Note: This is a revised excerpt from my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real. In the almost five years since I wrote it, we talk annually by phone rather than write these letters. Thus, the demise of snail mail for real communication.
It’s several pages of blue ink on real stationery that’s crammed full of things I want to know: the health of her husband, the latest project she is working on, what her three sons are doing, and cute anecdotes about her grandkids.
I only receive one Christmas letter in recent years, and it generally arrives sometime in January. My friend still hand-writes her annual note (her fingers are not as arthritic as mine, I guess). It’s several pages of blue ink on real stationery that’s crammed full of things I want to know: the health of her husband, the latest project she is working on, what her three sons are doing, and cute anecdotes about her grandkids. I write/type back, remembering how important she was to me and filled with nostalgia for our brief but intense friendship. In our annual letters, we resolve to stay in touch, but we both know that another year will fly by without much communication. Since she moved away from the Chicago area in 1975, we have only seen each other a few times and have spoken by phone and emailed infrequently. And yet, the love we shared has somehow stayed intact.
I used to hate receiving annual Christmas letters from folks who sent them to brag about everything they and their kids had accomplished. Facebook killed those letters. Now people can subtly brag year-round. You know what I mean. The post generally says something like, “What a huge expense taking Caden to Barnes & Noble every week to get a new supply of books. He reads them so quickly (way above grade level!).” In case you skip over these kinds of posts rather than “liking” them, you can see the short version in the “Year in Review” Facebook creates for its users. So, no, I don’t miss this kind of Christmas letter at all. But I start checking the mail in early January, looking for the letter I would miss like crazy if it didn’t arrive by the end of the month. When I see that fat blue envelope with her return address in the corner, my day becomes something special. I read it several times and then rush to my computer to reply. It feels like receiving a love letter, and in a way that’s what it is.
To understand our bond, I have to go back to 1971. We were young new moms staying at home with our infant sons, living a high-rise apartment complex on the old Michael Reese Hospital campus in Chicago. My friend’s husband and mine were medical residents, our incomes were small, and our isolation was considerable. Her mother had died and mine lived out of town. One of her sons was nine months older than mine and she also had a baby. That made her my expert in child rearing. How lucky I was that she was such a calm, sensible mom who could laugh at most anything. Well, maybe not at her younger son pulling a dresser down by climbing up the drawers, but that’s another story.
Every morning at 7:30, my phone rang. Which sandbox should we go to, or did we want to start at the park? Your apartment or mine? By 8:00, we were out and about, snow or rain, frigid or hot weather. I can’t remember what we talked about for all of those hours. Only that we laughed a lot, figured out how to parent our children together, and shared some sadness as well. She was the friend who rescued my one-year-old son when the elevator doors shut before I could take him off, resulting in a ride to the top and back for him and hysteria for me. She was the friend who saved me when my diaper bag became entangled in the escalator we were riding up and down with our little ones to entertain them on a cold winter day. She was the sister I had longed for but never had. Call it karma or fate, but our oldest kids ended up professors in similar fields. They even roomed together for a semester in Cambridge. Was there something about the way we raised them together those first three years?
Well, residencies end and folks move on, ending up all over the country. I stuck close to Chicago. She ended up in Oklahoma. We met for vacations when the kids were small, and then life just happened. Now we are both grandparents. The last time I saw her, we swapped stories about that. As always, we laughed until we cried. Not surprisingly, we were pretty much on the same page.
When I think of her, especially at the beginning of a New Year, I still miss her presence. We were so young when we spent all of that time together. The notion we would be grandparents and turn 70 seemed impossible to imagine. But now here we are, both wondering how so much time had passed since we took our kids on the shuttle bus to downtown Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s), or went on a vacation to Disneyland with four adults and six kids all fitting in a jumbo station wagon with the back seat folded down, or meeting again when our sons shared that apartment, or exchanging wedding and grandkid stories.
Even as the years pile on, there is a thread that will always connect my life to hers. So, I’m going to keep writing my Christmas letters to my dear old friend. They may not be in the mail until after the New Year. That’s OK. She understands.
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.