It was part of the ritual of December. Every year, the large box of Christmas cards, covered in a thin layer of dust, would come down from the shelf in the back room (referred to as the "cold room" even in the summer, when it wasn't) over the garage. On top of the assortment of cards sat, in my mother's neat typewriter print, the list of people who got sent a card last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, an accounting of greetings sent and received in tidy columns.
As an adult, I developed my own December rituals, sending holiday cards (not Christmas cards, because I have enough non-Christian friends I like to include) to people I hardly see, and people I see every day. I used to send hand-written letters, but as the list has grown longer and time has grown shorter, I've gotten lazy in my old age, and now we print photo cards with a single picture of the four of us (not just pictures of my kids, on the theory that my friends might want to see me too--as an aside, I'm always happy to get picture cards from my childless/child-free friends, and wish this was something more people did), on which I scribble a brief cheerful personalized greeting in fat black or silver Sharpie. I excuse this shortcut by telling myself that I'm in touch with most of these people anyway, that the "Christmas letter" isn't necessary because they read my posts on Facebook, or they read my blog, or they see me around town.
Somewhere in the middle of the card-writing frenzy, my college roommate sends an email to everyone in our friend group, an effort to confirm addresses before she sends out her own cards. Inevitably, someone has moved, or someone has something silly or snide to say to someone else. A flurry of reply-all email ensues, a little more longform than Facebook, a little more personalized than the Christmas letter. And we realize that while we're technically all in touch, we're really not in touch at all. The email flurry is almost like having us all in the same room again, even though I know it's short-lived, ending in everyone having what my roommate refers to as "trading cards."
I welcome the "trading card" email. It acknowledges the weird adult phenomenon that is the photo card, agreeing that it's not enough while also supporting our perpetuation of the tradition. And it also reminds us of the people who aren't on the email chain, the people I then Google-stalk. This year, it poked me to get in touch with a college roommate I haven't spoken to in over ten years, who has a new job, a new husband, a son of her own and two more that came with her new relationship.
I used to ask my mother why she'd send cards at all, why she'd bother with a stamp for people around the corner, and why she'd bother with a card for people she only touched based with once a year (it seemed disingenuous to pretend she cared, because that's how it seemed to me: pretending). But now I think I understand, both the deceptive nature of constant communication (which she couldn't have foreseen in the way that's it's become manifest), and the possibility of promise in rekindling the relationships that might have fallen away, even if you only start the fire once a year. My ledger lives in Google Sheets, but maybe the annual accounting--perhaps to myself, to hold on to people, knowing that life is too short--isn't so different, after all.