SAN FRANCISCO—It’s Christmastime, and that means nearly 100 relatives and friends of the Shott family are awaiting the arrival my mother’s several-page, handwritten, wisecracking, tree-hugging, unapologetically left-wing Christmas letter.
Most Christmas letters chronicle the mundane: a son’s marriage, funerals, promotions. Mom covers that, but her passion for broader, more controversial spheres can’t be contained.
“Yes, we’re for national health insurance, though not sure how it can be done,” she announced in 1992’s letter, written from Kentucky, where she and my father have lived for 30 years. On teaching in a women’s prison, from the 1991 letter: “In contrast to the activities of some of your S&L managers, it doesn’t take many bad checks for a woman to land in this place.” She went over the top in 1993, somehow linking the new puppy’s “needle-sharp teeth” to her own outrage over reports of sexual harassment in the Navy: The dog would be “sent along with ‘Mrs. Bobbit’ as security delegates to next year’s Tailhook convention.” Ouch!
I’m still smarting from 1999’s installment, the infamous “While You Still Can” year, by many accounts the best of the recent Christmas letters. My parents, Roger and Diane, and I share a love for nature, and when they visit we go hiking. That year, as we walked through the sunlit meadows and dark forests north of San Francisco, they lagged behind, huffing and puffing. I grew impatient. When the conversation turned to their travel plans, I suggested a visit to Hawaii’s spectacular Na Pali coast, “while you still can.”
To my chagrin, a retelling of the incident—abbreviated by my mother to “WYSC”—opened that year’s letter. In fact, the ominous phrase popped up throughout. “Roger insists he wants to learn to horseback ride—WYSC.” Later, “Uncle John decided to take a tandem hang glider ride—WYSC.” Finally, “Have a meaningful holiday season—WYSC.”
Beyond the humor, however, I read a sense of loss in Mom’s Christmas letters that I think resonates with many of our clan, regardless of their political orientation. Loss of youth to age, loss of semi-rural landscapes to bulldozers and pavement, perhaps even the decades-long loss of our country to corrupt leadership.
“As industrial parks and golf courses surround our neighborhood, displaced wildlife invades our barn,” Mom wrote in 1992, before telling the story of trying to drive a trapped raccoon out into the countryside before it gnawed through a cage in the backseat. “Either road we travel to the farm is being stripped of really big maples, ashes and oaks for development,” she wrote last year. “They burn them—not even used for furniture or flooring—makes you cry.”
You can only joke about aging, though. “We all have our anti-inflammatories according to our worth—generic aspirin for Diane; nothing but Bayer for Roger; buffered extra-strength Ascriptin for the dog, and a $48 DMSO-derivative for the horse.”
My father, a retired physician, doesn’t write in the Christmas letter, but he, too, can recognize and relate a good story. A few years ago he wrote in a family album about his father, who died in a drowning accident before I was born. Dad told of the time my grandfather learned of my older brother’s birth and was “ecstatic”—an unusual reaction for the normally reserved professor. A few days later, Dad wrote, my mother received a letter of congratulations from my grandfather in perfect handwriting—shocking because his penmanship was typically unreadable. “After Dad’s death,” my father wrote, “while going through his papers, I found the practice sheets for Diane’s letter. It was then that I felt the enormity of my loss.”
I have yet to receive this year’s Christmas letter, but I hope I spoke no unkind words to my parents in 2003. Mom laughs gently at my contrition and insists my “WYSC” quip didn’t upset her much. Today I know my anger that day was cover for fear—the fear an adult feels when he sees his once-surefooted parents carefully measuring their steps on a rocky trail in Northern California.
As for my own writing, I like to imagine I’ve gallantly cobbled together important skills through years of low-paid internships and grueling copy-desk jobs. In truth, I grew up reading and listening to beginnings and endings, foreshadowing and punch lines. My parents taught me to observe the world, care about it, and communicate that passion to others. For that I’m grateful.
This Christmas, I’ll tell Mom and Dad that. While I still can.
Brian Shott is an editor for Pacific News Service.