Christmas can be a difficult time of year – I don’t think anyone would argue with that, would they? For wives and mothers and home organisers in general, the month (in plural if you are really organised, which I never am) leading up to December 25th can be hectic and stressful, as the Christmas Machine gets into gear and batters us relentlessly, exhorting us to buy this, don’t forget that, oh and this year why don’t you try the other… in our household, the annual task of writing out christmas cards has always fallen to me (when my parents were alive, it was always my father who took it on because his writing was neater and besides, mum was always too busy shopping and cooking) because I am (at least nominally) organised – if it was left to my husband, no-one would get a card at all!
It is a job that I tend to approach with mixed feelings.
Mixed, because on the one hand, when you have children, it’s an opportunity to sing their praises to relatives, old friends and acquaintances you might not have actually seen in person for several years (at my age, usually the last time will have been a funeral – wind back a decade or several and it might have been a wedding, or a christening) – and what parent doesn’t enjoy doing that? The other side of the coin is that, as I open the battered address book (the one my sister and I gave our parents in 1972) and see the crossed out names of people who are no longer with us, it brings sadness. But it also encourages memories – and those memories bring people back to life, at least for a time.
I see an entry for a cousin, and remember a family visit to his home as a child – the ‘laughing policeman’ toy and the whoopee cushion that he drove the adults mad with; his mother, a formidable woman who would brook no nonsense -and who I was a little bit scared of – sent us kids upstairs so that the grownups could talk in peace. She is no longer with us. I remember taking my son aged three (he’s now twenty-one) to see her in hospital not long before she passed away – she was still a big presence, but not quite as formidable as she had seemed to my childhood self, diminished by her illness. Or perhaps it was because I was by then an adult myself.
Then there’s an entry for another cousin, and I remember sitting at the dinner table and listening to my mother, who was very upset, telling me that there had been a train crash, and my cousin’s husband had died. I see another entry for a second cousin (my mother was one of six, my father one of four, so there are rather a lot of cousins) whose father jumped ship and ended up making a life in Australasia. His remarkable daughter is sadly no longer with us, but she spent decades researching my mother’s side of the family tree and sent me stacks of material so that I could add it to my own project. I never met her, but we corresponded for years by letter and email, and spoke on the phone a few times; I occasionally hear from her husband. I remember all this as I write his card.
Here’s my Godmother, who gave me money towards my driving lessons and was always encouraging, interested to know what I was up to. She lived next door to my grandparents and uncles and I still think of her as ‘Aunty Peggy’.
And here is an entry for the parents of a friend I made in my early teens, a penpal from the south coast. We’d take a trip in the car down to see them, or they would come to us, and we girls would chat about the usual things teenage girls would talk about -in our case geeky stuff because, well, we were (are) a bit geeky- while the parents did their thing with tea, cake and conversation. Later on, we’d go to sci-fi conventions together, get married and in my case, have children. Not so many years ago, my friend’s mother passed away two weeks before mine, close to Christmas: I remember a very emotional phone conversation that year. We’re still in touch, at birthdays and xmas.
Taking time out for memories
It takes, as you can imagine, longer than it might do if I were to simply transfer all the living relatives to a new book (one that isn’t falling apart at the seams!) but I find myself treasuring the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane – it’s part of the Christmas ritual, now.
This extends to my husband’s family too – when I’m writing those cards, it’s always nice if he is in the room, then perhaps I’ll tell him which card I’m doing and it will spark off a memory for him. I hope that my son will do the same when I pass the book on… (or perhaps his future partner will do it, bringing their own memories to the mix).
So yes, Christmas can be a difficult time of year – over-commercialised, costly, insanely busy as you try to get everything done in time… but it can also be an opportunity to remember people – not just by raising a glass to them at the table, or in church, or however you normally do so, but when you sit down to write a card to wish distant family members and friends another ‘Happy Christmas’, and remember how and when you first met, and what they mean to you. So here we go, another Christmas and another trip down memory lane…
by Elaine Jackson, December 2014