The Christmas letter

The art of letter writing is often a bemoaned lost skill. We look at history and see the deep value of handwritten, personal letters between leaders and their spouses. They give us insight into these people and their relationships which would not otherwise be chronicled.

It wasn’t that many years ago when people still wrote newsy letters to one another, some of them even love letters. When postage for a letter was just 4 cents or even less, it was a much more economical way to communicate than to spend money on a long distance phone call, even if one were to wait up until 11 p.m. when the phone rates would drop dramatically.

But electronic communication has changed much if not most of that. Emails might have a few years ago been able to contain the same nuances and declarations of love as handwritten letters formerly did, but even then, not likely. Now emails have been replaced by texting (or, in its lowest form, sexting) or maybe a private message on Facebook. Twitter values brevity above a depth of understanding.

A few of our Christmas letters dating back to 1989. There have been more and in different forms, but finding them can be a challenge.

A few of our Christmas letters dating back to 1989. There have been more and in different forms, but finding them can be a challenge.

I used to love writing letters. But as I got busier in my career, my letter writing became pretty much limited to business communications. I still write the occasional thank you note (which reminds me, I’m behind on that). Unfortunately, I haven’t replaced those personal communications with very many phone calls. I think about making those (it’s so cheap!), but priorities have changed for many of us, and we don’t stop to think how much a letter or a phone call would be appreciated. I trudge out to get the mail every day and seldom find anything personal in there except on a birthday or at Christmastime. It’s just a lot of bills and junk mail. And my email inbox doesn’t look much different.

When personal computers were just new, I discovered that I could write a letter and plug in names from my Christmas card list, making each one look personal. After a few years of that, I gave up the charade.

Last night I pulled out a small stack of Christmas letters that Terry and I have sent over the years. The oldest one is from 1989. I suspect there are earlier ones somewhere around here. In them, I found opportunities to reflect on our own history, our relationship, what we have valued, what and who we have lost. Memories came surging back as I began to read the letters ranging from short to way too long. Some of them had printed pictures with them. At some point, I think we determined it was too expensive to print all those different pictures and we sometimes started inserting maybe one photo of the two of us.

Over the years, we’ve talked about whether anyone bothers to read those letters. I know there have been those who have privately and not-so-privately cackled over the pictures we have included of our various feline family members and their comings and goings. They have felt sorry for us because we don’t have children. When we discover those folks, we just don’t send them letters anymore. After all, we’re force-fed photos and stories of their children and grandchildren. We don’t need or want anyone feeling sorry for us. We’re just fine, thank you, blessed with young human friends through our lives.

We do enjoy reading others’ Christmas letters, but those are getting few and far between. The electronic age has seemed to relieve all of us the responsibility of keeping up with one another, spending minutes or even hours thinking about the sender, what that person has meant to our lives, the slings and arrows of the fortunate and not-so-fortunate depending on the year, the health, the general well-being of that God-given life. A simple Christmas card doesn’t conjure up those memories as much as a letter does. And a tweet or a Facebook post does nothing for an aging memory.

It surprised me, however, when I started thumbing through our own Christmas letters last night. What I found was that each of those letters reminded me of events and thoughts and feelings I had set aside in the interests of moving forward with my life and our life together.

I still have some reading to do to catch up, to recall our history and the events that have influenced it. But so far, I am most surprised by a couple of years when we included copies of newspaper clippings with news about ourselves. I do remember we talked about whether building in that kind of information might be considered bragging or self-involved. Perhaps it was seen that way by some although we didn’t mean it to be.

Regardless of what others have thought, I found myself reading those newspaper articles as though I had never seen them before. They were like a morning newspaper freshly thrown on the front porch by a kid on a bicycle riding by and making the toss without even a pause.

I got caught up with the clippings from 1991. Terry had been elected staff chair of the National Conference of State Legislatures that year. Leading up to that we had gone on a study tour to Europe with other legislative staff and state legislators from around the country.

For a couple of years, we including newspaper clippings on the back of our Christmas letters.

For a couple of years, we included newspaper clippings on the back of our Christmas letters.

