Letter from Felixstowe: The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 2 AC (After Clive) or, Separated by a Common Language, or Maybe Just a Comma

Tomahtoh Tamaydoh

Living with a Brit changed everything for me about doing an annual Christmas letter.

The process had previously been straightforward, as described in last week’s post. The focus was simply on content: review the year’s events, decide what to include, type a draft in a Word document, tweak it a bit and print out copies. The process took about an hour, maybe two.

It now goes something like this:

Content – the first step

Clive had never done an annual newsletter before he met me. We agreed from the beginning that we wanted to keep our content positive – not over-the-top, falsely cheerful but not full of personal concerns or issues, of which we have as many as everyone else. We’re a blended family so one of our main objectives is to give more or less ‘equal time’ to each of our families. This has never been a cause of disagreement between us but presents a challenge from the standpoint that we’re both sensitive as to what exactly is included.

Format – newsletter designed by Clive

In our first December together, Clive sat down at his computer one evening and rather quickly created a draft newspaper format. I loved the way he laid out text and photos — so much better and more reader-friendly than the plain Word document I’d always done. We received compliments about it and have continued with that format each year. It’s time-consuming as we first discuss where different text and photos should be placed and then Clive has to fiddle with margins and spacing to make everything line up.

Photos – but none of us together

Clive on a Suffolk coastal path (photo taken by me)

Clive on a Suffolk coastal path (photo taken by me)

We came to a rather sad realisation this year after trawling through 12 months of photos. We had hundreds of us with various family members and/or individual shots we’ve taken of each other but not one of just the two of us. Goal for 2015: learn how to take a decent couples selfie.

The real fun begins

Having agreed basic content, format and photos, I now thank George Bernard Shaw for the quotation attributed to him, ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language.’

Language (and spelling)

Because we live in the UK, we agreed we’ll use UK spelling in our letter: colours, centre, organisation. That’s easy enough.

Language and usage cause problems, starting with ‘holiday’ which, in the UK (and Australia) is the equivalent of U.S. ‘vacation’. Clive says ‘Merry Christmas’ while I’m used to ‘Happy Holidays’ encompassing the entire season and everything from Thanksgiving to Hanukkah to Christmas to New Year’s. But a holiday letter is not a vacation letter.

In a sentence about how we hope to see more sights within the UK, Clive insists on ‘further afield’, me on ‘farther afield’. Our debates on topics like this inevitably lead to dictionary research, quoting experts to each other, and occasional heavy sighs.

And what about ‘that’ — to me a clutter word most of the time, to Clive an important clarification word. In the first sentence under ‘Content’ above, ‘Clive and I agreed from the beginning that we wanted to keep our content positive’ I would delete ‘that’ while he would keep it.

Then there’s accuracy vs. reader-friendliness. My son’s in Washington, D.C. Clive reminds me the BBC refers to ‘our correspondent in Washington’ so we can simply say ‘Washington’ too. I have friends in the U.S. state of Washington so we use ‘Washington, DC’.

The U.S. capital - Washington, DC

The U.S. capital – Washington, DC

Commas, the Oxford comma, overuse of commas and so forth

What is there to say about commas other than we disagree on many of them? Clive uses fewer than I do. By the time we get to the final review and umpteenth draft print-out of our letter, we’re almost – but not quite – too weary to debate about commas. We do debate but then compromise in different sections of the letter – a comma inserted here, one deleted there — and declare it done.

Printing – oh dear

We are not done after all!

The A4-size letter may fit beautifully on the printed page, but I email softcopy of our letter, with a personal note, to U.S. family and friends. The first year I did this, many replied, ‘Great letter but it didn’t print out quite right.’

Aargh! Clive’s final task, bless him, is to re-jig the letter to fit U.S. ‘letter’ size paper. This is never a pleasant activity. It requires endless tinkering with margins and text/photo placement, during which time Clive emits a continuous irritated mutter about lack of global standards around paper sizes and the U.S. being the only country we know of that uses ‘letter’ size. He eventually gets the U.S. version all neatly lined up and finally, finally — we are truly finished. In the midst of everything else going on in December, this usually occurs a day or two or three after we began.

