Right on time ….

Dec 23, 2015

So it arrived, like clockwork, as it always does, the Friday after Thanksgiving, humble and nestled amidst the mailbox-clogging catalogs and circulars who are under the complete misapprehension that the responsibility of heralding the season to come belongs to them.

And the smile broke across my face, as it always does, before I even made it back to the front door.

I sat down at the table, and opened it expectantly (think kid at Christmas), and read Patty’s annual hand-written Christmas card, which for (gosh, I guess) over 20 years now, has served as the Official Harbinger of the Holiday Season (TM) of the Riddell household.

I met Patty through her husband John, whom I met when we were both invited to join a new (at that time) 10-piece group, the Brass Knuckles Band (‘Our Sound Will Knock You Out’ – still wince-worthy after lo these many years … ha.). John was the trumpet player in the group’s four-piece horn section (think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc. We also played a lot of cheesy wedding music, which is why I would prefer you think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc.).

As perhaps THE most inconsequential-at-the-time footnote to the experience, I added each band member’s address to my Christmas card list. It was probably around 1993 or 1994 that I first received a holiday card from Patty, which immediately distinguished itself by (1.) arriving the day after Thanksgiving, (2.) being the only lonely Christmas card among an otherwise unread pile of capitalism, and (3.) her accompanying hand-written note.

And every day after Thanksgiving since, I’ve enjoyed a smiling walk back to the front door.

Over the past 20+ years, the cards have beautifully traced, at the 20,000-foot level afforded by the confining margins of a Christmas card, the noble arc of small-town American family — Patty’s proud update on another year serving as leader in her Weight Watcher’s group, her kids’ high school experience, college decisions, choices of major (music, both of ‘em), graduations, first teaching jobs, marriages, John’s work, retirement, his bout with cancer (which he’s beating), before closing with a band update. ALWAYS a band update.

I quit the band after a few years when we started our family (who I knew would someday need me to teach them about Wilson Pickett, the Temps, etc.), so I always treasured hearing that the band was still going, and John still blowing his horn. I have a soft spot for horn players, as some of you know.

This year’s card was distinguished by all the usual updates: Weight Watcher’s (check), John’s health (check and Amen), the band ….

Patty wrote that the band broke up earlier this year.

Made my heart sink and swell mere beats apart. I’m sure that it was a long time coming, but to learn of it in one sentence as if it was a thing that just suddenly went poof … rocked me. The evaporation of a thing that I felt such a fond connection to … that represented a former lifetime for me. Good, simpler times. Sweet, soul music.

It’s a monumental credit to Rich (the leader and arranger) that he held a sprawling, sweaty 10-piece band together through the noble arc of the small-town American family lives of its members, on the fringes of Pittsburgh for 20+ years — a span in which it only got easier, cheaper and more logical to digitally provide on-demand music to suit any tastes for any event.

In her update Patty made a point to say that John was still playing his horn in the VFW concert band, swing band and a community German band.

Can’t keep a good horn player down.

That wasn’t the only plot twist in Patty’s note. She also let me know that the card I was holding would likely be the last one I’d be receiving from her hand. She went into no great detail, but she didn’t need to.

Part of it might have to do with just the natural simplifying of lives who’ve more than earned the right to be choosy with precious time. Part of it might have to do with the yielding to society’s gravitational pulls … its impolite push-brooming to the curb the inefficient, wasteful notion of sending cards, let alone ones inclusive of thoughtful hand-written notes. Like everyone we receive fewer and fewer cards. Life everyone we send fewer, too.

But I think the ending of the band ultimately signaled the end of the connective card-writing thread that she had so faithfully tended.

I got up this morning, feeling the effects of what’s been another hectic holiday season, worn by work, responsibility, and feeling shamed by all the important things and even more important people I’ve not tended to. And for whatever reason, I found myself thinking of Patty’s card. Found myself reminded of the impact of such a simple, soulful act. Found myself thinking how we’ve just begun to trace the arc of our lives in Christmases the same way her annual cards have done. One kid in high school. The other, at 11, already on the other side of Christmas magic. How’d that happen?

Found myself appreciating the bookending of things.

So today, before work, I scribbled a hand-written note of appreciation to Patty and John … my horrible penmanship testifying to rust from disuse. Slipped it in the mail just under the wire at the end of this season of preparation. Shamefully, it was the first card I took the time to write this year.

I am confident that next year, and for many to come, I will still think fondly of Patty and John the day after Thanksgiving. Am confident that a smile will still break across my face as I walk back towards the front door. Such is the groove 20+years has worn in my heart.

And the takeaway for me is that there remains a power in the simple act of pen to paper to let another know that you are on their mind that cannot be touched by the immediacy of what passes for connectivity today.

Truth, that.

So my note to Patty, though my first this year, will not be my last. A few good souls with whom I’m well overdue will find themselves walking back from the mailbox (probably several) days after the holiday. If I can muster just enough legibility, maybe I’ll coax a smile across their face.

If you are so inclined, I would beg two favors of you as you seek joy and peace in the days ahead.

Raise a glass to 20+ years of encores, and a rotating roster of keepers of the flame who never quit their day jobs and, when the spirit moved, blew from their shoes.

And raise a pen to 20+ years of simple gifts received the day after Thanksgiving. If the spirit moves you, press a little of your heart into paper and let someone know you are on their mind.

I know from personal experience that the reminder would mean an awful lot.

I also know it will be perfectly timed.

Even if it’s not the day after Thanksgiving.


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