It’s the holiday cards. You know, the photo cards that overflow the mailbox right about now. This year I was sure I would be immune. Last year they got me, and the year before, and the year before that, too. But this year I thought I could withstand them.
No, it’s not the quantity of them in the mail – that part is fun. My children clamor to the mail and see how many faces are smiling at them as they tear open the envelopes. And it’s not the bad photos on some of them – though one friend who shall be nameless has the loveliest family yet so often includes the worst, red-eyed photos of her loved ones. It’s not even the guilt aroused by senders with whom I have not been in touch with in, shall we say, many cards.
Here’s what it is. It’s the intact families. All I can see for envelopes far and wide is intact families – two parents and however many kids all smiling and being utterly typical, even if they themselves are interesting, extraordinary, or, at least, proud to not be typical. No, I don’t wish these families to be any other way than whole and happy. But, as my children open and comment – yes, sorry guys, they make fun of you sometimes -- on each card, I bite my lip and try mightily not to cry.
Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing pictures of friends and family, particularly those far away whose children I watch grow through the lens of this annual mail. I love seeing where they’ve traveled, if their children got or lost their braces, began wearing glasses or contacts, lost more teeth, started walking, graduated college – you name the milestone. I love seeing the smiles of my college friend’s daughters I’ve never met, but, who are clearly the spitting image of her. And I love the letters that accompany some of the photo cards, especially those that give interesting tidbits of news.
Why then do my eyes well up with tears? Because my family is no longer intact. Yes, I can affirm that now, two years after a divorce, we are whole and I feel whole. But, still, we are not intact, at least by the standard of, say four years ago, time before separation and divorce. Sure, I as a mother, as a rabbi, as a person living with my eyes open in the world recognize and affirm that there are myriad definitions and formations of family. And I know that there are many losses worse than ours. But that doesn’t mean I can put the intellectual understanding into the emotional reality of my gut and my heart. And that doesn’t mean that I won’t cry when I look at holiday cards that have two parents and children.
For the past few years I have tried ever so hard to mask my feelings in this particular time-bound part of our existence. For those who, like me, believe that children do need to see their parents as feeling beings, don’t worry. My children do see a full range of my emotions – it’s just on this I don’t think they need tears each time they bring in the mail. It’s not difficult to walk out of the room for a moment and force a smile because I really do like seeing so many of these cards – even to the point of hanging them on our magnetic kitchen wall. So I work through the mail for a couple of months. And most of the time I get through it.
And then it happened. Two years ago, I think it was. My children asked if we could do a holiday card. I explained that I might do one but around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, a time I preferred for the definition of our family. And then I got “the question.” Would Daddy be in it? There it was, laid out naked on the table – our new family status. I was driving (of course) and faced with how to answer my children matter-of-factly and not burst into tears. How would I gently explain what my three children already knew but did not want to hear? “No, Daddy will not be in our card if we do one.” How could I name and support their emotions, and not use the word they hated – divorced – just as I wondered whether “Daddy” would be sending out his own card with his newly created family and our three children too.
Shudder. System overload. To be honest, I have no idea how I answered that question. I am happy to say that no one has asked about cards since, though, now time has passed and our lives are such that my children would likely not ask at least the Daddy part again. Hmmm…perhaps that last inquiry was a litmus test of theirs, conscious or unconscious.
They might well, though, ask about a card. If they do, I will say yes. I do think from time to time that maybe I should send out a photo holiday card simply to message to my children and me that we are whole and intact. Not that we need it, but, well, just because. I worry, though, that if I did suggest a card that now I would now be the one to make my children sad. For, even now, my happy, resilient children have their sensitive moments when it comes to family photos without their father.
For the moment, I don’t have a recent good photograph of the four of us so I will hold off suggesting a card, not wanting you all to make fun of us for closed eyes and the like. Meantime, friends and family who have us on your mailing lists, don’t stop sending your cards, please! You might make me cry, but I will get through it. And, maybe next year you’ll tear open an envelope and see our smiling faces.