The Legacy of the Christmas Card

The Legacy of the Christmas Card
The first Christmas Card © Wikimedia Commons

The Legacy of the Christmas Card

Shutterfly, Minted, Snapfish – heck, even Hallmark – can all thank their existences to Sir Henry Cole, a very busy and important man in Victorian England who couldn’t possibly keep up with his correspondence. His many admirers and business connections had flooded him with inquiries and messages, and the holidays were firmly upon him. It was considered highly improper to ignore one’s mail, so, under duress, he came up with an ingenious idea.  He commissioned an artist friend, J.C. Horsley, to illustrate his family celebrating at the table, surrounded by vignettes of people helping the poor, then printed them on cardboard, added a greeting, and voila, the first Christmas card was born.

Since that fateful day in 1843, the holiday card has evolved from a stress-reliever to, for many a mom, a stress-inducer.

Every year, I pledge to start planning “The Card” in the summer, to give myself plenty of time to get the perfect shots of my kids. When they were little, I would go so far as to hire a professional photographer to capture us walking hand-in-hand in a park, or casually posing on the steps of a historic landmark.

These last few years, I’ve reduced myself to chasing them around the house at Thanksgiving with my iPhone, later staying up late a week before Christmas to make sure they are all licked and stamped in time.

This year, however, there was no Card.

There wasn’t even close to being a card. It wasn’t that I was finally liberating myself from the responsibility of “The Card”, it’s that my heart wouldn’t let me. On October 27, I experienced the unexpected death of my mother. When I say unexpected, I mean that at 77, my sister and I thought she had a lot of life ahead of her. But her health started to decline over the last few months, and then one day we got the call that she was being taken by ambulance to the hospital. After those first few days in the ICU, and all the doctor consultations and suggestions of palliative care, it hit us that she probably wasn’t coming home.

Life turned inside out at that moment. Suddenly, we were in a race to find a safe and nurturing place for our 82-year-old dad to live, specifically for people with dementia. We had to guess what our mother would want, healthcare-wise, in her final days, and make sure everyone in her life was notified and had the opportunity to say goodbye. And then there was hospice, with the nurses gossiping about when they could go on break, the funeral home that didn’t send a big enough car and had to make two trips, the obituary, decisions about a service, the now-empty house with a paper trail of accounts and bills, the church that screwed up the memorial donations made in our mother’s name (even though there were only five of them), the 18-year-old deaf and blind bichon frisé that is now reacclimating to life at my house…that was just the beginning.

I couldn’t even open the Christmas cards I received this year.

I just put them in the basket, envelopes and all. I couldn’t bear to look at beautiful, happy families, living their lives in a forward motion, leaving me behind. Of course, I know that we put our best selves in those photo stories, capturing happy moments, and how we wish things always were. No one sends a card of a 51-year-old woman, cocooned up on a sofa, with no makeup, and no shower, sorting through the complicated layers of grief and desperate for solutions to her father’s suffering.

We recently had a relative use the excuse of a Christmas card to get our dad’s address. In reality, it was to give that information to a friend of my mom’s so she could circumvent our care plan for him and secretly visit, unannounced. Needless to say, you can’t just knock on a resident’s door without family consent, and you can be sure I’ll be saving money on two less holiday stamps next year.

This behavior is decidedly not in the spirit of Sir Cole, who had a list, a very big list, of people to connect with in his life – 1,000 to be exact. When I think about how to carry on his legacy, I think about my list. I have been overwhelmed by the active care and genuine support of friends near and far (and a doting aunt who regularly texts me) and wow, those connections have truly carried and sustained me through each day. I’ve also had to painfully process the relationships that haven’t been present the way I thought they would be in this experience. Grief, I have been told, is like going on a bear hunt. You can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you must go through it. And the people that join you along the way are precious indeed.

So what happens to “The Card?” Well, thanks to Sir Cole, I’m not going to stress it. I’m going to figure something out that works for my new normal. Maybe it’ll be the kids, maybe all four of us, just a partridge in a pear tree. Whatever it is, the message will be heartfelt, and I’ll make sure everyone I love receives it.