The Christmas Card List

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

- Posted on Feb 9, 2012

Susan Sarver (right) and her sister-in-law Jennifer

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.

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.

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.

Then three families from the neighborhood stepped in: the Goses, the Hoffmans and the Cottrells. They babysat, fixed my car, handed down kids’ clothes and fed me until I got back on my feet. All this time later they all still lived in the same town!

Carol Gose and I saw a Shakespeare play outdoors, Janet Hoffman and I ate at a fabulous Mexican restaurant and I went to a flea market with Kathy Cottrell. It was like the time never passed.

This past June, Matt got married in Portland, Oregon. Of course, I pulled out my Christmas card list. Who did I want to see near Portland? Jann.

Ted and I had lived in Salem for nine years and I’d worked with Jann at an insurance company. We started on the same day, were the same age and both were new to the area. We became fast friends.

I gave her a call. “Why don’t you and Ted stay with me while you’re in Portland?” she suggested before I could. She even hosted a rehearsal dinner for Matt and his wife, Wendy!

As the summer wound down, I caught up on some cleaning. I was uncluttering a closet when I came across a box of old letters. Something in me just couldn’t throw them away. I opened the first one. “Hi, Susan, Jordan said ‘mama’ for the first time today,” it read.

Terri! Gosh, I hadn’t heard from her in six years. Somehow we’d lost contact. There were more letters from her in that box, so I read them in order. Since she and I had been pregnant at the same time, a wave of nostalgia came over me.

I got out my old address book and dialed the last number I had for her. With many people switching to cell phones, I knew my chances were slim.

“This is Terri,” a voice said. I couldn’t believe it.

“It’s Susan. I’ll be in Bloomington soon,” I said. “Would you want to get together for lunch?

“Are you kidding? Absolutely!”

We met up at Applebee’s and had a great visit. I gave her all of the letters. That night she sent me an e-mail. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have a chronicle of Jordan’s first years and of our friendship. To think we were brought back together by your Christmas list!”

Thanks to that list, I’ve been to plays, flea markets, lunches, church and concerts with old friends. We’ve also had good old-fashioned backyard visits with a glass of iced tea. Whenever I’m having a hard day I think about where I will go for my next trip.

It doesn’t always work out—sometimes people are too busy to get together or they live too far away for an easy trip. In those cases, we visit by phone.

Where to next? Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or maybe even Japan. Wherever my Christmas card list takes me. It’s one list I hope continues to grow. Friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts to us and I don’t plan to let it go to waste.

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