Charlotte’s handbag sits open on the counter and there, inside, is a card from my brother. There is a teddy bear embossed onto the front along with the words, ‘To my darling niece’. He chooses cards and words with care. For a few seconds my eyes are fixed on the sign-off at the foot of his message – ‘Lots of love’ – and I’m dizzied by the wonder of that word ‘love’, that someone else might feel that for her; that she is loved. There is an identical card for his other niece, her sister, opened by her while in her uncle’s company some twelve or so hours ago, then deposited into the huge felt stocking, into which she herself could fit, but which instead was crammed with presents and cards and balled-up shards of wrapping paper and which now sat somewhat forlornly on the sofa in the other room, which is where I had left it as soon as it had been heaved into the house.
On the dining table sit more items unpacked hastily from the car, landing them wherever we found space available. There is a card from my mother to her granddaughters inscribed with handwriting that hasn’t changed for thirty or more years. It’s a tight cluster of looping, italic characters, spiked with mistakes of spelling and grammar, curiously sad in the way in which they suggest a regression or forgetfulness of understanding, a punctured ability or desire to communicate clearly. Underneath, a row of half a dozen ‘X’s and then ‘Lots of love’ and then ‘Nanny Diane’ and then a final ‘X’. Unlike my brother, she rarely embellishes the printed message of any card: perhaps it’s an acquiescence to a sentiment manufactured but unfailingly apt. She tops and tails with a few words, written in biro, in that familiar sloping hand and with that line or lattice of kisses. Increasingly, these last few years, the cards we receive from her are chosen by my twin brother, but this one was most definitely chosen by her, standing about twenty inches tall and about twelve inches wide. I find another card, to her son and his wife. I open it and see that it is my wife who receives the first mention – a small detail which gives rise to a fleeting warm, proud pleasure of the same scale: like an approval of the choice I myself made all those years ago.
There is a card from my older brother, too. And there is one still sealed in its envelope with that same brother’s name in turquoise-coloured ink and my own handwriting on the front: one forgotten to be given and which will most likely now never be received. There are quite a few cards exchanged between us which we fail to give or receive when we should. Anniversaries become forgotten, birthdays now tend to be acknowledged by text message or phone call, and Christmases come and go; each of them calling for a card but many of those cards prone to arrive after the occasion has passed if, that is, they arrive at all. And it’s a predictable but not troubling status quo. As with Mum, when it comes to these lightweight cardboard ceremonies, perhaps we are both these days resigned to express a feeling without going to the trouble of writing it down or, in our particular case, sending it.
Onto bookshelves usually so tidy, I fill the few available gaps, finding places for some of these new cards with their wishes for a Christmas that is happy, merry, joyous, but which is already now in the past. And I fear that there is something yet more sad and even quite morbid to be found in a collection of cards such as this. I fear that at their best they might be an echo of a tenderness dressed up as customary caricature and shared between people who are in our lives regularly enough to make the giving and receiving of a card superfluous. At their worst, they are perhaps no more than a makeshift monument to a love or friendship which twenty or thirty words must do their best to bind in place for another year.