And that, my friends, is why meeting Clive caused a seismic shift (and multiple controversies) in my once-simple family Christmas letter process.

It’s still worth it – I love receiving these letters from family and friends and having saved our own letter each year, love having them to look back upon. Like paper or digital photo albums, together they form a kind of family history – births, deaths, the arc of different family members’ lives. If you’ve thought about writing a letter each year, I encourage you to try it. It’s a worthwhile exercise, even if you don’t send it out or you and your spouse aren’t separated by a common language.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

Together on the Felixstowe Prom, December 2014 (photo taken by a friend)

Together on the Felixstowe Prom, December 2014 (photo taken by a friend)

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be on Christmas Day from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 1 BC (Before Clive)

reading a card

I loved reading the treasure trove of family Christmas letters my mother received every December when I was growing up.

Through page after page, penned or typewritten in all manner of style and voice – often accompanied by a separate photograph — I learned about other families and other places far from Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. I watched the children of my mother’s college friends grow up, too, and though I never met most of them in person, I felt like I knew them.

Now that I think of it, my enjoyment of those annual holiday missives seems consistent with my lifelong love of reading first-person essays, memoir, letter and diary collections, and books in letter-format.

There always have been plenty of jokes and spoofs and rolling of the eyes about these letters. Too much ‘little Johnny won another award and our family is perfect’ blather. Too impersonal. Too impolite.

At the other end of the spectrum were cards with no personal greeting or message (and worst of all, those in which the senders couldn’t be bothered to sign so had their own names printed inside). That, my mother taught me, was impolite.

Until my early 30’s, in the now-dark ages when snail mail and phone calls were our primary means of communication,  I sent my Christmas cards with personal greetings and messages to family and friends. Despite long work hours, I enjoyed the process and made time for it, albeit often on the final weekend before Christmas. After I married my first husband, Gary, I continued to do our family card and we started including a photo each year.

desk and cards

Somehow I managed to continue this approach until our son was three years old. Life became busier each year, I noticed I was writing much the same message on each card, and finally I threw up my hands in defeat. I sat down at our primitive word processor and typed my first family Christmas letter. Gary suggested a few changes, we bought pale green printer paper, and lo and behold, a beautiful stack of dot-matrix letters with everything I wanted to say sat neatly on my desk.

Like my mother before me, I still wrote a personal message on each card. But what a momentous and wonderful change it was, to then simply fold the pale green paper into a square, add the photograph, and insert them inside the card, bundling everything together in a tidy little package for the post.

I noticed over the years that many of my contemporaries, especially those with young children, also decided / resorted to annual letters. With rare exception, I loved them. I don’t know if anyone out there agrees with me? I still love them.

Nowadays, many Christmas letters contain multiple photos embedded within the text of the letter. Snail-mailing separate photos is an outdated practice, except for the ones I send my 90 year-old mother. Today’s prevalence of social media makes it easier to keep in touch year-round, but not everyone is on social media.

I always found the process of writing and finalising the annual Christmas letter fairly straightforward. Then I met Clive and began living with a Brit. I had no idea this tradition would undergo a seismic shift with a new and controversial dimension.

Stay tuned for next week: The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 2 AC (After Clive): Separated by a Common Language, or Maybe Just a Comma.

Tomahtoh Tamaydoh

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Jet Lag Jambalaya – Breaking the Rules

Jet lag - a stew of sensations

Jet lag – a stew of sensations

My original ‘Jet Lag Jambalaya’ post contains recommendations on how to handle the effects of long-distance east-west or west-east travel. My suggestions are based on years of personal experience with long-haul travel for various family and work reasons

I’m afraid to say, however, that this week I’ve broken all my own rules. Yesterday, when we arrived home in the UK, I did not try to stay awake. I did not ‘eat when the locals do’ at lunchtime or go out for a walk in natural light.

