The Christmas Card From Strangers

Pamela Hill NettletonArticles, EssaysLeave a Comment

This December week, I received precisely one dozen Christmas cards.

They’ve been collecting day by day in the garage, slowly shedding their potential viral load  out there next to the band saw. 

I have a large family, and the holiday letters and annual summaries typically numbered many more times that. But this is the social media age, and one of the treasures of that technology is that I do not see my cousins once a year on a flat Kodak card but weekly in Facebook and Instagram. I watch their children and grandchildren grow in increments rather than suffer the shock that yearly photos from afar can deliver of seeing a child I remember as a toddler suddenly appear six feet tall and ready for college.

This is also the COVID age, in which many of us have surrendered our usual card-sending practices to the clumsiness of shopping and the impossibility of trips to the post office, simplifying our holidays into gatherings with just those people with whom we share our Mini-Wheats. 

This year, each of those twelve cards is a particular pleasure, dispatched by hardier souls than I who could bear to look back on this year, draft a family newsletter, and share shots of trips that need no date—we all know they happened in January or February. 

But one card is a mystery. 

It’s got a Currier & Ives-style image of a horse sleigh in the snow, the kind of card you buy from Walgreens in a box of 25 with matching envelopes. I have not the foggiest notion of who sent it.

It’s signed—with two names I don’t recognize. Two exotic names, one female, one male, and I won’t repeat them here because what if I ought to know these people and then they’ll be on to me and my rude holiday memory loss? I’ll call them Boris & Natasha. Their actual names were like those—memorable. You’d know, wouldn’t you, if you met a Boris? Why couldn’t I remember?

No note in the card, not one hand-written line other than the printed message and their names. No return address, postmarked here in the city, addressed to me. Mysterious.

So, I decided to sleuth. I scrolled through my contacts, searching for “Boris” and “Natasha.” Nyet. But I found three old friends I haven’t heard from lately, and stopped to Zoom one and email two. 

I dug out my battered spiral-bound address book, the one in which my Apple password has been scratched out, covered with painted stripes of Wite-Out, and rewritten over about 18 times. I paged through the As and the Cs. Ah, look! There’s that guy I had such fun with when we worked on that start-up magazine together. I suspended my search, bookmarked the address book, and found the fellow on Linked In. For the rest of the afternoon, we traded stories that made me laugh out loud.

The next day, I picked up the address book again. I am blessed with a friend who can never forget a name , and there was her phone number on a creased page, so I called. No, she didn’t think we knew a Boris or a Natasha. But she reminded me of our friend-in-common who had just had surgery. We looked up a florist and sent over a little gift together. And I made a note on my desk to call the patient in the morning. 

When I got to the “S”s in the address book, I saw the name of a friend with whom I had suffered a falling out. I don’t know what it was about. She did, but never said. What the heck, I thought. I wrote her a little note, stuck a Christmas stamp on it, and mailed off an apology. Do they count if you don’t know what they’re for? One hopes.

In bed that evening, grading papers, I suddenly thought: Could Boris have been a previous student of mine who grew up and married Natasha, thereby attaching his name to one I would not immediately recognize? I scrolled through every course I’ve taught for the last 11 years. Reading those names was a recital of memories that are blessings. If you’ve been only a student and never a teacher, you may not know this, but teachers remember you. Those faces, caught in my mind’s eye in classroom moments of laughter, puzzlement, and cheeky questions. Each semester, every year, all those names. Not one Boris, not one Natasha, but I have taught 1373 students, and I didn’t know that before.

So, Boris and Natasha, strangers to me , thank you for your enigmatic card and the gift you sent with it. The gift of pausing at the end of a tangled, challenging, tormented year to remember that I am not and never was, really, as alone as I feel some of these days. I haven’t opened my door to a visitor since March, but with your card, in came smiling faces, laughing colleagues, curious students, and gratitude. Boris and Natasha, I have no idea who you are. And now I count you as my dear friends.

Pamela Hill Nettleton is a writer and a professor. She teaches communication and media studies at the University of St. Thomas.

Leave a Reply