Friday, January 4, 2008

Old Friends

They usually crop up at Christmas Card time, the old friends. It must have been at least twenty years ago that I weeded out my voluminous list of people to send cards to. I used to hand print, or otherwise construct, my Christmas cards, which really involved making at least twice as many as would eventually go out in the mail. Given the nature of printing, especially when it is a matter of printing more than one color on the paper, the artist has to allow for a lot of duds – splotches, fingerprints, smears, bulls-eyes (when a grain of something on the paper interferes with the occlusion of ink to print surface), and the many occurrences of off-register (when a subsequent printing of one color on another doesn’t get where it’s supposed to – remember the Sunday Funnies RotoComics where the red of Blondie’s lips would end up on her forehead ?)
Then postage. Three cents is one thing, but …when you have two hundred works of art to send out, current postage rates get to be a factor.

The easy ones to purge from the Christmas Card List are the ones that have imprinted signatures and no note at all. Even if it’s your relative, it’s clear that a phone call will work much better. And there are the business associates who politely fill your box with glitzy generic cards – usually large and heavy and with gold lined envelopes – easy to drop those. You can get a ten dollar box of generics yourself and send them out personally after the associate has sent you theirs if you really think you should.

What is amazing and helpful is that once you start NOT sending a card to so-and-so, he magically drops you from his list, and so everyone is conscience-free about the matter! Everyone seems to be waiting for the other person to start stopping!

These days the cards (handmade or, usually, not) I send out are limited to people who are too dear to lose, are too far away to visit, and who are not people I talk to once a year on the phone. Also the ones who will not answer because they are too old, too ill, or even a few who just don’t like to write letters. These are the people who learned early that I write letters to them when I want to communicate – not just when it’s de rigueur because of the season. And the near relatives.

Likely as not the cards I send out are are hand typed into the computer, it seems, unless the person is not a computer person, in which case I send a pretty card with a little note written messily in my homely handwriting. By far, the most personal ones are the computerized ones, with pictures of real life and confessions of the year past. These sorts of things can be shared with the ones still remaining on my list.

I have heard back from lots of the folks who read my letter this season, and it is wonderful to hear about their lives and cares and news. Like reading a catch-up synopsis of the “soaps” in a way – updates from last episode. And it is reassuring to find out that my old friends, like me, are getting a little older, and a little more relaxed about such things as are de rigueur. Thank goodness age mellows a person!

My friends in Indiana will have their 50th wedding anniversary this coming year and I am invited to a secret party being designed by her youngest daughter in Baltimore. The daughter asks that old friends participate in making a memory book to present to her parents. I have got, somewhere, a huge file of letters spanning some thirty or forty years during which I have known these folks, and corresponded with them. They traveled in 1973 from our Pennsylvania town to Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, and then to Guam and then to Elkhart, IN over this time, being missionaries, parents and grandparents, and earnest people with great senses of humor and big hearts. I think I will bind all these letters into a booklet and send it to Baltimore. They will maybe re-read it all, but I know they would be happy to have it. They will not want to share all of it, especially with the kids who grew up over that span and whose struggles are documented there, woman to woman, between the “girl friends. "

My friend in Wisconsin is, for the third time, rebuilding her life. She is near some of her kids and grandkids, and with others sprinkled around the US. She sends me an email with bird feeders, gardens, lovely babies, and pictures of horseback riding. There is only one picture of her in the mix, looking at least 25 pounds heftier than I remember her, sitting very smilingly on a horse in the CA hillsides. She looks happy, and I am glad to see she is not grieving terribly about her weight. Her former husband was a real rat and ran her through the wringer about weight and everything else while, without conscience, dallying with other females. She is still deciding about her current “significant other.” I am guessing she will take a long time deciding. I hope so, actually. (“…so,tune in next time—same time, same station...”)

My friend in West Virginia always is sad around this time of year, possibly because it is dark and cold and her tall house in the hills is heated with a wood stove and she misses the deer that have been taken from the herd that she has fed all year on her hundred acres or so. She suffered a frontal lobe aneurism some twenty years ago and survived extensive brain surgery. She tells me she is thinking she has just made another leap through to more cognition. She will celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas, still coming up. It’s a little brighter then, I am thinking, and the sun shines a little more each day. This woman is like a person from another planet – where her unique dreams and determination and something like magic have outdrawn and overcome any reasonable, conventional expectations and won some sort of spiritual war! She still intends to save all the feral cats in her town and also to go to Paraguay where she is still intent on saving the natives in the area where she was born (to Mennonite Russian missionaries) some sixty years ago. There is no stopping the spirit of this woman. She will for years to come reverberate in many lives without having raised her voice! And she is really quite limited, suffering fugues and seizures still, and is not even supposed to fly. She disregards all this. She has her goals and she is not accepting no for an answer.

My old post office friend in Washington State is about to have surgery – she put it off when her husband got sick and then died. This woman is such a surprise in my life—she was a sort of cartoonish person – very tall with a receding chin and painted on eyes, eyebrows and lips, and hair that could radically different in style and color from week to week. Lots of silver rings, and several earrings in each ear. Her teeth were obviously totally false, but that did not keep her from smiling broadly. She approached, towering blondly over me and greeted me very warmly when I first went to work at the post office, and I didn’t take her seriously, really, because she was so – well...surface!

As it turned out, she was the wisest and most kindly and good of all the folks I met there. She turned out to be compassionate, and loving. No one cared as much what came out of her mouth, and no one was more constant as a friend. No one went to as many weddings and funerals of people in her world, and no one was more attentive to her children or grandchildren. She came up in a very poor family and suffered not only from having poor-folks’ clothing at school, and being too tall, and not very pretty, but also from being “knocked up” as a teen, giving up a baby for adoption, and all the shame that goes with that scenario played out in the 50’s. This lady learned how to be rich, and she ended up marrying herself a husband who adored her and provided her with a secure and comfortable life. Now she is counting her blessings, and I am sure she will bless a lot of folks even as she undergoes shoulder surgery. I think I will make her a funny card. She still has the cardboard leg I made for her years ago when she had a knee replacement, that all the post office people signed. I am hoping she will have a shoulder signed by me this time.

I did not hear from my ailing friend in the nursing home. She finds it more and more difficult to write, and I call her now and again and find her somehow chugging along, despite a poorly recovering hip replacement (after a fall), her failing body wracked by Cerebral Palsy, and the maddening limitations of a wheelchair. But she still keeps going. I will visit her when I next go to Seattle. It’s hard to talk on the phone now—her voice has always been difficult to understand, but she has since lost more teeth and it’s increasingly hard to make out what she says. I just ask her to repeat, as she has taught me to do. We go back a long way – to the 60’s.

I didn’t hear from my sister-in-law who for reasons I don’t know is really unwelcoming to any communications. She has not yet let me know where my brother was buried. She may still have his ashes on her mantelpiece—I don’t know. There was something wrong for a long time with my brother and her that I don’t understand. And my cousin on my father’s side is keeping her distance. The sister-in-law and she have been pretty close for a long time. I think there’s a connection in the chilliness. I think they may have thought there was some reason to “take my brother’s side.”

Never mind. I’ll still send my sister-in-law and my cousin cards next year. Kin, you know. Just a thread. Better than nothing.

Soon I will collect the cards from the mantel. I guess there are about twenty five there, from mostly relatives. Pretty. Some have pictures on them that are heartwarming. I will keep them together over the year and at the ready for next year’s Christmas Card List. But I’ll likely not look at them then. I will easily remember by heart which ones to send to, because they are the old friends, the kin, the kids, -- the folks that matter at any time of year, and they don’t need a list to reside on.

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