My wife and I undertake Christmas cards as something of a team effort, dividing them between us. She handles her family, I handle mine, we generally split friends, and I do the ones meant for work.
About 5 a.m. on a recent morning, I was doing my card list when I realized we had quite a personal history sitting in front of me, in the form of lists. We keep them by years, and the lists go back to 1977. Technically, they go back to 1973, our first Christmas as a married couple, because the 1977 list is based on the first list we did – taken from our wedding invitations.
In 1977, we were living in Houston; she was working for the Houston Chronicle and I was a speechwriter at Shell Oil. Earl Campbell of the University of Texas had just won the Heisman Trophy (it was a big deal; this was Texas); Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta in white disco polyester was just opening; Egypt and Israel were holding their first formal peace talks ever – in Cairo.
And we were spending our first Christmas in a new townhouse that we had moved into in July. I even remember the street – Arncliffe Drive in northwest Houston.
In 1977, I wrote the Christmas card list on a ruled steno pad. The names were a combination of colleagues at Shell Oil where I worked; family on both sides; and friends.
A lot of our friends in Houston lived in apartments; we were all 20-somethings and few of us had the wherewithal to buy our own homes.
Seeing the family names on the list is what now gives me pause. Most of them have passed away. My parents. My wonderful aunt who lived in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans (and would survive Hurricane Katrina with my mother). An uncle in Alabama. My mother’s next-door neighbor who was her treasured friend; the lady died this year, two months after my mother. My grandmother and aunts in Shreveport. My aunt and godmother. Aunts and uncles of my wife. A lady I worked with at Shell who had once been manager of the Manhattan Chess Club.
I’m not sure what has happened to all of the names on the list, like my favorite journalism teacher at LSU, and many of my work colleagues at Shell (some, I know, have passed away). Friends from church in Houston. Others slipped into the fog of years only to be rediscovered on Facebook, like a couple we met when we worked at the Beaumont Enterprise.
Each name is a story. I took three journalism courses (two in introductory news reporting and one in the history of journalism) and two independent study courses from that professor at LSU. He was an incredible teacher; he taught us how to work amid chaos and noise and meet deadlines by singing in the classroom or doing calisthenics while we feverishly finished assignments. He gave me a B+ on my first assignment, with a note reading “not bad for a cub.” He also weeded out the less serious students by giving automatic Fs for a misspelled word, a factual error, and errors in grammar and punctuation (we lost 70 percent of our class after the first semester).
A few years later, he left LSU, and we lost touch. He’d be in late 80s now.
I look over those names, and I can remember work events, parties, situations, issues. I look at the names of family and see the people who helped shaped me and my own family in uncountable ways.
The names remind me that the past is still with us, always with us.