When the first Christmas card arrives in the mail each year, I let out a groan. That's because my own cards, purchased in last year's clearance sales, are still stored in the "holiday" closet, a place overflowing with pastel bunnies for Easter and assorted goblin masks for Halloween. Receiving that first greeting card means I'm already behind on sending my own cards for the season.
With electronic correspondence so much easier than hand-written notes, cards in the mail seem to get scarcer every year. Instead of batches of Christmas cards arriving right after Thanksgiving, now there is only a dribble each day, if any arrive at all.
But that's OK, really. Signing cards and writing personal messages sometimes seem more chore than cheer.
I have considered skipping this duty and simply phoning a few friends or e-mailing a holiday greeting to all. But one day there is a special card in the mailbox. I knew it would be there; it has been every year since I was 13 years old. It is a card from my pen pal.
For several decades I have been exchanging letters and cards with a stranger. At least she was a stranger when we began writing to each other as part of a school project. Thousands of miles separate our homes and dozens of calendars have expired since my first letter from Texas arrived at a small junior high school in Wisconsin and was chosen by a young girl looking for diversion and an anonymous buddy.
Throughout high school and college, Helen and I exchanged letters regularly, sharing new experiences as she studied nursing and I became a teacher - typical occupations for our generation. We shared our hopes and dreams, sometimes planning travel to exciting new places.
In those days before e-mail, our friendship grew steadily through written details of new adventures and increasing maturity, despite the different paths our lives followed. I married young; Helen married late. I wrote about my houseful of children; Helen wrote about nieces and nephews. I changed careers several times; Helen persevered in hers.
Because long-distance phone calls then were unthinkable for casual chats among friends (no unlimited weekend calling), we maintained our relationship via the written word.
I used to think that we would certainly meet one day. We exchanged pictures and predicaments as perennial friends do, believing that our lives would cross paths soon, and we would pick up in person what we began on paper. But that hasn't happened.
Although we have never met, Helen and I have been through college together, celebrated marriages and births, lamented over divorce and illness, and commiserated about our jobs. We grew into adulthood via old-fashioned pen and paper correspondence - and our relationship seems destined to remain that way.
We have grown up, branched out, and become complex adults. Yet we remain essentially the same: two people separated by geography and lifestyles who still care about each other's life.
It's an experience in continuity, in grounding, in roots. I've depended on it through numerous address changes and for many holiday seasons, and now I am content for visions to remain as memories.
Our letters are less frequent now than in the early years, the result of busy schedules and, lately, fewer changes in our circumstances. But the sentiments are just as strong. Neither of us would consider letting a Christmas slip past without a card and letter updating our lives.
Helen's annual card reminds me that I matter to someone out there, even if she wouldn't recognize me sitting on her doorstep. Our connection follows my life from adolescence to grandmotherhood. It is the longest friendship I have had.
Lately I find myself sending more cards to friends living in our new hometown than to those in the city where my husband and I spent virtually all our adult lives. After only a few years away, we maintain contact with just a handful of acquaintances. Relatives living in faraway places also grow distant.
But each year when Helen's card arrives in the mail, I remember why I keep a list of names and addresses in a spiral notebook. Staying in touch, even if we saw our friends just last week, is worth the effort. It's even more important to maintain contact with those we seldom see.
So I leaf through my notebook as I sit at the table facing a stack of snow scenes lying open beside my pen. I'm ready to begin the ritual of writing heartfelt greetings. Through the annual exchange of Christmas cards, I touch the past and glimpse the future.
As I open the envelope from my longtime correspondent, I wonder what changes have taken place in the past year. I need to know: Is she healthy and happy? I send sincere wishes for peace and prosperity and realize that I care too much to skip the ritual. My cards will be in the mail tomorrow.