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The Christmas Card List

She uses her Christmas card list as an inspiration for reviving treasured friendships.

By Susan Sarver, Yates City, Illinois

As appeared in

Six states and 12 cities. That’s how many I’ve visited in the last few years. I’m not a travel agent either. Just someone who was inspired by, of all things, her Christmas card list. Let me explain.

For over 30 years now I’ve been sending letters along with my Christmas cards to family and friends—just little updates on me, my husband Ted and our sons, Matt and Joseph. Some folks are new additions to the list, and others have been there since the beginning.

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Like Jana. She and I met on my first day at Illinois State University and hit it off. We both came from families with six children and loved pop music and going to the movies. After school we promised to keep in touch—and we did, for a while, short visits here and there.

But life got in the way. Still, we never missed sending Christmas cards.

Four years ago I didn’t get a card from Jana. I called her. “Sue, I have terminal cancer,” she told me. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. A month later, Jana was dead. I wish I had visited her more, I thought, heartbroken.

When it came time to put together my Christmas card list later that year an idea hit me: Why not do more than just send people a card? Why not visit them?

First up? My 85-year-old godmother, Betty Jane, in Littleton, Colorado. Betty Jane doesn’t have children and always treated my siblings and me like her own. We write letters all the time. In fact, she still sends me a card with ten dollars for my birthday each year.

But it had been 10 years since we’d seen each other. Ted and I already had a summer trip planned to Rocky Mountain National Park—our first vacation as empty nesters. Why not combine it with a visit to Betty Jane?

“Thank you for coming all this way!” she exclaimed when we arrived, wrapping me in her arms. Seeing Betty Jane brought us both so much joy that I knew I couldn’t stop there.

In December 2009, I took another look at my Christmas list. College friends, church friends, people from other states where we’d lived, former coworkers—so many folks to see! One name jumped off my list: Carol.

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Carol and I met in college, in the same dorm where I met Jana. She was the city mouse and I was the country mouse. She grew up in Chicago and had never been to a farm. I grew up on a farm and had never been to a big city. Oh, how we loved to compare our childhoods!

Our last visit was 27 years earlier, back when she was pregnant with twins. Had that many years gone by? Really?

I logged onto Facebook and searched for her name. Up came her profile! I’d recognize that smile and blonde hair anywhere. “I know it’s been a while,” I wrote. “But do you think I could visit you this summer? I’d love to catch up.”

Three days later, she responded. I nervously opened the message. She probably thinks I’m crazy, I thought. “Sue! Wow! Yes, I’d love to see you!” she wrote.

It was just three hours by Amtrak to Naperville, Illinois. But as I stepped off the train, my worries came back. What if we didn’t have anything in common anymore?

“There you are!” shouted Carol. “I could never forget your laugh.” The years instantly melted away. We promised not to wait another 27 years.

During that trip I took another train ride to visit my brother Pat and his wife, Jennifer, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Let’s go to the Santana concert,” Jennifer said. What fun!

Just before fall, I went to Bloomington, Illinois, where I’d lived when I was married to my first husband. He walked out on me when Matt was just an infant. I didn’t have anyone to help me. We had no food, no money, and I fell behind on my house and car payments. I’d never felt so alone.