This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on December 26, 2020.
There were two things I didn’t give up when I converted to Judaism 35 years ago – making gingerbread houses and sending an annual Christmas letter. I cranked out a letter every year, filled with news of the family and, of course, humble bragging about our many accomplishments.
We are not a Nobel prize-winning family and neither of the kids graduated from Harvard, but I still recounted the highlights of our year and sent it to family and friends near and far.
Late in 2000, we were hit with a double whammy of loss. My father passed away in his sleep early in the morning of September 26, 2000 in his home under hospice care. Shortly thereafter my father-in-law began a rapid decline and passed from this life on November 8.
We cancelled Thanksgiving that year and, breaking with tradition, my Christmas letter was a tribute to both our dads, two men I loved and admired, with no other family news. Many friends told me my letter made them cry.
The following year our son Ben got married to a lovely young woman, Claire. They are the parents of our amazing grandchildren. A few years later, my daughter blessed us with another grandchild. I don’t humble brag about them, I boldly brag about them. Life got better.
And then came 2020 and COVID-19. Under the leadership, or lack thereof, of Donald Trump and his enablers, the danger was downplayed, mitigation measures were ridiculed, and all 50 states were left hanging. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died alone in hospitals, cared for by exhausted doctors and nurses, because of the worst failure of our government to protect its citizens in the history of the country. You don’t need a history degree to make that statement.
All families have been deeply harmed by the pandemic, but none more than the people who lost a loved one. My husband and I are retired and have our own he-and she-caves in our home. But I remember when we had small children and money was tight and wonder how young families are getting by while our so-called leaders bicker back and forth and then congratulate themselves for working so hard while accomplishing nothing.
We worried about our son, an emergency room nurse, caring for COVID patients in a hospital on Long Island. In late May we held our beloved little dog Shadow, as she passed from our lives after 15 years. The vet’s prognosis was bleak and we were forced to make the heart-rending decision people face when their dog has nothing but suffering ahead.
A few months later, we Monrovians were on evacuation alert for ten long days as the mountains behind our home burned. The smoke was so thick we could see it in the house. We packed both cars with our irreplaceable belongings and hoped for the best. The efforts of 1,100 firefighters saved our home and we are abundantly grateful.
I retooled my gingerbread baking and, instead of having a decorating party with friends, I made gingerbread men for Foothills Kitchen to go in the lunch that they provide to Monrovia residents who need one. As I carefully decorated all 92 of them, I thought about skipping the letter. Finally, I sat down and wrote it.
I was surprised and delighted when several people thanked me for writing my cheesy Christmas letter this year. Maintaining traditions is a hopeful thing to do. Still no Nobel, but we are healthy, grateful for our many blessings, and look forward to better a New Year for us all.
Kathleen Vallee Stein