Gratitude, Greeting Cards and the Biography of Our Lives
Two weeks after my father passed away I opened his closet to start sorting through his clothes. The shelf above the closet rod where his clothes hung was crowded with numerous heavy, bulging plastic bags. I pulled one down and looked inside. It was packed full of greeting cards. I pulled another one down. Same thing. I removed all the bags and spread them out on the hide-a-bed and floor of the den of my parents house, and began looking through them.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that although the bags were in Dad’s closets, they were put there by my Mother. It seemed like she had saved every card they had ever received throughout the course of their fifty years together.
Since my fathers death I had been steeped in nostalgia and living in a memory box of my family’s life, so it was perfectly natural that I sat there and read card after card after card.
There were pretty birthday cards and frilly valentines from Dad to Mom, some silly and some very romantic–the sweetest ones dating back to the early years of their marriage. They often included a memorable inscription. When it counted, Dad had a nice way with words.
There were hoards of get-well cards for Dad, with personal notes from close friends and relatives. Reading them reminded me of the long, up and down road he had traveled battling disease. There were get-well wishes for Mom too, dating back to 1977 when she had her stroke. I read the one from her best friend, Hattie Pillo, with tears in my eyes.
There were sympathy cards for Mom: “On the Loss of Your Sister”; and for Dad: “On the Loss of Your Brother”. Some had mass cards tucked inside them with images of Jesus, Mary or one of the saints, and were inscribed with Catholic prayers for the dearly departed: Jean, Helen, Joseph, Pauline, Mary, George.
There were multitudes of cards from my five siblings and I to Mom and Dad. They varied from gaudy to simple, from humorous to seriously sentimental. The progression of our lives became evident in the way the cards were signed over time–from wonky one word scrawls to scripted signatures. The tone and timbre of the inscriptions changed over time as well, from child talk to adolescent reticence to meaningful and coherently adult expressions of love, gratitude and appreciation.
As I read, I traveled back and forth through the years and relived the lives of my father, who was gone, and my mother, who was in the other room. Some of the card’s senders were gone too, but their written words brought them back to me and reminded me of how closely their lives had been intertwined with ours. It was bittersweet, and at times difficult, but I was compelled to continue reading through the pile to the conclusion. I was reading a deeply personal and moving story. The story of a man and his wife and their six children. It was a memoir, a biography, an illustrated work of historical non-fiction. It was instructive and at times auto-biographical.
Initially, I was a little shocked at the sheer numbers of cards my Mother had saved. There were hundreds of cards. Bags and bags of them. But as I sat and read through them, I realized that they were so much more than bags of old greeting cards. They were the stories of our lives and the history of our family. Contained within them were death and life, birth and tragedy, sickness and health, happy occasions and sad. They were the documentation of one family’s good times and bad. They were the edifice of my mother’s infrangible connection to her loved ones and to the life we all lived.
I sat there reading for a long time beside a box of tissues, and when I was done, I packed the cards back into their bags and put them on the shelf again. I closed the closet door and went to see what Mom was up to.
The day would come, after she was gone, when I would sit in my dining room and read through them once more, culling the most important ones from the stacks and stacks and stacks of them and discarding the rest. Sorting through the stories of our lives one more time and saving the choicest, most meaningful moments for myself, I managed to reduce the pile down into just three bags. Then I put those three bags into a bin, on a shelf, along with my own growing collection of postcards, cards and letters, spanning numerous years, from so many loved ones, some gone now, but none forgotten, and I closed the door of my closet, until another day.
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©2017 by Ilona Elliott