I stood under a hot shower, soaked my aching muscles, turned on our electric blanket, crawled into bed at 1pm, and slept until 9:30pm. Clive, who stayed awake most of the day, made us cups of tea and then it was time for both of us to sleep. I had one more cup of tea at 3am, watched a few minutes of BBC news and went right back to sleep.

2 AWAKE AT NIGHT

After our activity-filled days in the U.S. we didn’t leave the apartment today. The weather’s grey and drizzly so we haven’t even stepped onto the balcony. We did manage dinner at the usual time, a step on the path back to normality.

Tomorrow we’ll face the real world again. I know I’m blessed to have had a day simply to be a hermit, even if I’m not following my own jet lag advice. Lesson learned: sometimes it’s okay, even essential, to listen to one’s body and go with the flow.

Wherever you may be, I wish you a peaceful night’s sleep.

3 AT LAST

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from the USA: Three Thanksgiving Prayers

with my stepson's beautiful boys

with my stepson’s beautiful boys

I’m so thankful for this great American holiday and for the memorable time we had with my son, his fiancée and her amazing family. Thank you, thank you to my son’s future in-laws for a beautiful Thanksgiving Day.

I’m thankful, too, for the evening we had with my mother at assisted living.

As this day draws to a close, I count my blessings and hope and pray for many things. At the most personal level are these heartfelt wishes for my closest U.S. family:

  1. That my mother continues to be happy and feel loved and well-cared for, and that I will know each step of the way what is best for her and what I need to do to make it happen.
My mother, 90-1/2 years young

My mother, 90-1/2 years young

  1. That my stepson continues to recover from his kidney transplant and feels stronger and better each day.
My stepson and Max the cat

My stepson and Max the cat

  1. That my son and his fiancée have a happy and healthy future as they plan their wedding and life together.
The engaged couple on Thanksgiving Day

The engaged couple on Thanksgiving Day

Before we depart early next week, we’ll enjoy a few more days with my son. We’ll also complete my mother’s annual Christmas letter, for which we turn our hotel room into a mini-production centre complete with printer, shredder (for mistakes), stacks of envelopes & mailing labels and a small pile of U.S. stamps.

Then we’ll head back to our home by the sea in England. Until then, I’ll treasure the moments.

at my mother's 90th birthday party, May 2014

at my mother’s 90th birthday party, May 2014

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from the USA: Giving Thanks

My son & my mother, New Jersey,  November 2013

My son & my mother in New Jersey, November 2013

Thanksgiving Day is still a week away but I’m moved to give extra thanks this week, for the gift of time with our family and friends on the U.S. side of the Atlantic.

Thanksgiving is my favourite U.S. holiday because it’s relatively un-commercial and its focus is simply upon being together with loved ones and sharing a bountiful meal.

We’ll be moving around a lot in the next couple weeks, seeing as many people as we can but as always wishing we had more time and could see more family and friends – our eternal travel challenge.

I’m thankful for so many things, including our family members all over the world. 2014 has been a momentous year with our family events. I’ve written about most of them on this blog. They included Clive’s mother’s death in Australia late last December and his father’s death in England this past August; my mother’s 90th birthday in May; visits from Clive’s daughter in January and September and his son and family in September/October; our visits to my mother, son and stepson and family here in the U.S.; and my son’s engagement earlier this month. My stepson is recovering well from his long-awaited kidney transplant.

Clive & my stepson's boys, Connecticut, February 2014

Clive & my stepson’s boys in Connecticut, February 2014

So this week it feels appropriate to give special thanks for families near and far, for those with us and for those who are no longer physically here but whom we will always remember.

Wishing everyone who celebrates a very happy Thanksgiving.

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from U.S. Thanksgiving Day.

Letter from Felixstowe: An Australia Engagement

My son and his fiancée, newly-engaged in Sydney

My son and his fiancée, newly-engaged in Sydney

Last week, on a headland overlooking one of Sydney’s spectacular Northern beaches, my son and his beautiful girlfriend became engaged.

