A Two-Panettone Year

On Christmas Eve afternoon, after dropping off the second half of my Christmas letter mass mailing at the nearby post office, I continued a few blocks to my Walgreens to pick up a couple needed items to get me through the holidays. Just inside the door, a stack of large square boxes, bright yellow with red printing that announced the presence of panettone, a dessert that shows up in American stores around the holidays.  

Grabbing a box as I headed to the checkout counter, I confessed to the young woman waiting to ring up my purchases, “I already bought one of these here last week.” She agreed with me that the year just ending justified my purchasing a second one. She had the good grace not to ask if I’d eaten the entire first one myself.

Grabbing a box as I headed to the checkout counter, I confessed to the young woman waiting to ring up my purchases, “I already bought one of these here last week.”  She agreed with me that the year just ending justified my purchasing a second one. She had the good grace not to ask if I’d eaten the entire first one myself.

The store was, like the post office and the streets outside, sparsely occupied so we were able to continue our discussion of panettone. “It’s Italian, isn’t it?’ she asked. “Yes,” I replied, “and I’m half-Italian. But I don’t remember it being a fixture on my grandparents’ holiday table except only occasionally, perhaps brought to them as a gift. I was sure I wouldn’t like it, so it was not until way into adult years that I learned I’d been missing something. A dessert not too sweet, with a consistency somewhere between cake and bread. “How do you eat it? Do you heat it up?” she asked. “No,” I answered. “I just grab off chunks and eat it with a glass of chilled white wine before dinner.” ( However, in the past I’ve been known to eat chunks of it in the car, without wine, while driving home from the store.)

“Do you like fruit cake?” she asked, alluding I guessed to the glazed fruit pieces in panettone. “Fruit cake? Only sparingly and only if it’s loaded with nuts to make it interesting,” I said.

“I’ve only tasted the one with chocolate , but I guess they didn’t order any this year,” she said. “No,” I told her,  “there’s a separate stack of those down that other aisle,” and I pointed over my shoulder.  “I appreciated they kept them separate so I wouldn’t grab one by mistake. I’m a big chocolate fan but not in panettone. I’ve never tried it, but it seems wrong somehow.  A desecration of both foods.”

“You should write about it,” my new acquaintance said.

“Funny you should say that, I said. “That’s what I do, write.” (Except when I don’t.)

I’ll have to go back and show her this. And ask if she tried the panettone without chocolate chips.

USPS, You’re Losing Me

USPSIn spite of everything, I’ve always been a defender of the United States Postal Service. When a conservative Congress forced them to sock away an inordinately large and unnecessary amount into their pension fund in an effort to drive them into insolvency, I was sympathetic. When they faced opposition in their money-saving proposal to end Saturday delivery, I was supportive. (I have no problem receiving Saturday’s stack of junk mail on Monday.) And when anti-union people rail about generous benefits accruing to postal workers, I remind them “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” the unofficial creed of the Constitution-mandated postal service.

And how has this loyalty been rewarded? Let me tell you.

My husband is fighting a serious illness, something we wrote about in last year’s Christmas letter, so he wanted this year’s letter to go out early to assure friends and relatives that he is not dead. We purchased the paper and envelopes in the summer and wrote the letter immediately after Thanksgiving. In the first week of December, I delivered 171 stamped letters to the post office (yes, it’s a large mailing list). The next day, a dozen or more were delivered to our own mailbox. I stormed down to the post office with the stack in hand, ready to do battle, but the clerk in the nicest possible way told me the mistake was mine: I never should have put my return address on the envelope’s back flap even though there was a specially designated area there for just that sort of thing. “I always tell people not to do that because it confuses the machine,” she said.

She added that I would not have to pay for the postage and then grabbed a marker and drew big black lines across the machine’s printing on the front and back of each envelope before tossing them into a box for re-delivery. I shuddered at the desecration inflicted on an envelope printed with doves of peace and told myself to live with it. The next day, one more letter came back to us. That one I made a new envelope for.

Having never been in the inner recesses of any post office, I have no idea of the procedures once the mail leaves my hands. Are there robots back there, feeding mail into machines? Are some of the workers visually impaired, a good thing for the post office to do just not in that particular job. And what about the delivery person, a nice friendly guy who is frequently replaced by strangers? Did nobody notice something odd about envelopes with stamps on one side and an address on the reverse? I tried to put it all out of my mind.

Until I began to wonder about the others. Were people receiving them or are stacks sitting in some postal facility in Tennessee? I have begun asking people if they’ve received the letter, something I’d rather not do as it puts them on the spot. Perhaps they looked at the envelope and thought, “Oh God, here’s that awful letter she always sends. I’ll read it after the holidays, if at all.” Our New York daughter said, “I don’t know. It could be here in this pile of mail I haven’t had time to look at.” Our Los Angeles daughter said, “No, we didn’t get it and I wondered why.”

So now I’ll spend the entire holiday season waiting for a giant stack of letters to come back to us, maybe in February. Thanks a lot, postal service.

