One of the things you think about when entering a serious relationship with another person is their family. If marriage is in the future of your relationship, then you want to know what sort of people you will eventually call mom and dad, what personalities will enter your lives and how you will all get along. My husband and I met in high school, and while I knew that day that he was my soul mate, it was difficult to imagine at 17 what my relationship would be like with my future in-laws. I remember his sisters thinking I was only after their brother, who was two years my junior, for a prom date. I remember his parents being really laid back about letting him come and go as he pleased, much different from the Fort Knox situation at my house. And I remember stealing cigarettes from his dad, the unfiltered kind, because at the time I thought it rebellious to grab a smoke now and then – even though I never actually inhaled. That was my first impression of my future father in law: someone who smoked unfiltered cigarettes from the Indian Reservation and let his son stay out all night.
Over the years of an on again off again friendship with my betrothed (something he was reluctant to accept as he continued to date other girls), I got to know the family better. I am sure they found my approach rather pathetic, as I would show up on the doorstep each summer trying to hang on to any tiny thread of hope. But eventually he figured out that we were indeed meant to be, and our relationship became an actual, solid entity. We became an official couple the night before leaving for The Netherlands to see his father’s childhood home. A few months later I spent my first Christmas with his family and witnessed their traditions. Which brings me to the core of my story: The Christmas Letter. Every year, each family member received an envelope from dad that contained money and a personal letter recounting the various adventures and accomplishments from the year. I witnessed the tradition during my first Christmas with my future family, and after getting engaged the following year, received my very first letter. It was a rite of passage, a welcome into the family. I can remember feeling special and excited to participate in the tradition. I would officially become a member of the family on the day of our wedding, but the letter acknowledged actual acceptance.
Each year I looked forward to reading the letter from dad. Sometimes they made me cry. Sometimes they made me laugh. They usually talked about life’s changes, which in our early marriage were plentiful, and the challenges of being a Navy wife. I felt like dad really understood my struggles. When my husband was deployed for eight months and I was alone, scared, and 3000 miles away from home, dad would call to check up on me during the lonely evening hours. It was 9:00 on the west coast and midnight back east, and he was the only one still awake. His midnight phone calls kept me from feeling completely isolated and I appreciated them more than I could ever express.
Several years later, when we made our way back to our hometown and I was looking for work, dad hired me to help with his contracting business. He always had some disgusting odd job for me to do, like cleaning out the garage of a man who did not understand the concept of weekly garbage collection, or scrubbing the dingy carpet in a house downtown where someone was murdered a week later. He’d give me a can of Dover White paint and send me into a dark, cramped closet. I grinned knowing that this was his way of teaching me how to paint THE RIGHT WAY, the same way he’d taught my husband, the same way I would paint my own closets in years to come. Then he’d take me out to lunch at some hole-in-the-wall deli and we’d devour sandwiches with paint under our fingernails.
As the family grew, the letters each Christmas seemed to get a little less personal, a little more rushed. But they were still there every year, even when he resorted to a generic opening that he Xeroxed for everyone and then included a quick personalized note at the bottom. This year, I hadn’t given much thought to the letters. Dad was sick and certainly wouldn’t be able to express his feelings for each of us the way he had in the past. When he took a turn for the worse right before Christmas, we doubted he would even make it through the holiday. But he did. He was right there with the family as we opened presents, listening to the sounds of his grandsons chirping excitedly about their new gifts, listening to the family laugh and talk and eat. The next morning he passed away quietly. It was then that I realized he had written his final Christmas letter to the family. He had wanted each of us to know that he was there, watching over our lives and celebrating our joys and struggles. And he will continue to watch over us from Heaven. After we got the news, I went back and re-read all of my letters and realized that one thing is clear. Here was a man who cared deeply about the people in his life. Even if he had a hard time showing it sometimes, it was always there, all the way through his final breath. Dad: you, your compassion, your tiny ways of making people feel special, and your Christmas letters will be deeply missed. God speed.