The Christmas Card Pail

Slowly, almost reverently, I remove the old cards and begin to reread them.

Shortly after taking down my Christmas tree and decorations, I start on my “First of Year Clean Out”. This event is separate and distinct from my spring cleaning, although a similar form of madness. But instead of attacking all the textiles—laundering curtains and pillows, blankets and throw rugs and quilts—and vacuuming, mopping and dusting little used or seen nooks and crannies and knick-knacks—I attack paperwork. Rustling through the file cabinet, I toss old receipts and outdated files. I shred and sort and reassemble hard copy paperwork. Sifting through computer files, I delete mounds of unnecessary junk. Finally, I remove the big blue, oval carnival glass bowl from my china cabinet; the bowl where I have stored every card and note received during the previous year. Riffling through it, I remove all the birthday, thank you, get well, or various other cards that I’ve stored there. I read through them once more, appreciating and enjoying their messages. Then I return only a select few, the most precious of these, to the bowl before dropping the rest into the waste paper basket—or, in these later years, the paper recycling bin.

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But there is one group of cards which is never to be found in the carnival glass bowl: my Christmas cards. Far fewer these days, as rising postage costs deter sending cards, while quarantines, virus and lockdowns keep people from venturing out to purchase them, these cards, once read and enjoyed, are dropped into a winter white bucket which is decorated with sprigs of holly, pine branches, and tiny ornaments. At the end of Yuletide, when I “take down the Christmas”, I never remove my cards from the pail. Instead, cards and all, the bucket goes into storage with all the other decorations, awaiting another Christmas season.

Months later, on a day soon after Thanksgiving, the card pail again sees the light of day. Extracting it from where it lies nestled in the tub of garland and stockings, I take a break from my decorating and curl into an armchair, the container in my hands. Then, slowly, almost reverently, I remove the old cards and begin to reread them. Each is opened appreciatively as I scan handwritten messages and look at now-year-old enclosed family photos. Sometimes I re-read a letter included with the card, marveling at how much, and how little, has changed in the passing eleven months.

And often, I cry. For there, huddled within the standard, jolly or religious holiday greetings, lurks nostalgia and a touch of old pain: the card, cards, from those who have passed away during the intervening year. I open the pressboard to find and touch the loops and curves of their signatures, once familiar, now never to be seen again.

One year, tears slipping down the curve of my face, I reread the letter, sent by surviving family members, describing the last weeks of a friend’s life. Denied (if he left the area of his medical service network) the dialysis he needed to survive, he went on one last vacation anyway, travelling to Hawaii for a few weeks. There he spent his final days in lush and gorgeous surroundings before returning home to close his eyes and die. I’d read this information in shock and dismay the year prior; this time I read it in renewed sadness, once more saying goodbye to a good and kind man.

In 2021, as I scanned the cards, I found included a host of pet sympathy cards, sent to comfort me for the loss of my best little cat just before the prior Christmas. Bittersweet reminders of my sweet, mink-furred Bella hid there amongst the holiday greetings, drawing yet another sigh and a tear or two from the depths of my heart. I opened, too, the last Christmas card my father would ever send me—a simple card, probably a freebie received from one of the charities he supported. “Dad and Lucy Cat” he had signed it—the very Lucy cat whom I and other family members had spent six months looking after, as he slipped from hospital to care facility to death.

This November, should I be here to do so, I will lift the card pail out from its nest of garland and stockings and, carrying it to the armchair, extract all the condolence cards sent to comfort me for the loss of my father during the 2021 holiday season. I will mourn his passing once more, and then laugh a little, remembering how very much my Dad hated Christmas! I will recall how, bringing a tiny decorated tree to him at his care facility, I was berated and scolded and told to “Get that thing the hell out of here!” I’ll laugh one final time, shaking my head and rolling my eyes, remembering his Scroogism.

And then I will place them all, holiday greetings and expressions of sympathy, into the recycling bin, and, returning to my Christmas decorating, move on.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Taking Down the Christmas”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from January 3, 2018.

