While so many have turned their thoughts toward Christmas now, it is quite edifying to see all the mementos of Christmases long past. The one message that stands out to me is that Christmas has become a time to draw closer to family.
We lead such hectic lives now. There seems to be so little time for anything—or, more to the point, anyone. Some say that’s simply the way it is: everyone is busy. Some call it work—paying our dues. Some call it chaos.
For those of us who consider family history an important part of our life’s mission, we are sensitized to any reversal of this trend. We crave times for family—no matter how far-flung—to get together.
Perhaps that’s why this Christmas card caught my eye. Now, mind you, it may be a classic—a Currier and Ives, no less. But this card is definitely showing its age. Worse, someone had gone and scrawled a note across the front of it, instead of waiting until the appropriate space inside was prepared for the message.
The lines of the message run off the page. Whoever wrote this didn’t do it “just right.” If nothing else, this Christmas greeting did not measure up to the Perfect Christmas image.
The card was sent by Ella May Shields Bean, a woman born in Illinois in 1865 who, as a girl, journeyed across the continent with her family to eventually settle on a farm just outside Fresno, California. This was a young woman who somehow had met a man from the San Francisco bay area, married him in 1889, and settled down to what turned out to be a tempestuous marriage and home life. Enduring divorce proceedings—elaborated on in the local newspaper, no less—in an age in which such things were unthinkable, she lived in Redwood City, then Palo Alto, then finally at the home in Alameda, California, called by family “The Beanery.”
I’ve been to The Beanery—the place where I met Ella May’s daughter, Leona, when she, herself had aged and taken her place in the family residence. The place had the vague hint of a circle of life—of generations passing off the scene much as had the preceding ones.
The Christmas card presented much the same ambience. The scene painted on the cover, credited to Currier and Ives, was labeled, plainly, “American Farm Scene.” Other than a gilt lower edge to the card, it was laid out as straightforward as the scene—until you got to the part that was added by the card’s sender.
Under an inked-in notation of the date—1947—an uncooperative fountain pen scratched out the beginnings of a Christmas greeting. In the tentative hand of an elder, the plaintive message read:
Leona, I cannot tell you how Greatful I am for all you have done for me. Love, from Mother.
Despite none but one of the t’s crossed, and the added faults of misspellings and near-illegible handwriting, all the imperfections go unnoticed in the presence of such a heartfelt thankfulness.
The inside greeting, under an artist’s line-drawn conception of the perfect Christmas scene of a cozy living room, went untouched. There was no signature to complete the card in customary manner. The greeting printed below the drawing—Best Wishes for Christmas and the Coming Year—seem somewhat sterile, following the simple note scrawled on the previous page.
The note from “Mother”—Ella May Shields Bean—was the last Christmas greeting she was to send. She never lived to see another Christmas, passing a few weeks shy of Thanksgiving that next year. I have no idea what her current state was at the time of the 1947 Christmas card, but I can tell that there were family ties that held mother and daughter together—not just for Christmas, but through the rest of the year. Undoubtedly, those ties went deep and went way back.
On this eve of a Christmas Eve, I hope you are on the verge of gathering for special times with family. Rather than wish you the Perfect Christmas, though, I wish you the tentative warmth of handwritten-but-heartfelt greetings that run off the page and into your life. May those words take residence in your own heart, draw you nearer to those you hold dear, and enliven your resolve to let no hectic lifestyle stand between you and the people you call family.