Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Once Upon a Christmas

One summer, almost twenty years ago, a co-worker and I were sent to work in our library’s storage facility -- a former auto parts factory located in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. It was an odd neighborhood. One block to the south was a fancy restaurant that served six-dollar desserts. A block to the west -- just beyond a vacant lot filled with broken bottles and oversized rats -- was a low-end grocery store that sold individual cigarettes for a dime; many of their customers could not afford to buy an entire pack. The former factory was a nice place to spend the summer; with almost no windows and the overhead lights dimmed to save electricity, it was a cool, quiet oasis in the middle of a hot and noisy city. Our job was to catalog thousands of books that had just been donated by a local child development institute.

Unfortunately, these books were beyond boring.

Most were published in the twenties, thirties and forties. Most had the word “pedagogy” in the title. Most were stuffy studies of a creature known as “the child,” as in THE CHILD : HIS NATURE AND HIS NEEDS by M.V. Shea, THE CHILD’S APPROACH TO RELIGION by H.W. Fox, or (my favorite) CHILDREN, FROM SEED TO SAPLINGS by Martha May Reynolds.

I was beginning to doubt my belief that every old book contains something of interest.

Then, one August afternoon, I opened a book to catalog and this Christmas card fell out:

It’s not unusual to find things stuck between the pages of old donated books: dry cleaner receipts, letters, recipes -- sometimes even pressed flowers. But for some reason I was really struck by this quaint, old-fashioned picture. I didn’t know that people sent out photographic greeting cards way back in 1930. I was curious about who this family was and wished I could find out more about them. Unfortunately, the name “Anderson” is very common, so there was really no way to track them down. At first I thought the Andersons might live here in the Detroit area, that perhaps the father worked for the institute that donated the books. But then I realized it was far more likely that the person who received the card worked for the local institute -- and that the Seven Andersons could have sent their Christmas greeting from anywhere in the country.

Later I showed the photograph to my parents -- contemporaries of the Anderson kids. They were the ones who pointed out that the Seven Andersons “must have had money” since few families could have afforded Christmas cards like this during the Depression. (My own parents grew up in poor families that couldn’t have even afforded the postage stamps to mail such cards.) Together we puzzled over the individuals on the card. We decided the father was probably a doctor or some other type of professional. The mother probably stayed home with the kids, as women did back then. (Wouldn’t it be fascinating to learn she was actually a doctor as well?) We wondered about the ages of the Andersons. The parents looked pretty old to me, but my folks thought they were probably in their early forties. The oldest daughter appeared to be about thirteen. The twin boys seemed about nine. The youngest siblings looked so much alike that they could easily be twins as well, but we decided the boy was probably about four, with the girl a year or so younger. We then speculated about what happened to the kids. Sixty years is a long time, but it was likely the kids were still alive -- the oldest daughter would only be in early seventies, and the youngest two siblings wouldn't yet be retirement age. I have to admit, though, I was pulled up short when my parents wondered if both the twin boys made it through World War Two. I hadn’t thought of that....

I ended up giving the Christmas postcard to my mother and pretty much forgot about it. Then the holidays rolled around. Every year my mother likes to display the Christmas cards she and my father receive. Some she hangs from ribbons on the back of the door; others she tapes to the wall. She always reserves a corner of wall space for photos that people send along with their cards -- bright color snapshots of people’s kids and grandkids tucked into holiday notes and letters. That first year I was surprised to see the sepia-tinted photograph of the Seven Andersons displayed on the wall among all the new pictures. It was quite a conversation piece. Everyone who dropped by wanted to know about that card from 1930. (“Are they relatives?” “No.” ”Old friends?” “No.” “Well, who are these people and why are they on your wall???")

My mother has continued to display that card every Christmas since then. Holiday visitors are always drawn to it. Everyone has a theory about the family. Some think the mother looks a little sad. Some say there’s a good twin/bad twin dynamic going on with the two boys. I’m convinced the oldest girl was named “Ivy” or “Fern.” My father once wrote a short story about what happened to the kids in the family. He decided that bespectacled daughter ended up working “in a small library, a bookery, or an athenaeum.” (He must have consulted the thesaurus. Athenaeum?)

By now the Seven Andersons have shared nearly twenty Christmases with our family. Every time I see the picture, I’m reminded of the summer I spent working in a dark old factory building with a fancy restaurant on one side and a cheap, dirty grocery store just across the vacant lot. It seems like a long time ago now. In fact, this picture always reminds me of how quickly time passes. When I first enountered it, the card was just over sixty years old; I could assume that all five of the young Andersons were still around. Now the card is nearly eighty years old. If Ivy (or Fern) is still around, she’s in her nineties. Even the youngest kids would be well in their eighties. As for the twins...well, did they even make it through the Second World War?

And I used to think the parents seemed pretty old.

Now they look younger than I do.

I wonder what the Seven Andersons would think if they knew their 1930 Christmas card has been part of our family’s holiday celebrations for nearly twenty years? I bet they'd be surprised to know we're still talking about them today.

“Are they relatives?”


”Old friends?”

“Seems like it now.”

And like so many friends -- both real and fictional -- I first met them due to a book.


Loree Jackson said...

Really good story :)

Heather Zundel said...

I love this story, especially how you ended it. Now I'm curious about them too.

Carol P said...

Try posting it on You never know!

Anonymous said...

love tour blog!!!!

Bybee said...

I wonder if they ever added to their brood.