Tales of the Office: Earn and Burn

§  We are about to begin another holiday season, where love, compassion and generosity of spirit should reign supreme. Well, just call me Ebeneezer!  §

I am an unsympathetic person, and terribly judgmental.  I’ve heard people tell me, quite without irony, that I am caring and kind and empathetic.  I shake my head in wonder.  They obviously don’t know me even half as well as I know myself!

As a perfect example of my lack of empathy, I recall the ungenerous, hypercritical attitude I held toward certain coworkers during my years working at an office.  These were the people who, the very minute they accumulated their monthly stipend of sick, vacation or personal time, were nowhere to be found, having taken a day off using the leave they’d just accrued.  Several of my coworkers demonstrated this behavior, but one in particular was the unrivalled Queen of what we termed “Earn and Burn”.  Each time she earned a day’s leave she bailed, leaving the work on her desk to be covered by her more responsible coworkers.

Oddly enough, had she been (as some of the Earn and Burners were forced to do) using her earned leave time so quickly for desperate need–her own or loved ones’ chronic illnesses; the needs of small children; other ordinary life crises, such as waiting on dilatory repairmen–well, had that been the case, my minimal amount of available empathy would have been decidedly engaged.  But it was not.  The Queen took each of her days for idle recreation.   Watching her coworkers struggle to deal with the problems caused by her constant absences, I fumed. There was nothing I could do about the situation so long as those in authority allowed her to get by with the behavior.  We all suspected that she must have known where some bodies were buried, for her supervisors, wimps to a man and a woman, turned a blind eye to her behavior. It appeared there were no consequences to her irresponsibility, for the Queen was never disciplined…at least not by the office.

The Universe, though—the Universe apparently had other ideas.

The Queen got sick.  Major, real, big time sick: weeks of hospitalization and further weeks of recovery.  And she had no leave time available to use.  She’d burned through all of it.

Oh, she was eligible for short-term disability leave, and it was granted.  But that essentially meant only that she would have a job waiting, if and when she recovered.  Since she had no leave time, her days off were all unpaid.

Our office, as it always did, pulled together to send get-well cards and a bouquet of flowers; some of the staff visited her at the hospital.  The work on her desk was divvied up among the other employees in her unit so she would not return to an avalanche of paperwork.  A cadre of staff members, perhaps hoping to be heard by those in authority,  complained loudly because our employer did not allow those with excess accumulated leave time to donate it to a coworker in need. 

Unsympathetic jerk that I am, I said not a word.  In point of fact, I had so much accumulated leave time that I could have taken off a good two months without losing a single cent of my salary.  But even if a donation policy had been in place, I wouldn’t have offered up so much as one lousy little hour to mitigate our coworker’s situation.  Her lack of available leave time was no one’s fault but her own, and I wouldn’t have tossed her a rope, let alone bent down to offer a hand helping her out of the hole she’d dug herself into. I am not so evil that I gloated over her troubles, but I certainly didn’t shed a tear over them, either.

Eventually, I was approached by several coworkers who felt we should take up a collection to assist the Queen financially during her time of desperate need.  As the Administrative Assistant for the office, this was my function; would I arrange it?  I smiled through very unsympathetic gritted teeth and agreed.

The staff came through marvelously, anteing up several hundred dollars.  I created a spreadsheet to track the contributions, sent bulletins out to the staff as the total increased, and finally arranged for two employees to deliver the cash in a card signed by everyone.

But my own contribution was decidedly ungenerous, unlike the large amounts happily tossed into the till by my coworkers.

I am, as I said, both lacking in empathy and terribly judgmental. Looking back through the lens of time to that office situation, I believe that, occasionally, that’s okay.  There are times when compassion, empathy and walking a mile in another’s moccasins are genuinely the order of the day.  But there are other times when one just has to put on the Tough Love mask and say, “Hey, you did this to yourself.” 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Tales of the Office: Under the Weather”, which can be found in the Archives from July 15, 2020.