Another Tradition Bites the Dust

“Oh no, you don’t write one of those awful things, do you?” The woman and I were discussing the approaching holiday season and enumerating the various chores each of us faced. I admitted I did indeed send out an annual Christmas letter and had been doing so for years. However, to myself and somewhat petulantly I thought, “I do try hard to make mine not awful.”

But let’s face it: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Christmas letters are on their way out. One more tradition supplanted by the internet. If you’re on Facebook or one of the other social media sites, your friends and family have a continual barrage of news coming at them about wonderful you. An annual recap would just be redundant.

I, on the other hand, don’t participate in those things. It’s all I can do to wade through the email each day, deleting sales pitches from every outfit I ever did the smallest bit of business with – and many I’ve never before heard of – hoping in the process that nothing important gets overlooked and that friends understand when I don’t comment on every item they send my way. Wasn’t the digital age supposed to make life easier?

So I send a Christmas letter. As I explained in a post a year ago, the tradition began because our family was, from the start, far-flung. Five cross-country moves and a proliferation of different jobs have swelled the list of people we hope to stay at least nominally in touch with. This is the way we chose to do it.

The letters, beginning in 1973 and with some unexplained gaps, provide a running commentary on our little nuclear family and the times in which we lived. And, hoarder that I am, I’m loath to throw them away. That is why I’ve started to assemble them here on this website for others to read ̶ or not as they wish. It’s definitely a work in progress with just two letters up so far. There’s the one from 1973, written on a typewriter with a key that broke in mid-composition, and this year’s, which was produced on a computer and printed on glitzy holiday paper. More will follow.

Quick, Read This Before It’s Obsolete

Among traditions hurtling into oblivion – if not already there – like sit-down dinner parties and landline telephones is the once-reliable and occasionally awful Christmas letter. I’ve been writing one since 1973. That year, the “n” key on the typewriter broke midway through the writing, forcing me to hand-letter the offending consonant the rest of the way. It was probably a sign that I should have heeded. Instead, I barreled on year upon year, imagining that friends and relatives really cared for an update on our family’s doings. Some of them became enablers, writing on their own cards “Sure looking forward to your Christmas letter” just as I was thinking “Maybe this is the year to abandon this practice.” So I’d throw something together, include copies with the cards and get them into the mail, often late (“Hey, it’s the holiday season, close enough.”).

Last year’s letter began “Still boycotting Facebook…” which was a continuation on a theme from the previous year when I suggested that once a year was more than enough “self-absorbed bloviating” and the reason why I was not participating in the social media phenomenon. “If you were on Facebook I could send you pictures of my grandchildren (and my dog and my cat).” I tell them I know how to open e-mailed pictures. “But if you were on Facebook I could send you lots of pictures.” Ah yes, and perhaps that’s another reason to be a non-participant. “Edit, people,” I want to say as I go through cards and letters. “Pick the best picture of your grandchild – or dog or cat – or two if you can’t bear to choose.” That way, the pictures will be large enough for my aging eyes to discern the subjects, rather than a montage of teeny-tiny representations.

But I’m a grump, and for all I know my annual letter is received by groans: “Oh God, here’s that horrible thing again. When is she ever going to quit?”

I try to be reasonably concise, although those early letters did go on a bit. Perhaps I have learned a little something along the way, but maybe not. I frequently have the need to continue on the reverse side of the page. But that’s okay because it leaves me room to scrawl a personal note to the recipient if there’s time. Usually these things are done at the last minute with the postal service’s admonishing “last date to assure delivery” looming. Yes, I know. If I were doing it online, I could wait till Christmas Eve. When there’s nothing else to do.

I also try to be relatively cheerful, even though sometimes I have to convey sad news as in someone’s death or serious illness but I try to use a light hand, reminding myself that people will be reading the letter in the midst of what should be a happy time.

On the other hand, the older I get the less likely I am to refrain from a political jab or two. My rationalization is that people residing in their own particular bubbles should know what people in my particular bubble think. Besides, it’s fun to poke at bubbles. Even at Christmas.

Originating as my husband and I did from opposite sides of the country, there was always one set of grandparents or one branch of the family tree especially in need of an annual update. How many ballet classes is one daughter up to? Which musical instrument has the other switched to? Who’s in Brownies? The high school band?  The Nutcracker?” Forty years of Christmas letters provide a running history of our little nuclear family. Mentioned are Ed’s and my activities and those of our children but also every dog and cat that passed through our household.

Leafing through the letters which I’d thought had been faithfully saved, I find gaps.  I’m sure I never skipped sending Christmas cards.  Were the letters lost in one of our five cross-country moves? What happened between 1975 and 1979?  And where is 1981?  Those were years when we were involved with making a big old wreck of a house somewhat habitable.  Did we give up on letters then? In 1982 I switched to smaller paper, probably due to a particularly demanding new job, but then five years later was back to large sheets, an indication of what? A relaxed new lifestyle? Hardly. Most letters begin with a promise of brevity because there’s so little to report and then go on to fill a page and a half.

Now, however, I’ve given in and am adding my contribution to the cyberclutter. Along with everyone else on the planet, I have a blog (on patnieder.com). Look here next year. Happy Holidays!