December 22, 1991|By LARA MCLAUGHLIN

TONIGHT I SIT POISED OVER A STACK OF CHRISTmas cards, my annual appointment to impart warmth and cheer to friends and family. Each year, I offer the lone opinion that this should be my wife's job, she is the nurturer of the family. But my family assures me that nurturing is not called for in sending Christmas cards. By profession, I am the writer of the family. (Never mind that I'm a sports writer, that my idea of glad tidings is finding the office pool for the Redskins game topped two hundred dollars, that the only emotional words I ever put to paper were when Bob Irsay snuck the Colts out of Baltimore and when Dave Drevecky lost his pitching arm.) To my family, the very fact that I earn a living with words uniquely qualifies me for this daunting job.

"Be witty," my wife, Janice, says on her way through the room with a mug of hot cider and the Sunday paper. She gives me a pat on the back for encouragement.

Occasionally, I try reminding everyone that I am half Jewish (on my mother's side) and that surely this disqualifies me from being official Christmas card signer. I mention this less than once a year because it never gains me any respect when I do.

One year, my then fourteen year old daughter said, "I just think if you're going to use your Jewish heritage to change opinions, you should do it for a worthy cause. Like advancing peace in the Middle East, or freedom for Jewish political prisoners. Not to get out of signing Christmas cards."

"You're right," I told her. "I should stick to achievable goals, not hopeless ones."

L So, here I sit. I tap the desk with my pen. Something witty.

"Why don't you get out the cards we've received this year?" Janice suggests.

Good idea. I'll steal my inspiration from someone else's card. Retrieved from the hall mantel, they are the standard collection from friends, business associates, family . . . but here's one. I stare at the brief message. "Wishing you the happiest of holiday seasons" and below, in wobbly blue ink, "Dearest ones, all my love, Muriel." I lay it down. Dearest ones?

"Janice, who is this card from?"

It could be a different Muriel.

Janice barely glances at the card. She's already seen it. "Your Aunt Muriel, Tom." There is a trace of smile on her lips. Janice thinks my family's entanglements are pure silliness. She pats me again before returning to her paper, a condescending pat which I don't acknowledge.

So, Muriel has written our family.

Muriel is my mother's only sister. Years ago, when I was a young boy, I remember frequent visits from Muriel, always full of laughter and surprise gifts. We would pile into her car (unlike my mother, Muriel could drive) and go for drives in the country or to the shore. Those were the only times I ever saw my mother giddy. "Ruth and Muriel on the road!" she would cry out the window. "Look out for Ruth and Muriel!"

But later, Muriel stopped coming. My mother no longer spent hours giggling on the telephone while dinner bubbled over and burned on the stove. Muriel's name was never mentioned without a shadow descending on the conversation. For almost forty years, not a word passed between the two sisters. I never knew what terrible thing Muriel had done, but I knew, from the silent way families have of communicating important things, it was unforgivable.

But this summer, my mother passed away, and now, through the silent chasm of the years, Muriel speaks. My reaction is anger. Does she think I would be so careless with my mother's memory that a mere Christmas card could wipe away decades of pain? Would I let the carefully stoked fires of the past die out so easily? No, Aunt Muriel. Ruth's son will not forget so quickly.

My daughter of sweet sixteen wanders halfway into the room and pauses as though she is lost. A phone is attached between her ear and shoulder. Being the wonderful detective that I am, I deduce that the party on the other end of the line is a male adolescent. Oblivious to listening ears, she stands in the middle of the room, punctuating her conversation with giggles and rolling eyes. Long and leggy, like a colt, she inspires a secret sort of awe. I am a young man really, still soulfully rooted to days when I pursued such girls myself. Yet here she is, flesh of my flesh, monument to my aging.

She scowls at the pile of perfectly blank Christmas cards and silently wags her head. I'm about to offer a lame excuse when the creature in the phone causes another wave of giggles and sends her shooting off out of the room. I have the feeling of years ago in school, when I waved to a pretty girl only to find that her enthusiastic wave back was for someone behind me.

But I am forty-two now, and back to earth. Aunt Muriel and my daugher aside, there are Christmas cards to sign. Something witty.

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