The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I love your family. But I dread your joyous holiday letters.


Last year, I had received a holiday card with a big “Trigger Warning!” on the top of the two-page, single-spaced letter. It read: “This lengthy, old-fashioned, holiday letter may trigger feelings of dismay, disorientation, or dread for those accustomed to getting their news via 140 character tweets, Instachats or Snapograms. Please read with care.”

I didn’t need that trigger warning. I enjoy thoughtful prose; I find tweets utilitarian and lacking soul; Snapchats are even worse, their content vanishing without a trace. It was not dread from the holiday letter’s lengthiness that made me push it aside, unread for three weeks, but something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I care about this family and their children, who have grown up with my kids. Their mom and I had playgroups together when our kids were tiny tots; our children have attended the same schools and even share the same unusual combination of three cultures: Norwegian, American and Jewish. We have shared in each other’s family celebrations such as baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversaries and birthdays, as well as many holidays. On many levels our families are tight, and share more than most.

Except that I got divorced.

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This is where the story of two entwined families ends, and where the New Year’s letter becomes problematic for me.

My eyes scan the edges of the cream-colored paper containing the stories of accomplishments and adventures, of love and support, even of the expected hiccups known to families with moody teens and overextended parents. Each paragraph recounts changes and escapades in a family-life well lived, including managing a child’s disability with poise, compassion and inspiration. Reading about how this loving family manages to keep it together, despite life’s ups and downs, I feel sad that I failed to keep mine together.

My eyes start to blur and I quietly sob, taking slow deep breaths so as not to reveal to my three sons sitting at a table nearby that other people’s joy and accomplishments make me sad. Having to explain why I am crying would mean I’d be allowing my sadness at our broken family to turn a moment of special family time — they are home on break — into something gloomy rather than joyful. It would upset them to see me sad. Even after five years, I find that my divorce remains a thorn in the side of the happiness I share with my sons.

“It’s time to let it go,” a friend said to me recently, after she read another essay I wrote that refers to the old house, my old life and my ex. The pragmatist that I am not, she wants me to move on and focus on bigger and better ideas. “It gets old,” I think she said. The problem is, the memories of being an unbroken family unit never get old. They always hover, just barely under the surface of everything I experience subsequently. This new life may be a good one; my ex and I may have parted as friends. But what was once whole and then got broken will always remain as something profoundly defining, profoundly ours.

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After I finish the letter, I put it down on the coffee table, stare into space, open a bottle of wine and drink the whole thing. The next morning, the letter still splayed on the table, I realize it’s not just the image of a happy, still-together family that had unmoored me. It’s also the power of the record-keeping and the memories that such records evoke.

I was never good at keeping records. My checkbook registers have remained empty; file drawers half-filled with arbitrary ideas for creative projects or memorabilia in no particular order; occasional paid bills flung into the bottom drawer of my desk. Before digital cameras, the New Year’s letter mother and I both had been avid photographers who would make family photo albums. However, where I was cutting and pasting, making more of a scrapbook, my friend had been a pro at filing her photos in thick, archival-quality vinyl photo pockets, which I soon realized was the only way photos would make it from envelope to book in our time-pressed lives as parents. She had been effective and pragmatic in her approach; I had been ineffective and dreamy, prone to losing myself on the way.

I hadn’t been capable of filling in the three baby books we were gifted as our three sons, all born within four years, were uttering their first words, taking their first steps and losing their first teeth. All it had needed was a word here and a date there, not too much effort and determination, but I had not gotten to it.

At the end of the day, the recording of family or personal memories — whether with photos, the written word, videos or memorabilia — is a powerful way to share our stories. I’ve been thinking that even the stories that don’t have happy endings deserve to be remembered and told. As Leonard Cohen reminds us: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”    

I know I’m not alone as a divorced parent being reminded, especially at this “joyous” time of year, of all that was and no longer is. But this year I will try to be a little wiser as the now-anticipated feelings sweep over me. I will remind myself to try to simply notice the sadness, to let it in and give it space. It may be clearing me out for some new delight to enter.


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