"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Seasons Greetings! Impersonal And Store-Bought

Every Christmas when I was growing up, my family got the Tapper Tattler – a Christmas card from the Tapper Family with elaborate and painful details about the comings and goings of Jane, Muffin, Bobby, and Frank.  There were the trips to Vail and the Vineyard; stories of Frank’s prize rose garden and how he fought the invasion of spotted spurge, aphids, and the spoor of the neighbor’s German Shepherd; Muffin’s first year at Smith where she roomed with an absolutely lovely girl from Piping Rock who invited her to the North Shore for the summer; Jane’s impossible schedule running the Hospital Auxiliary and singing the part of Little Miss Muffett in the Hartford Repertory Theatre production of The Lady and the Spider. 

News of Bobby, however, was slight.  He was the black sheep of the family, always in some kind of trouble, and an embarrassment.  Yet, the Tappers had to keep up the positive family image, and always included something:

Bobby had a great year, started his own lawn mowing business, and supervised three employees.  In his ‘spare’ time, he indulged his passion for old cars and was often seen with one of his classic beauties.

Bobby did not have his own business, but mowed the lawns of clients of his father, all of whom complained that he tonsured their lawns like a bad haircut – bits and pieces of un-mown grass everywhere, forgotten tufts and sprouts of weeds by the walk, and hacked off lilac vines where he plowed the power mower without looking.

His ‘employees’ were three unemployed Puerto Ricans he found hanging out at the Arch Street Bowl-A-Rink and whom he paid a buck or two to rake the grass, bag it, and throw it in the creek at Stanley Quarter Park.

As far as his classic cars were concerned, about the only thing that Bobby Tapper could manage to do was to fix flats and again his father engineered a job for him at New Brighton Gulf.  So if he was seen ‘with one of his classic beauties’ it was only on his knees manhandling a tire off a 30 year-old beater.

Bobby was a loser, but the Tappers insisted in spinning his layabout, ne’er-do-well ways to make him look as good as possible.  Given what a sorry excuse he was, the family had to be very creative come Christmastime. 

Bobby Tapper was the only reason any of us ever read the Tapper Tattler.  We jumped over the sailing, the schuss booming, and the trips to Italy, and found the abbreviated , distorted but creative references to him.

“What would the Tappers ever send out such a boastful card?”, my mother asked every Christmas.  “Who cares about them anyway?”. Well, she did as a matter of fact. Although she lambasted the Tappers and the rest of the ‘West End crowd’ – the WASP families who idled away their private incomes on drink and show – she wanted to be like them.  According to my mother the Porters, Binghams, Wrights, and Clarkes all thought we were a guinea family of wife-beaters and garlic; and none of them ever did a lick of work; but she couldn’t deny the appeal of summers in Italy or winter skiing at Gstaad.

In any case the Tapper Tattler was not for us, but for other West Enders who also summered and wintered in the same watering holes, spas, and slopes; whose children all went to St. Grottlesex, came out at the Country Club Cotillion, and glided easily to the Ivy League or New England finishing schools like Miss Porter’s.   They all sent around self-serving, boastful Christmas cards because they were trying to one-up each other, not us. We got on their mailing list by a fluke.  My sister had known Muffin when they played together in a neighborhood park; but other than that, we and the Tappers revolved in very different orbits.

I have no idea whatever happened to any of the Tappers.  I checked the police blotter of the New Brighton Herald for a few years to see if Bobby was in some lineup; but then lost track of and interest in the family. I get Christmas Tattlers from other families and acquaintances, however.  One, an insufferable academic, writes endlessly about the papers she has presented at conferences, her child ‘who is especially bright’, and her days at the Spanish archives in Toledo and Salamanca researching her paper on gypsy women writers of the Middle Ages.  Apparently there were actually one or two who wrote love poems under pseudonyms and who were so careful to hide their past in their writings that most scholars had been fooled for centuries and had thought that they were ladies of the Court of Seville.  Not Grace W., however.  She dug and dug and finally exposed them to be Roma from Bulgaria who had made their way to Spain before the Inquisition.

Another more traditional family does a very good impression of the Tapper Tattler and drones on again and again about summer vacations, schools, and professional success.

Eric Hoover, writing in the Washington Post (12.7.13) laments the fact that greeting cards have become impersonal, bought and given with little thought or feeling.  According to Hoover, the spirit of the Tapper Tattler survives but in truncated form – no tattling, just a photo:

Remember your uncle’s obnoxious Christmas letter in which he bragged about his family’s accomplishments? Now this preening happens without a word. Here’s our family at the beach in Maui! Oh, and here we are on the slopes at Aspen! Such prosperity.

