their news last year in the form of a five-stanza poem sung to the tune of "The Chipmunk Song." Sheryl is the poet; Dave, the musician, also sends an original Christmas song each year.
And from Shirley, another creative friend who sends an original, non-musical poem as her card each year: "The Author, recognizing that human readers did not fully grasp His text, placed an asterisk in the night sky to guide Wise Men, as well as those who are not wise, to a stable where He had placed His footnote in the straw."
I'll gladly accept a hundred too-long, too-insensitive Christmas letters each year, just as long as Nancy's insight, Dave's music and Shirley's poem are among them.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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