But it was also in December of 1991 that I had announced my resignation from the position of press secretary for Governor George S. Mickelson of South Dakota. The clippings make passing mention of my mother’s colon and liver cancer and my need to be with her in Missouri. It made me remember that leaving that job was a difficult decision but the right one. Mom would die just six months later. Eight months after that Governor Mickelson and seven of my friends and colleagues would all die in a plane crash.

I haven’t forgotten the tragedy of that plane crash. But what I had completely forgotten were the reflections of the news media on my work as press secretary for five years. I found my eyes filling with tears as I read such kind things about myself. And I laughed through the tears as I thought, “They liked me! They really liked me!”

I hadn’t remembered that part.

We have a tendency, I think, to remember the negatives, the criticisms, the lows rather than the highs of the hard work, the sometimes thankless work we put into our professions. One of the reporters observed he was fearful that I was “too softhearted” to be a governor’s press secretary and he warned me against taking the job. But by the end of my term, he wrote, “She continued to be soft-hearted, and she’s cried all the way home more than one day in the past five years.

“But she managed to be tough too and refused to tell public lies when that’s the tempting way out for a press secretary when the heat is on.

“She symbolized whatever openness there’s been in the Mickelson administration. She’ll be missed, in the governor’s office, in South Dakota news offices and, perhaps more subtly, across the state.”

In the 25 years since, I had forgotten that while I often doubted my abilities in that job, there were people who appreciated my work in spite of myself.

If we hadn’t sent that Christmas letter that year and included those clippings, I might never have remembered the goodness of those folks with whom I worked and the gratitude I felt for most, if not all, of the news media I encountered on a regular basis.

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Perhaps we won’t have to bother with inserting a photo into the Christmas letters this year.

We’re getting ready to put together some kind of Christmas letter again soon for this year. It’s going to remember Terry’s only sibling Grant who died earlier in 2016. It will make note of Terry’s continuing and successful legislative work. We’ll probably say a thing or two about me stepping out of my comfort zone to volunteer with a homeless ministry. There will, no doubt, be a nod to our feline family members. And we’ll probably include a photo of us in a southern clime with half-drunk glasses of wine on the table.

Whether anyone else reads it or not, I know now that it will be another gift to me as we move along in our years together.

And when our memories fail us completely, and we’re sitting in the recliners at “the home,” we’ll have those letters to read every day, and every day we’ll enjoy a new memory.

 

7            Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” – Psalm 25:7


I”16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” – Ephesians 1:16

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3 comments for “The Christmas letter

  1. Nicole
    December 7, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    It’s so true…opening up an old box of letters, documents, or photos is a treat…I’m amazed by how much I’ve already forgotten. I really enjoy your posts about your homeless ministry. Bravo to you. Merry Christmas, Gretchen & Terry!

  2. Susan Norby
    December 7, 2016 at 10:42 pm

    I appreciate every word you write and we’re fortunate to receive messages every WEEK not only at Christmas time. Encouraging words are a gift especially when written so they can be read them over and over again. Nothing nicer. Keep writing!

  3. Susie Thornton
    December 9, 2016 at 6:30 am

    I, too, used to type a Christmas letter summing up our family’s trials and blessings of the past year, beginning in the late 80’s, I believe. Or, to be more accurate, I composed it and then Rick typed it and printed it off with our old tractor-feed printer. So exciting to print them in RED or GREEN ink! (Or so I thought at the time.) As I became more adept with technology, I was the one who did the typing and I learned how to insert photos into the mix.
    However, the unexpected loss of our mom in 2000 and our daughter’s experience with an abusive spouse and his subsequent trial and imprisonment several years ago left me feeling like I had nothing but bad news to share, so I not only stopped creating the annual letters, but also stopped sending even cards out about 5 or 6 years ago.
    Even before reading this post, I had been stirred to resurrect my old habit. As soon as we are back home, I plan to get busy on the 2016 edition. And, I am one who saves not only a copy of my Christmas letter, but of every one I receive each year. They are stored in gallon-sized zip lock bags, each labeled with the year received. I plan to reread those as well!
    Thanks for another great post!

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