The last year of her life, my American mother-in-law wrote 153 Christmas cards. I don’t know how many she received, but I do know that after my in-laws died ten years ago (they lived with us for 4.5 years at the end of their lives), we continued to receive cards, letters, and even boxes (!) with fruit that were addressed to them for at least two years. Most of their correspondence was conducted by my husband’s mother. (She was also interested in genealogy, and she compiled her family genealogical tree, although I’ve never checked whether I, a relatively recent addition to the family, am included there.)
My father-in-law, an emeritus professor of physiology, who was less sociable than his spouse, also received cards and letters, mostly from his former students, for, sadly, he outlived all of his colleagues. Yet the thing that added significantly to the volume of my in-laws’ mail was requests for donations. They donated to a variety of causes – he Republican Party being one of them (nobody is perfect!). So, during an election after their death, a Republican campaigner called us and gave my husband a speech about how horrible it would be if Nancy Pelosi became the House majority leader. The caller went on and on with his scripted spiel, until my husband shouted into the receiver: “I think Nancy Pelosi would make a great majority leader!” and hung up.
Now, imagine what my in-laws’ correspondence would have been had they lived in the age of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and such? They would have been an Internet powerhouse! As it was, neither one of them ever attempted to use a computer, although my husband’s father marveled at his son’s ability to find things on the Internet for him.
How much of my in-laws’ example robbed off on us? Junk mail aside, we, too, get letters asking for donations: from our local representatives, NPR, PBS, our respective alma maters, and the Santa Fe Opera, which, apparently, cannot forget that we went there once years ago while traveling through New Mexico :). But, we don’t get as much private correspondence as my in-laws did. Well, we get occasional holiday cards — I from a couple of Jewish friends (I have no idea how they keep up with Jewish holidays, since our lunar calendar is so erratic!) and my husband from his former students and relatives, mostly for Christmas. No, wait! Once in a blue moon he gets letters, too! Just yesterday, he received one from his 6th grade teacher (!), filled with reminiscences of the old days and a poem that my husband wrote at the age of 11, which started like this:
“The frogs and toads will wallow
When it’s spring time in Mud Hollow.”
As for sending things out, I’d be hard-pressed to send even 50 cards — for the whole year that is. No, make it 15. Actually, to say the truth, I send very few paper cards (I do make my husband send Christmas cards to whoever sends them to us). I send electronic cards and emails. I don’t do much texting, either. When one of my friends sent me a text message from Rome, I didn’t notice it until two month later, when she was back home and we were planning to go to the movies together :).
How many people do I send my email messages to? I don’t know, maybe 30 at the most. Or I write posts for my blog, where, last time I checked, I have 146 followers.
Is that the same? I don’t know. While it’s true that I consider my blog “followers” to be my “virtual” friends, and I even start wondering what’s going on with them if I don’t get their comments (no pressure there :)), there is — or was — something cozy and intimate about hand-written letters, which, by and large, have become obsolete.
Sad, isn’t it? I, for example, still have all the letters I received from my parents since I left Russia twenty three years ago – written mostly by my mother, with my father writing my often-changing address on the envelopes. (I also saved all the cards I received from my daughter after she left my house.)
As for my mother herself, she saved her letters, too. While sorting her papers after her death earlier this year, I found my letters to my parents, as well as letters from my mother’s relatives and friends. Did I learn anything from them? Yes, I did.
I learned how difficult it was for my parents to leave the country where they spent 65 years of their lives before following their younger daughter to Israel (I was already in America). I learned what life in Russia was like in the 1990s and the 2000s (I left Moscow in 1990). And, most importantly, I learned how much my mother was appreciated and loved – and not just by me and my sister — but by her old friends.
So what? Who needs that knowledge? Even my sister doesn’t seem to worry much about it. Yet did you ever read an old letter and suddenly realize that you’re holding a piece of history in your hands? To me, that’s rewarding in itself, for who are we if we have no past? I know, we have Twitter, Facebook, email, etc., but how can we recreate the feelings and events of the past by going through such ephemeral messages? Or find solace in them when we feel blue?
I’m sorry that I didn’t write more to my mother. Why didn’t I? First of all, overseas phone calls became much cheaper. Secondly, what would I write about? My live grew more or less routine — as they say, “nothing to write home about.” Besides, hearing my voice would cheer my mom more, wouldn’t it? And so, I began calling and I stopped writing letters, and so did everybody I knew.
Well, some people still write Christmas letters. (I haven’t received an email Christmas letter, yet, but I’m sure that’s coming :)) This doesn’t include me, though. I’m not a Christian. Yet we have Jewish friends who write them, too, for who says that this annual tradition must be observed only at Christmas? We can write letters for Hanukkah or New Years, or whatever else strikes our fancy. It’s just a convenient way of updating our friends and family about our lives – at least it was before the invention of Facebook. Now everything goes there, sometimes day by day. What do we need to summarize our year for? And by hand, too!
There is also this: when we grow older, unless we get sick, we come to believe that not much is going on in our lives. We mostly look to children and grandchildren for news, right? This might be true. Yet on the other hand, our lives are only as exciting and significant as we perceive them to be. And if we don’t feel that they are important, who will? Who will remember things and events that made us sad or happy? Who will remind our children about us when we’re gone?
So, let’s keep writing, and not just a couple of lines on our Facebook. Let’s leave something for posterity! In fact, I’ll do it right now. I’ll finish this post and press “Publish.”
Happy holidays, everybody! Enjoy whatever it is you celebrate at this time of the year — Christmas, Kwanza, December Solstice, New Years or anything else that gives you pleasure. Just one thing: do make a record of it :).