I am prepping to mail my holiday cards — not really “holiday” cards, per se. They always feel like connection cards, and I mail them out anywhere between now and Valentine’s Day. If I push the envelope further than that (which I have), I’m likely to just let them dribble off, leaving a trail of half-addressed, unmailed cards in the basket that I will ultimately move into the back room of my apartment.
I never mailed cards en masse like this until the December after my youngest son died, now almost 20 years ago, when he was 21. He died in March, and by the holiday season it seemed a vital responsibility that I let all the worriers and carriers stop worrying about me and my two other children. There was plenty to worry about (my income was wobbly, my heart still in pieces, I was behind on rent in my new rent-an-apartment life following the divorce). But there also was light leaking in, and I had passed a few of the minus-one-child-I-adore milestones (Mother’s Day, 4th of July, summer!, Halloween, Thanksgiving).
And so my card that first year was a photo of the three of us — my daughter, oldest son, and me — looking as if we were coming through this: “look at us” — “we’re good” — “don’t worry.” A picture is really worth a thousand words, and easier to craft and send.
We were, and we have, and we are — although each of us carries that funny, irascible boy/man in a different way.
Over the years, the cards have morphed, and normally I now send an image of a piece of artwork I’ve made plus a photo of the grands when I’ve seen them — they live in another state.
These days/weeks/months, however, there has been no seeing. Except on a screen, and that doesn’t count in the same way. In my arms. Raucous laughter. Kissing a forehead. Reading and chatting.
Lately I’ve found myself in old “family” thoughts/memories and photos, prompted by another whole story (and so that will be another whole story). One thing that rose up, however, was how beautiful my mother was (I never saw that), and stylish (not that either), a dresser but not in a look-at-me way, but in a this-is-who-I-am way. It’s how I dress too.
It’s just me in outer skin. We had different ways, different visions, different outer layers, but — let me make this clear — my mother always, always, always let me be who I was. She was a fabulous mother, although I’m not sure she knew that — I moved away to live off the land in northern Maine without running water or electricity; my brilliant adorable younger brother spent a lifetime warring with heroin; and I’m not sure she ever got over the missing, a sense of failing.
Without her, I wouldn’t have had Stanton, Chuk, Queenie, Leslie, Sparrow, Linda, Fred, Claire, Henry and Kris and Tori, Joe, Aisha, Nathan, Nancy, Sonson — the list is everyone, endlessly everyone, whether she knew them or not. She allowed me to build my own vision, make my path, explore in the dark, dance when her world (born 1917 in a small New England town, a secretary and a grocery store clerk) wanted strolling with gloves and stockings, a proper hat. And then, yes, too, there was her baby sister, Cathy.
I wrote the following essay about the card-making/sending some years ago when I had the honor (really, that’s true, an honor) of writing a monthly column for a new magazine in Bangor, Maine, the brainchild of Tori Britton and Mark Wellman. Not only did I get to write what I wanted, I got to own my work. What a gift.
Mom did the card thing, and so did Auntie Cathy. But for years, they did all the sending. Not anymore.
My mother was a card woman — not as in playing cards, but as in greeting cards. I never realized how attached she was to this custom of sending and receiving until she died a few years ago and I cleaned out the “house,” the same one I grew up in, with all the same furniture, much of the same wallpaper and curtains.
There, in one of the little cubicles of the old secretary that now sits in my living room, were the cards she received when I was born. Now I’m not saying she held on to every card she ever received, but at 75, she sure had the key ones.
And every December, Mom pulled out an old, red, leather address book she kept in the same desk and addressed the holiday cards she’d bought at Filene’s or Jordan Marsh when they went on sale the previous January right after we took our tree down and packed away the lights and all the baubles. For a few days, she would sit at the dining room table, efficiently working her way through the address book, signing our names, stuffing the envelopes, affixing the stamps.
As an adult, I never did anything in the “normal” way.
Some of it stemmed from time, some from money — or lack thereof — and some, from a need to not be my “mother,” much as I adored her. (Note that I have never worn pink polyester pantsuits or pop-it beads.)
And so, for years, I sent no holiday cards. My world, however, was tenacious, and every December the mailbox overflowed with cards — from people I saw regularly, rarely, never, or, perhaps, only once in my life. And every year, I tacked them up on the hand-hewn barn beams that crisscrossed my living room ceiling, and left them up until April began to hint at the possibility of spring. Now, in my apartment, I do the same. Carefully rolling scotch tape onto the back of each card, I plaster them on the inside of the door through which I enter the bigger world every day (with the overflow piled up in a large bowl nearby), and I take them down months later.
Not until four years ago, when my youngest child died, did I begin sending out holiday cards. Somehow it made sense: I could let everyone know that the family was OK, that we had figured out how to sustain loss and go forward, and, more than anything, that the people in my life have sustained me — always, in all ways — and that I love them. Really love them.
And so now each fall I plan my “card,” so that I can send my heart into their homes just as they have so devotedly — without expectation, now that’s true giving — sent theirs to me over all these years.
Today’s mail brings my name in blocky red print, in small, delicate, finely formed letters, and in the loopy handwriting of my Auntie Cathy. She is the last of the three sisters that were my mother’s family. The silliest, the flightiest, the one who always wore bright red lipstick and high heels, and played beano four nights a week. The one who filled a room with laughter and taught me that it was always OK to be myself.
I tape her card of angels playing violins against a green-and-red-checkered background onto my door.
IN CASE YOU CARE: Annaliese Jakimides (pronounced “jah KIH mih deez”)