I'VE BEEN STOPPED cold at moments during these days of frenzy. And what a pleasant little break it is, in the midst of the post office stamp lines, the anguish when the electric train breaks, or the glass Christmas ball plunges, to get a little blessed freedom from tension.
What cuts these days' idiocy is sight of handwriting -- personal penmanship I recognize at a time of the year when you actually get mail that is not addressed by some automated inkjet.
One of these out-of-the-blue moments happened the other night. I had arrived home to find the day's letters neatly stacked on the kitchen table. At this time of the year I engage in a little game. I don't open cards right away. I look at them and try to identify the senders from the handwriting (and it's no fair peeking at return addresses).
My little game of detecting is fun, because I believe that personality and handwriting are beautifully intermixed. I observe handwriting and see the person before me. I visit, enjoy and think about all times we've had together.
But it goes far beyond mental game playing. This is a season of old friends gathering; if not in person, through the mails. It's one of life's most reassuring pleasures to spot the card and link it with a lifetime of memory. I often see the sender, their siblings and parents. And if you can't be sentimental while looking at cards under the lights of the Christmas tree, why bother with December emotion at all?
One card this week placed me squarely in the 2800 block of Calvert Street. The year doesn't matter. Some of the cast of characters are no longer with us. (Obviously some are, or I'd never have received a 2001 card.) In the same batch of greetings was another, from friends interconnected to the Calvert Street people by years, circumstances and happy times.
Now I was really rolling. Old friendships never die.
I can see my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, seated at his big desk on card-writing night. Educated as a civil engineer, he had methodical card lists bound in marbleized notebooks. He also had curving Spencerian handwriting, complicated fountain pens made on Saratoga Street and emerald green ink. His Christmas correspondence was fine art.
Not all of my Christmas handwriting moments arrive through the mailbox. Others are stored away, deep in the cellar, in the cartons and containers where the holiday goods are packed and repacked. For me, this is perhaps the Christmas cemetery. But here there is no funereal black; everything is green and red.
It's here where I unexpectedly find the cardboard boxes so clearly labeled in the distinctive handwriting of the family members who preserved and tended the rituals of the holiday season.
Just yesterday I decided at 6:15 in the morning that the cellar needed to be vacuumed. (As I said, this is my season of frenetic neurosis -- and I love it.) While sifting through the collections of a lifetime I found a 1930s box, so clearly marked in bold handwriting, "Christmas garden toys."
It was the script of none other than Lily Rose, my grandmother, and I can see her now, punctual as ever, ordering a Christmas garden to be taken down and stored away for the year. Ever the household sergeant, she enforced schedules and order. If her orders were not followed, she'd do it herself. The toys would have been scooped up and placed in a box, then labeled, then nested in some deep recess of the cellar, ready again for the next December's showing.