It is a tradition that was born out of procrastination over throwing out Christmas cards. I have a white wicker basket by my favorite chair. It usually holds magazines and/or newspapers. At Christmas time it becomes the receptacle for the Christmas cards delivered through the month of December. Then five or six months later I sit down and re-read the cards. It doesn’t matter if it all came about from procrastination . It’s a tradition if I want it to be.
This is no gimmick to pretend it is Christmas all over again. I don’t play Mannheim Steamroller on my stereo system, nor do I sit back with a glass of rum-laced eggnog, although my reading may be accompanied with a small glass of Madeira from V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, CA. Many of the cards and letters I receive are from friends all across the country. Our sole contact with each other is via Christmas snail mail.
Thus amid a veritable collage of Saints and Santas; Magi and mistletoe; nativity scenes and nutcrackers, I re-read the messages that invariably begin with “It’s hard to believe another year has gone by …” I am reminded of which nieces and nephews had children, or whose children had graduated, gotten married and/or had children of their own; photos often accompany the messages, especially if they are pictures of the grandchildren of my contemporaries.
Then I opened a card featuring an innocuous smiling Santa Claus about to climb down a chimney. The message stopped me as cold as an icy breeze blowing across a tombstone. Under the printed Christmas greeting was a hand written note which read: “Hope this is the year we can finally get together.” It was from a friend I had known for more than fifty years. We began working for the same company in Detroit in 1960. Eventually he moved to Florida and I moved to California. Though it had been 30 years since we saw each other we never became disconnected. Our birthdays were two days apart so we always spoke by phone then, and of course, the Christmas letters. I read the note again. It is his last message to me. He died in April.
The day before I read those Christmas cards I was driving from Los Angeles to Monterey. One of the discs in my CD changer was by Tim McGraw. I bought it when his great “bucket list” song Live Like You Were Dyin was a big hit. There is another cut on it that I had forgotten was on the CD. It is called My Old Friend.
The lyrics played in my head while I read the card: My old friend I apologize/
For the years that have passed since the last time you and I Dusted off those memories.
I thought of not seeing my friend for the reasons stated in the lyrics: “there was always somewhere else I had to be.”
And yet when you’re separated by 3000 miles and you have a job and you’re raising a family, and coping with mounting mortgages and tuition you just can’t drop everything and hop on a plane and go see an old friend. I mean … you can’t. After reading the card I had to admit that I didn’t.
The last verse of the song goes like this: My old friend this song’s for you/
Cause a few simple verses was the least that I could do/ To tell the world that you were here. So that’s what I’m doing. He was outrageous. Once when he asked the boss for a raise the boss told him he was thinking of letting him go. To which my friend said: “In that case can you make the raise retroactive.” He was loud, incorrigible, unpredictable, outspoken, frustrating, hilarious – and loyal. You would have loved him. His name was Frank. Merry Christmas, my old friend. However, and I know you’ll take this in the right way, especially the way things have turned out … I’m hoping this isn’t the year we get together.