I love your fam­ily, but I dread your joy­ous hol­i­day let­ters

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post By Nina B. Licht­en­stein

Last year, I had re­ceived a hol­i­day card with a big “Trig­ger Warn­ing!” on the top of the two-page, sin­gle-spaced let­ter. It read: “This lengthy, old-fash­ioned, hol­i­day let­ter may trig­ger feel­ings of dis­may, dis­ori­en­ta­tion, or dread for those ac­cus­tomed to get­ting their news via 140 char­ac­ter tweets, In­stachats or Sna­pograms. Please read with care.”

I didn’t need that trig­ger warn­ing. I en­joy thought­ful prose; I find tweets util­i­tar­ian and lack­ing soul; Snapchats are even worse, their con­tent van­ish­ing with­out a trace. It was not dread from the hol­i­day let­ter’s length­i­ness that made me push it aside, un­read for three weeks, but some­thing else I couldn’t quite put my fin­ger on.

I care about this fam­ily and their chil­dren, who have grown up with my kids. Their mom and I had play­groups to­gether when our kids were tiny tots; our chil­dren have at­tended the same schools and even share the same un­usual com­bi­na­tion of three cul­tures: Nor­we­gian, Amer­i­can and Jewish. We have shared in each other’s fam­ily cel­e­bra­tions such as baby

nam­ings, bar and bat mitz­vahs, anniversaries and birth­days, as well as many hol­i­days. On many lev­els our families are tight, and share more than most.

Ex­cept that I got di­vorced.

This is where the story of two en­twined families ends, and where the New Year’s let­ter be­comes prob­lem­atic for me.

My eyes scan the edges of the cream-col­ored pa­per con­tain­ing the sto­ries of ac­com­plish­ments and ad­ven­tures, of love and sup­port, even of the ex­pected hic­cups known to families with moody teens and overex­tended par­ents. Each para­graph re­counts changes and es­capades in a fam­ily-life well lived, in­clud­ing man­ag­ing a child’s dis­abil­ity with poise, com­pas­sion and in­spi­ra­tion. Read­ing about how this lov­ing fam­ily man­ages to keep it to­gether, de­spite life’s ups and downs, I feel sad that I failed to keep mine to­gether.

My eyes start to blur and I qui­etly sob, tak­ing slow deep breaths so as not to re­veal to my three sons sit­ting at a ta­ble nearby that other peo­ple’s joy and ac­com­plish­ments make me sad. Hav­ing to ex­plain why I am cry­ing would mean I’d be al­low­ing my sad­ness at our bro­ken fam­ily to turn a mo­ment of spe­cial fam­ily time — they are home on break — into some­thing gloomy rather than joy­ful. It would up­set them to see me sad. Even after five years, I find that my di­vorce re­mains a thorn in the side of the hap­pi­ness I share with my sons.

“It’s time to let it go,” a friend said to me re­cently, after she read an­other es­say I wrote that refers to the old house, my old life and my ex. The prag­ma­tist that I am not, she wants me to move on and fo­cus on big­ger and bet­ter ideas. “It gets old,” I think she said. The prob­lem is, the memories of be­ing an un­bro­ken fam­ily unit never get old. They al­ways hover, just barely un­der the sur­face of ev­ery­thing I ex­pe­ri­ence sub­se­quently. This new life may be a good one; my ex and I may have parted as friends. But what was once whole and then got bro­ken will al­ways re­main as some­thing pro­foundly defin­ing, pro­foundly ours.

After I fin­ish the let­ter, I put it down on the cof- fee ta­ble, stare into space, open a bot­tle of wine and drink the whole thing. The next morn­ing, the let­ter still splayed on the ta­ble, I re­al­ize it’s not just the im­age of a happy, still-to­gether fam­ily that had un­moored me. It’s also the power of the record-keep­ing and the memories that such records evoke.

I was never good at keep­ing records. My check­book reg­is­ters have re­mained empty; file draw­ers half-filled with ar­bi­trary ideas for cre­ative projects or mem­o­ra­bilia in no par­tic­u­lar or­der; oc­ca­sional paid bills flung into the bot­tom drawer of my desk. Be­fore dig­i­tal cam­eras, the New Year’s let­ter mother and I both had been avid pho­tog­ra­phers who would make fam­ily photo al­bums. How­ever, where I was cut­ting and past­ing, mak­ing more of a scrap­book, my friend had been a pro at fil­ing her pho­tos in thick, archival-qual­ity vinyl photo pock­ets, which I soon re­al­ized was the only way pho­tos would make it from en­ve­lope to book in our time-pressed lives as par­ents. She had been ef­fec­tive and prag­matic in her ap­proach; I had been in­ef­fec­tive and dreamy, prone to los­ing my­self on the way.

I hadn’t been ca­pa­ble of fill­ing in the three baby books we were gifted as our three sons, all born within four years, were ut­ter­ing their first words, tak­ing their first steps and los­ing their first teeth. All it had needed was a word here and a date there, not too much ef­fort and de­ter­mi­na­tion, but I had not got­ten to it.

At the end of the day, the record­ing of fam­ily or per­sonal memories — whether with pho­tos, the writ­ten word, videos or mem­o­ra­bilia — is a pow­er­ful way to share our sto­ries. I’ve been think­ing that even the sto­ries that don’t have happy end­ings de­serve to be re­mem­bered and told. As Leonard Co­hen re­minds us: “There is a crack in ev­ery­thing. That’s how the light gets in.”

I know I’m not alone as a di­vorced par­ent be­ing re­minded, es­pe­cially at this “joy­ous” time of year, of all that was and no longer is. But this year I will try to be a lit­tle wiser as the now-an­tic­i­pated feel­ings sweep over me. I will re­mind my­self to try to sim­ply no­tice the sad­ness, to let it in and give it space. It may be clear­ing me out for some new de­light to en­ter.

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