The collection of Christmas cards and letters that now sits in a basket by the fireplace is about to be tossed. The season is over. The decorations already are stored until next year. The kids are back in school. The new year is over a week old.
And yet, my cousin's Christmas letter has not arrived, so the season can't possibly be over. She and her husband, both attorneys out west, always send a lengthy recap of the preceding year — and I mean lengthy. We're talking four, single-spaced typed pages. A few years ago, they discovered photo scanning, so now it's more like an annual report than a Christmas letter. When it comes, I set it aside to read later with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. It takes a while.
The news from this branch of the family is always very great, detailing the very amazing achievements of my cousin's four very exceptional children. They use a lot of capital letters and extra punctuation to make their successes jump off the page.
Through the years, the letter itself has become a tradition. It's always late, and that fact generally takes the entire first paragraph to explain. The storyteller is my cousin's husband, a trial lawyer with a flair for the dramatic — he's a "theatre guy" who writes these letters like a script. Peppered throughout their update are parenthetical commentaries on their news, written in dialogue. You're supposed to get the feeling he is writing this letter, and she is looking over his shoulder making pithy remarks, which he records as they go. (Actually, if you read it just right, you can almost hear their voices between the parentheses).
In years past, these letters were somewhat… well… overwhelming. But really, they were just the product of successful and accomplished people who wanted to share their good news with family and friends. Could they help it if their good news included sports cars, fantastic vacations, academic excellence, and superlative careers?
Then, a few years ago, the letters changed. Or maybe I did. Or both. In any case, it was clear my cousin and her family had been deeply affected by her son's nearly fatal climbing accident. After that, the tone of the letters became less about what they were doing and more about how they were doing. The banter was still there, but less deliberate.
Then again, after years in the trenches building a family and a full life of my own, I think maybe I finally got these people. On reflection, they always poked fun at themselves. And why not brag on the kids and the careers they worked so hard to build? I recall they also devoted a major portion of every letter to their "Honor Roll" of friends and relatives who visited them during the previous year, and they recounted their attendance at other people's weddings and graduations with enormous enthusiasm. They never failed to mention how grateful they were for their blessings and especially for the gift of faith in God, whose presence in their lives they acknowledged in every Christmas tome.
But this year's edition of my cousin's letter hasn't come. And then, yesterday, I learned that my cousin, a 52-year-old mother of four young adults, a loving wife of 30-plus years, and a brilliant attorney, died suddenly of a stroke. So the season ended after all.
I always tossed their Christmas letters, but I sure hope my cousin's family saved copies of every one. In the months to come, amid grief and mourning, those letters will recapture the memories of their precious years together.