It's the time of year when my dad spends long mornings sitting at the kitchen table, elbow jutting out protectively around his left hand, which is twisted into a spiral to scrawl out steep-slanting words across the lines of a yellow legal pad. He will stare seriously out the window where the nuthatches jockey with cardinals and goldfinches for sunflower seed. Later he will shove a couple ripped-out pages toward my mom with a grin on his face. He is done with this year's Christmas letter.
Dad's Christmas letters are legendary among my family. While at times they have included the typical summary of each family member's activities, they have also included many a political rant, book recommendation, lengthy dramatized story, and sarcastic or perhaps sacrilegious diatribe. And despite my mom's often perfectly justified objections, Dad's letters are loved by a fan base consisting primarily of her family members.
The 2004 letter starts like this: "On the morning of Nov. 2, election day, I had diarrhea. I failed to recognize this as foreshadowing." That's no way to start a Christmas letter, argued Mom, who types the letters, since Dad never mastered that skill. It would be easy for her to edit them but Dad stubbornly refuses any changes.
One year politics also bled into Dad's choice of accompanying photo. It was Clinton's first campaign, and our family waited for hours at a rest stop along I-94 for the candidates to roll up in their bus and press the flesh. Clinton whizzed by us, reaching out with both hands. Gore wasn't much better, but his wife Tipper went a little slower and we got to actually introduce ourselves and take a photo while the Secret Service glared. So that, of course became the 1992 Christmas card, despite my face being blurry in the foreground and half of my sister's face cut off.
"Hey, Tipper looks great," Dad said.
In 2005 he had just read a book on the end of oil: "Great news, folks. America is poised to become energy independent in the not-so-distant future. When the last drop of gas from the last foreign oil field is pumped into the last Cadillac Escalade or musclebound Hummer ... then and only then the United States will have accomplished the lofty goal of energy independence. Liberation Day!"
If you're wondering, Dad's literary voice is primarily inspired by Kurt Vonnegut. In the dark days of November and December, Dad's mood tends to reflect the lack of light. Add to that a professed hatred of Christmas and he can become prone to misanthropic statements. The odds of a "reasonable," if not cheery Christmas letter are stacked against Mom.
The letters have been a trial for her. She was never comfortable with the Christmas form letter. It has the propensity to go on and on and tends towards bragging, which goes against her Norwegian sensibilities. In Dad's hands the genre proved uncontrollable. In the 1989 letter he preempted her objections by starting: "To begin this letter, I will paraphrase a short prayer that our minister always murmurs before each of his sermons. 'And now may the words from this pen be acceptable in God's sight.' I hope that with God on my side, Mary will restrain herself in her objections to what follows."
Mom nearly always objected to the length, especially in years when, despite single spacing and printing on the backside, the letter ran to a second page. Aside from debating over inflammatory content or the inappropriateness of telling friends and family whom to vote for, Mom wanted to tighten up a few sentences and smooth out a few transitions. From her help with my own writing, I can say from experience that she is quite a good editor. It requires a certain detachment from your writing though to be able to separate it from ego and see how suggestions you hadn't thought of yourself could improve things. It doesn't help that editing can be painstaking work.
"It's fine the way it is," Dad insisted.
Anticipating the annual fight, Mom began to dread the letter. One year I decided to come to her rescue. Dad hadn't yet found his muse for the year, so I volunteered to write the family's Christmas letter. Looking back at my high school voice it's remarkable to see how I combined the characteristics of sarcasm and idealism. You can guess where I got that from. Part of my explanation for the year's change in authorship was: "Dad is far too busy saving the world to take time out to write the Christmas letter. His crusades for this year include getting evolution taught in the public schools, pushing "Babe" (the one about the talking pig) as the best movie ever made, writing about the Smithsonian's Enola Gay controversy and fighting fascism."
While my letter was well received, Dad's fans, including of all people, Mom's Aunt Helen, wanted him back. One cousin of my mom's says that Dad's are sit-down letters -- a pleasurable read -- unlike the ones you skim and then look at the picture.
Despite his cynicism and black humor, Dad's letters do tend to have a seasonally-appropriate theme of peace. On witnessing the end of the Cold War, he wrote, "In 1962 I set off for school during the Cuban Missile Crisis not knowing if I would ever see my family again ... The developments that are occurring almost daily in Eastern Europe make this season a season of true joy."
The anti-war sentiment continued. In 1991 he started, "It was reported last January that 98 percent of the American public supported our president's actions in the Gulf War. This letter is a report from one family of the 2 percent that did not. Greetings." He goes on to tell of the peace vigils we attended that year, and how he took solace in various books, above all those by the author he had just discovered, Howard Zinn.
Some eight years later Dad wrote of a visitor to his nursery gardens, who Dad deduced was a soldier given the man's upright posture, use of "Sir," and sadly, missing right arm. Dad said to him, "You lost your arm in Iraq!" which was correct. Later in the letter Dad, who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, wrote, "That a culture can continue to brainwash and propagandize its youth into becoming soldiers is a sin. If we could inoculate our children, perhaps just read them 'Johnny Got His Gun' in kindergarten, they might not be so vulnerable to all the B.S. that is necessary to convince a young person of the rightness of killing a fellow human being."
More than anything, Dad's letters are bare-your-soul personal. In fact he takes the motto "Wear your heart on your sleeve" to a bit of an extreme. In one he said of my mom, "In her embrace I embrace God, and that is nothing to snicker about." (That was the year The DaVinci Code came out).
As I contemplated the idea of writing my own family Christmas letter this year I realized the tremendous courage it takes to put yourself out there. Immediately, the editor in my head starts wondering: if I include this will I want my in-laws to read it? Or if I include that, will we still be able to send it to my husband's co-workers? Yet if I leave those details out will anyone care to read it?
While I agree with Mom that it is not always the best policy to share uncensored opinions with everyone in your address book, and find Dad's refusal to edit even simply for verbal smoothness maddening, I appreciate his uncompromising loyalty to telling his Truth.