Christmas cards are a waning tradition and, nowadays, those that feature photos of kids also include the whole family, plus the dog, grouped in cable-knit sweaters and tuques, perched on logs around a camp fire. Lovely mementos.
Back when I was little, production of the yearly Christmas card photo of the family progeny – no parents, no pets – was a popular rite of the season. It seemed that every family had four, five, six children. The camera captured the instant when the grins of the children belied the trouble it took to stop them fidgeting and get them marching down the stairs, oldest to youngest, decked out in pjs and nighties. Red, with snowflakes, if the moms were able to manage such harmony.
We oohed over the family’s burgeoning numbers and the growth of each little one. Even when the families lived close by, it was always an eye-opener to see the year’s progress.
One Christmas morning the McKenna family awoke to discover their month-old baby had died in the night. We learned about it the next day. I heard my father whispering the news to my mother, then her shocked gasp. Because I was the oldest, they told me. At eleven, I became aware that tragedy at Christmas time could happen close to home. Somehow, that intrusion had never breached my safe harbour.
I returned time and time again to their Christmas card tacked to the wide swath of ribbon Mom had taped to the hall closet door. Four children, like steps on a ladder, smiled back at me. David, the oldest, one year younger than me. Then came Lisa, Donna, and Cathie. The newborn, baby Andrew, was propped up on the bottom step, supported no doubt by an unseen hand. They had plunked on his wee head a red Santa hat with a big white pompom.
So many questions I had. Mostly, I imagined the chaos that Christmas Day. The shambles of presents, the laughter then tears, the turkey in the oven. What fell by the wayside, lost in the overwhelming tsunami of grief?
I can’t remember if the family sent a photo card the next year. I do remember the one several years after that. By then there were two more little ones in the photo. New brother Benjamin on the step below big sister Cathie, and Amy the youngest on the bottom step. The familiar, open, smiling faces looked back at me with an innocence that broke your heart.
I always studied Christmas card photos after that, searching for…what, I don’t know exactly. Perhaps it was the unseen that tipped the aware observer that all was not ideal, no matter how perfectly staged, how bright the smiles, how matched the outfits. In the year that had passed since the last card, a family would have prospered and thrived, suffered and endured anything that life had selected for them.
At Christmas time, what we want is to see snow falling Christmas Eve, candlelight and carols, cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer. Reality is tamped down. It’s the miracle we yearn for. Maybe that’s why a loose gathering around a campfire embodies a perspective the outdated arrangements couldn’t even conceive. The gaps are harder to discern.
by Elaine Coish