LOVE ’EM OR ’HATE ’EM, IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Dear Abby hates them. Geneologists and historians love them. As a self-confessed snoop, I adore them and as long as Aunt Mac Elaine still wants one, I write an annual Christmas newsletter.
My newsletter doesn’t go out en masse, just to a select few. I keep the newsletter short – no more than one page front and back, and that’s including photos.
Most people who don’t care for holiday newsletters admit the reason is the usual Brag Feast that takes place. Sure, I brag on my families’ accomplishments, but this is why it isn’t annoying: the idea is to share stories of what’s been happening in my family over the past year. If I’d seen the recipients throughout the year, they’d probably heard most of the “news” already. I also note the not-so-happy incidents that make us into who we become. The art of storytelling comes into play, too. If I have a story that will make the reader laugh or cry, it’s included. Those events shape us into who we are.
The reason I began the newsletter was due to sheer laziness on my part. I’d been lax in keeping up with friends and relatives during the year. I realized I needed to write a little something extra in each and every holiday card that year “to explain” as much as to catch them up on the latest goings-on with us. That thought seemed daunting, so I devised a very short letter to everyone enclose with the cards. I think the size I ended up printing was like an invitation, probably about 3 x 5 inches. The result was a surprise. The majority loved the newsletter and although I won’t lie and say they begged for more, they did request more. (I got e-mails!) The sad fact is people don’t write letters much any more, but everyone seems to enjoy receiving one, even if it is not completely individualized.
Newsletter? Hey, I could do that, I thought. I’ve always wanted to own a magazine, and this looked like the closest opportunity until I was a rich and famous author. A once-a-year deadline, lots of photos to fill space and it could all be accomplished on my computer for pennies. It’s like compiling a mini-diary without an additional daily chore. What’s not to like?
Keeping records for the “information” was easy. I simply jotted what happens to our family in my desk calendar (see my November 15 article) daily. In early December when I need to begin compiling the newsletter, I simply skim through the calendar to see what was really newsletter-worthy.
It was probably my genealogy-loving aunt, Mac Elaine, who made me change how I constructed the newsletter. She remarked she kept copies of my newsletter in her enormous and ever-growing “Family book” to illustrate how my family was growing and changing over the years. This made me understand how I wrote my family capers was how people would remember the Upton clan. I needed to be more concise – and funny (because we are!). That year I added more photos than ever in hopes to make the presentation more pleasing. Sometimes I add a recipe that went over extremely well at parties. I always list any deaths with a note about how important that person was to our family and why, but I add the births during the year, too, to illustrate Life is continually changing. I comment on historical events of interest like the joy when our troops captured Saddam Hussein in his pathetic hidey-hole.
My husband’s family has two genealogy books written by a relative I never met. He wasn’t much of a writer, but I have to give him his due. He certainly worked at accumulating the research. The dates of births, deaths, marriage licenses, children being born and occupations are detailed. He shares a few stories of still-living relatives, but lacked crucial storytelling skills that would have made the books better reading. Probably the single paragraph that most interested me in either of the books was about a man who’d long ago passed away. According to the author, it seemed his claim to fame seemed to be summed up in one remark from an interview : “He was said to have a wonderful personality.” This line made me very curious. In what way was his personality so spectacular? Was he witty? Jovial? Charming? Perhaps he was simply easy to get along with – we’ll never know. I wanted to know more about him, but evidently there was no more to find. His friends and close relatives were long-buried, too.
How sad to think the only people who remembered him had no real stories to share. It may have been that the author needed to coax them a bit more, but he didn’t. I don’t want to leave my future family members without clues to the mysteries of my immediate family. I’m not vague, but I think a student would read between the lines a bit and seek out nuances in the photos. You can sometimes see whether a person is just friendly or a real charmer by their photos, especially the candid ones. Think of Red Skelton and Clark Gable. I wouldn’t have minded having either in my family tree, but probably both could have been said to “have a wonderful personality.” Wouldn’t it be misfortunate for us not to know the differences?
One of the saddest things I remember reading was a newspaper article of a woman celebrating her 100-year-old birthday. The photograph accompanying was of a thoughtful, wrinkled woman. The caption beneath her picture, quoted her saying, “No one alive remembers me as a girl.”
We can’t all live to be 100. We won’t all be listed in a Who’s Who of important people with our accomplishments, thoughts and hopes neatly compiled. However, we might be mentioned in a family’s Christmas newsletter. What about what happened at the Mason meeting when the board members solemnly stood and introduced their families. In my newsletter, I mentioned the staid-looking man gesturing for his wife and children to stand. Beaming, he introduced his children, then turned to look adoringly at his wife. “And this is my wife, Mary. We’ve been married a very, very, very long twenty-eight years.” My husband was the next board member to speak. You know he didn’t make the same mistake.
Okay, so no matter how witty I think I may be, still not everyone will want to read my Christmas newsletter. My answer? Don’t read it. It can be tossed into the trash along with the envelope very easily. It’s okay. I’ll never know if you don’t tell me.
One year, I wrote in the newsletter’s sidebar, “If newsletters aren’t your cup of tea or maybe you just want to cut back on your card list for next year, simply don’t send us a card as we’ll be sending ours out later than usual and respond only to those who send us one. We’ll still love you!”
The result was no hurt feelings and probably saved postage and card expense for some of us who’d grown apart anyway. In truth, I didn’t lose many from my list that year. In fact, we received one New Year’s card from an adorable, but perpetually-late couple containing a note: “Count this as our Christmas card for next year – we don’t want to miss your newsletter just because we’re slow sending out our own cards!”
At least I won’t be leaving future generations to wonder who we were or what we thought. I like leaving stories about my family behind like a footprint. We were here!
My hope is to receive many newsletters from my friends with their own holiday cards this season. Even if I have to share it with their other friends, too, it’s like finding an extra gift hidden under the tree.