The story of this couple — their meeting, their romance and their plans for the future — is theirs to tell, not mine. But as the mother of the groom-to-be, I’m thrilled for these two young people I love so much and hope you won’t mind if I share a few of my own special memories leading up to this occasion.

* A moment in 2012, over breakfast with me and Clive in our New Jersey hotel, when my son said, ‘I met a girl at a NATO conference … ‘

* The first time we met her, in the lobby of a London hotel where they’d travelled to spend a few wonderful days with us.

* Times my son told me of their shared activities and travels – different events in Washington D.C., a weekend in Montreal for his birthday, a surprise trip to Las Vegas to see Celine Dion, for hers. Times they met each other’s closest friends and time spent with each other’s families.

* When Clive and I looked at apartments with my son last year and how he wanted both of them to love it. The way they sought and respected each other’s opinions and we knew they were planning a future together.

* When we met her parents and brother and the times we’ve spent together since, and how I’m deeply thankful for how quickly we bonded and for our many shared interests and values.

* When my son told me he wanted to propose in Australia and my heart swelled with a mix of joy and sadness as it does whenever something momentous happens in his life, because his father is no longer here to share it.

in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens

in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens

* When they planned their trip to Australia months in advance and looked forward to it with great anticipation.

* When, by serendipitous coincidence, the day I arrived in Washington D.C. last August was the same day my son made a day trip to New York City, to meet with a ring designer in the diamond district. When he arrived back in Washington and over dinner that night — his fiancee-to-be was on a business trip in Germany – and shared with me a description of the ring he had commissioned.

* When I received the text message from Sydney, in the middle of the night in the UK. When, minutes later on the phone, they told me I was the first person to know and I was overcome with gratitude and felt like the most blessed mother in the world. When once again my heart filled with that mix I’ve learned will always live inside me, of joy and happiness for my son and everlasting sorrow that his father wasn’t there to share it, even as we know he is always with us in spirit.

* When I’ve shared every one of the above moments with Clive, who’s given great love and support to both me and my son for many years (including in the middle of the night last week) and for whom I’m thankful every day. I’m excited we’re heading to the U.S. via London early next week and will see and hug the engaged couple in person very soon.

* When I think of Australia and what an amazing country it is, how I adore Sydney and how many memories I have there. When I realise it will never fail to move me that my son and his fiancée became engaged there, in the magical Harbour city that holds so much happiness for him and our family and now for the two of them together.

Sydney Harbour, Opera House & Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour, Opera House & Harbour Bridge

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from the U.S.

Letter from Felixstowe: Creative Endeavours & U.S. Elections

After Monday's rain – November sunset, Felixstowe

After Monday’s rain – November sunset, Felixstowe


Our dear little doggy friend M is still with us. Thanks to her owners’ faithful care, she’s making some progress with lifesaving medication that’s helping her to keep comfortable and enjoy her days.

Clive’s working on his latest DIY project: building a new kitchen cabinet – yay! I’m working on my Paris memoir – also yay! How wonderful is it, when you can get back into a creative activity you love?

In the midst of our projects, we watched various news reports and election coverage from the U.S. Suffice it to say that at least from a distance, the process – the length, the money spent, the vitriol of the ads, the apparent powerlessness of the President within the ‘balance of power’ construct — does not always portray my country of origin in the best light.

The process is nowhere near perfect in Australia or the UK either, of course, though it seems to me to run much more effectively. Mostly I felt thankful the U.S. elections would be over before we arrive there for Thanksgiving. We leave in about ten days for a couple days in London followed by time in New Jersey and Connecticut.

In the week ahead, we’ll celebrate Clive’s birthday, first with friends the day before and then hoping for a nice day on the actual date, so we can head out somewhere new in Suffolk for a walk and exploration.

We’re past the point of giving each other a lot of things for our birthdays, but now that I think of it. I better wrap the few little pressies I have for him soon!

The week ahead- birthday boy last month with one of his grandsons in Paris

The week ahead- birthday boy with one of his grandsons in Paris

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

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