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To the Letter


by Marrit Ingman

Our hippie neighborhood preschool had a few changes this year at Christmas time: a small tree in the foyer and a Christmas pageant during our usual potluck dinner (we brought the drink boxes, per usual). We’re a Methodist preschool, so I’m actually surprised we’ve abided so long with a secular Santa holiday. “Away in a Manger” was pretty out on a limb for us; in Austin , that’s some Big Jesus.

Because he’s in the four-year-old class, my son helped to re-enact the story of the nativity. He was a shepherd, and because it was not a speaking part, his role was “to run around the sanctuary with the other shepherds.” He also played the triangle during one of the songs. That was the idea, anyhow; I should have probably coached him to keep his hands out of his pants—a habit that persists among my older male relatives, as well.

We also had a bulletin board upon which parents were encouraged to write down their children’s favorite holiday traditions. Our new director seeded the board with some of her own cherished memories: making a king cake, singing Christmas carols. “Open the presents!” declared the children, including mine. (Duh, Mom.) Maeve from Ms. Eliza’s class was reported as saying, “I don’t know. I’m two.” Fair enough.

Personally, I'm a fan of the holiday newsletter. It’s like a year’s worth of blogging in an analog, seasonal format. We receive several annually, including one from the previous owner, who’s been gone for six years and must be terribly distraught by the lack of news about births and deaths, incipient engagements and cousins’ graduations. Or not.

The holiday letters in my family always follow a particular form. Beyond the inexplicable italics and gingerbread trim, there is a distinctive structure to the piece. A flow, if you will.

We begin with the reassurance that the reader and the writer are still in fact alive. Best to use natural imagery: a tree with strong roots, a butterfly whose camouflage protects it from predation, the swallows returning to Capistrano. In other words, we’re tough old broads and bastards, and dammit, we’re alive for one more letter. It’s almost as if we’re daring the letter to kill us. However, lest you frighten the reader, you may wish to close this paragraph with an inspirational quote from some other tough old broad or bastard, such as the dead alcoholic Winston Churchill.

The next paragraph contains a précis of family news. I understand that in some families this section occasions a good deal of gloating about Biffy and Miffy’s inflated accomplishments in the police academy or library school or Academic Decathlon. You could do it that way, sure. But our letter emphasizes the crushing humiliations of the past year, underscoring their cosmic insig- nificance with superfluous quotes. Who was “laid off” this year? (“We are certain she’ll be back on her feet in no time!”) Whose neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying? Anyone got hyperemesis? Acid reflux? Piles? Any excom- munications? Rejected bids for tenure? Any animal companions pass on? Anyone move into a “charming” new apartment after a divorce? Include photos if you have them. And a quote, of course.

(continued at right)

Next come remarks on travel. You traveled, didn’t you? Holiday in Hobart , where you hiked Mount Wellington ? Beachcombing and the Bom Jesus Basilica in Goa ? Ceramics shopping in Nuevo Laredo ? No? You didn’t get farther away than the branch library across town, where there’s an actual VHS copy of The Magic School Bus: Under Construction, did you? I guess you’ll just have to write about that experience and how it changed your life.

Devote a paragraph to your own health. Even if you have had no major health challenges, omit nothing. Your family members should know about the hemorrhoids that ruined your Thanksgiving. They should be aware of your medication schedule and current dosages. That shit’s probably what’s keeping you alive, like the swallows returning to Capistrano. But they should also be aware that Paxil impedes your ability to defecate so they can make their own informed choices. Remember, you love these people, so you must tell them everything.

Now comes the sad part of the letter. You must tally the dead of your clan and note the passage of other personages of significance to your readership. People of 2006 included: Ali Khan Samsudin, the “Snake King of Malaysia ”; Czech zoologist Zdeněk Veselovský; film director Robert Altman; anorexic model Ana Carolina Reston; and “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. Discussing any of these historical figures might compel you to reflect long-windedly upon the dangers of eating disorders and poisonous animals; don’t hold back if so. Christmas—or the seasonal holiday of your preferred faith, including celebrations of atheism—comes but once a year. Just be sure to end with a quote.

Finally you must weave these skeins together into a satisfying conclusion that reinvigorates your readers and fills them with cheer. When other words fail me, I fall back upon a quote by H. L. Mencken: “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.”

Now let’s review. I give you my own holiday letter from this year.

 Dearest Loved Ones, 

And so another Christmas finds us all still alive and celebrating, as steadfast upon the earth as creeping lichen. We give thanks for our health and for each other, as well as for our clean, reliable water supply and climate control. Yet as Anne Bradstreet once wrote, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

We tasted both adversity and prosperity over the past year, and we are privileged to share our trials. Marrit spent four days in a mental hospital this fall, and her mother recently underwent surgery for her third cancer. All that shit sucked, but we’re tough old broads and bastards. 

Of course our biggest joy is our son, now nearly five. Can you believe it? It only feels like five years ago that I was tripping on a morphine drip with my intestines on a table while a nurse vacuumed meconium out of his airway. Now he has a “girlfriend” (“You mean I’m your friend who’s a girl,” she corrects, crushing his fragile ego) and has recently mastered writing the letters W and S. He’s still terrified of dogs and was recently bedeviled by a four-pound Yorkie who wanted to play. I’m not going to lie to you: it was pretty funny even though he was traumatized. But of course one of our greatest presidents, Harry S. Truman, once said, “Children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of the country as Wall Street and the railroads.” 

And speaking of railroads, what would a year be without travels? Marrit began the year with her “book tour” in Richmond and Boston, where very kind people put her up in their houses and gave her beer and pie and rides to the airport. Later in the summer she attended the BlogHer convention as a correspondent for her “newspaper.” She drank a lot on an empty stomach, and now there are pictures on Flickr she doesn’t remember taking. Later still the whole family went to Seattle to visit friends and have tantrums in the local municipal parks. 

An old Japanese proverb says, “The feet are the gateway to 10,000 illnesses,” and we contracted many of them this year. The sebaceous cyst on Jim’s head has recurred, filling again with a cheesy, foul-smelling substance. He’ll have it lanced and removed again after Christmas, so be sure to check your mailbox for the pictures. He says the first one was “like an eyeball swimming in feta.” Meanwhile, Marrit suspects she is entering perimenopause and had her first hot flash this morning during preschool drop-off. As if struggling to finish, her body menstruates oftener now—two or three miracles a month. But as Estelle R. Ramey wrote the year Marrit was born, “Only the female half of humanity was seen to have the magical ability to bleed profusely and still rise phoenix-like each month from the gore.” 

Many did not rise phoenix-like this year, however, and to them we say goodbye. Fortunately some of the newly dead are right bastards, like Ken Lay and General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. As we raise a glass to swallow our lithium carbonate, let us toast a brave new world that does not have such people in it. 

And remember, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” 

Our very best wishes, 
The Ingmans

 About the Author:
Marrit Ingman
is a freelance writer, film critic, occasional educator, and constant mother. She is a frequent contributor to the Austin Chronicle, and her writing on popular culture has also appeared in Brain, Child, Fertile Ground, Alternet.org, Clamor, and Venus. Her first book, Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health out with the Diapers, describes her experience with postpartum depression and was published in 2005 by Seal Press.


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