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He misses his wife on Christmas. Thousands sent cards to cheer him up.

George Dowling, 95, got 12,000 cards this year. He also has received gifts, food and ornaments from people near and far.

“She was Christmas,” George Dowling, 95, says of his late wife, Lucille. “She did everything big; all the cooking and baking.” (Family photo)
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For the past nine years, George Dowling has dreaded December — once his favorite month. Since losing his wife in 2013, Christmas is a trying time.

His late wife, Lucille, lived for the holiday season. She decorated their Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, and adorned their Pawtucket, R.I., home with festive trimmings. Christmas cookies were constantly coming out of the oven.

“She was Christmas,” Dowling, 95, said of his wife, who he was married to for 70 years. “She did everything big; all the cooking and baking.”

She died on Dec. 1, 2013, after battling Alzheimer’s. That year, Dowling and his daughter, Suzan Brito, took down the tree and canceled Christmas.

“My father couldn’t handle it,” said Brito, who lives with Dowling — a World War II Navy veteran — and is his primary caretaker. “He’s only been with one woman in his whole life, and she’s gone. When December 1 hits, my dad gets really sad.”

The following year, as December approached, Brito brainstormed ways to cheer up her father, whose grief was all-consuming.

“Dad loves getting mail,” said Brito, 64. “I thought, maybe some Christmas cards would make him happy.”

She called out to her family and friends on Facebook, asking people to send her father a Christmas card. To her delight, they did.

A disabled woman got a note shaming her yard. Neighbors stepped in to help.

“That first year, he got about 30,” she said. “It carried him through the whole month of December.”

The cards served their purpose, so Brito decided to do it annually. Every year, in late November, she posts a request on Facebook and includes their home address. Family, friends — as well as some strangers — send him heartfelt holiday wishes. In 2018, Dowling received 102 letters.

“He always looks forward to them,” Brito said, adding that he reads every card and letter, and proudly tapes them to the walls around their home.

Last Christmas, the card count plummeted to 14.

“It did not carry him,” said Brito, explaining that last Christmas was particularly hard for her father. “He’s suffering because he misses my mom.”

“This year, I was like, I’m not going to let that happen again,” Brito said. “My dad is my best friend.”

She posted her card request on Facebook earlier than usual, and her daughter — whose social media network is larger than hers — offered to share it, too.

“We have been doing this since my grandmother passed,” Charlene Fletcher, 45, posted on Facebook, asking people to send her grandfather cards. “It helps him get through the holiday.”

“He goes on the porch everyday and checks the mail,” she continued. “Hope you can find it in your heart to send him one.”

From there, the card collecting effort exploded, making its way to TikTok and local news. Dowling received more than 10,000 cards in only eight days.

“I’ve never seen so many cards,” said Dowling, who served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946 and was a baker on the USS Liguria. “It feels real good.”

A bus driver helped a child read. Now he tutors kids for free between routes.

Brito, for her part, was astonished.

“This is the biggest, best thing that could ever happen to him,” she said.

“It’s just going on and on,” Brito continued. “We’re averaging 2,000 cards a day.”

Cards have come in from all over the United States (including Alaska), as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, South America, Australia and Asia. While some are handcrafted by kids, others are written by adults. Some cards showcase cute Christmas drawings, and many express empathy for Dowling’s holiday grief.

“The letters are just amazing,” said Fletcher, who visits her grandfather in the evenings and helps him sort through the cards.

Fletcher has also received messages from strangers, thanking her for bringing her grandfather to their attention. They find his story relatable.

A stranger called. He had photos of her family from the Holocaust era.

“My father’s name was George, he passed 6 years ago and he loved Christmas,” one woman from Alabama wrote her. “It hasn’t been the same until this year when I happened upon your ‘George.’”

“I wanted to say thank you. It has been such a blessing to me and brought back a lot of my Christmas spirit to try and help you with this,” she continued. “You and your George have helped me enjoy this Christmas more than any of the last 6.”

“It’s so heartwarming,” Fletcher said. “Nowadays, people don’t really open up like that, especially to a stranger. They feel connected to him.”

Every day, a mail carrier shows up with several boxes of cards, and Dowling excitedly ventures to the front porch to retrieve them. Reading them “keeps my mind busy,” he said. It also reminds him that “people are good.”

In addition to cards, Dowling — who has four children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren — has also received numerous presents, including candy, cheese platters, stuffed animals, gift cards, pajamas and handmade knitwear. He also got a card and ornament from the White House Historical Association, as well as letters and trinkets from local officials. Pawtucket police put on a drive-by parade outside his home Dec. 9.

“It’s been crazy,” said Dowling, who said he feels like a celebrity lately. In recent days, he has been stopped on the streets, at the supermarket and at restaurants by fans who have seen his story.

“He’s very quiet and shy, but everywhere we go, people say ‘Grandpa George!’” said Brito, a retired nurse who looks after her father full-time. “People ask him for his autograph. People are taking pictures with him.”

“It’s making him so happy,” she said.

So far, Dowling’s favorite card is from a 4-year-old girl named Nina.

“I love you George. You’re my best friend. Merry Christmas,” she wrote, and included a drawing of a colorful Christmas tree.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Dowling, adding that there are too many cards to respond to by hand, but he is sincerely grateful for each one.

While he still misses his wife, he said, the unexpected show of support from people near and far has made this holiday season a happy one.

“I can’t stop smiling for him,” his daughter said.