Just a look-at-me photo would be bad enough, says Hoover, but families are now going to unimaginable expense to sell their own brand:

The greeting-card industry flourished, [culture critic Barry Shank]  writes, “in the hothouse atmosphere of a status competition.”

Just look at the gorgeous card we got last year: a professional photograph of a couple and their three young children, dressed to the nines. It’s affixed to a thick piece of paper with a gold border. Even the font seems smug.

I am not sure which is worse – the inane, self-serving ramblings of the Tappers, or the image-conscious photo-shoot, high-gloss card of the upwardly mobile.  I guess I prefer the Tapper Tattler because at least there is something there even if it is a social caricature. In fact, I always airbrushed the Tappers off the slopes at Aspen and imagined the crisp, bright, cold mornings at the top of the mountain; or erased the Tappers from St. Bart’s and felt myself sliding into the warm waters of the Caribbean.

I grew up in a family where greeting cards were expected.  It didn’t matter how inane and treacly the birthday, anniversary, Mothers Day, or Fathers Day cards were, they were appreciated, put on the mantelpiece and talked about.  Here was a favorite:

Mother's Love
Her love is like
an island in life's ocean,
vast and wide
A peaceful, quiet shelter
From the wind, the rain, the tide.
'Tis bound on the north by Hope,
By Patience on the West,
By tender Counsel on the South
And on the East by Rest.
Above it like a beacon light
Shine Faith, and Truth, and Prayer;
And thro' the changing scenes of life
I find a haven there.

The card of course was purple, floral, and filled with bouquets and swirls of sun and wind.  I have no idea whether or not my mother thought that I had chosen this card and verse out of the hundreds on the shelves at CVS because it conveyed my personal love and feelings; or because I did the right thing and sent her a card on Mothers Day; but all I know was that I had to send one.  Forgetting a card was a big problem.

The idea of sending a card that I made would not have been acceptable. It would have been too easy.  A trip to the shopping center, picking a card from among many, and paying for it (the more the better) showed the proper respect due a mother.  Now, had I included a personal note enclosed in the card, it would have been icing on the cake; but a letter without a card, no matter how intimate? Forget it. That was for another time and place.  Not on Mothers Day. As far as my kids were concerned crayon drawings and pencil sketches of birds were delightful and cute; but only up to a certain age.  After 10, there was no excuse for not buying a Hallmark.

We get few Christmas cards these days, perhaps because we never send any out; but occasionally we will get one from a long-forgotten friend – his way of re-establishing contact without a lot of fol-de-rol. A nice thought.  A nice gesture. But these contacts are few and far between. 

Sending a card seems silly and way out-of-date when an email with some photo attachments (a latter day, toned down Tapper Tattler) would do the trick.  It is simple, direct, and efficient; but also personal.  Just without all the holly berries and warm treacle inside. To be sure, nobody in my crowd sends treacly cards – Currier and Ives prints are preferred, or reprints of Sargent bought at the Smithsonian – but the institution itself seems to have gone out of style.

It might be naive to think it matters whether a card arrives with or without a greeting. But I know how I feel — good and downright human — when I read someone else’s handwritten words, like the warm note our neighbor Dana sent last Christmas, describing his wish for us to spend more time together in 2013. And you know what? We did.

I am afraid I am far too cynical or urbanized to like this idea.  “What does he want?”, would be my first thought after receiving such a card. “I suppose I will have to answer him”.  If I respond, then who knows what floodgates of unwanted attention will be opened.

When I first came to Washington, I wondered why no one talked to other passengers waiting at the bus stop.  It seemed like a nice opportunity to get to know people from the neighborhood. Wrong.  If you talked once, then you would be obliged to talk again, and if you ever had to sit next to the person you talked to, you would absolutely have to start a conversation.  That is why the N4 to Farragut Square was as silent as a tomb. The same thing with Christmas notes from neighbors. Unwanted intrusions.

Cards of congratulations (baby, engagement, graduation) are fine and so are those for condolence; but for every other occasion, forget about it. My wife’s parents have never given gifts at Christmas.  They have felt that gifts should be spontaneous and given all throughout the year.  A few perfectly ripe Bartlett pears from the Fairfax City market. A pair of hard-to-find wool socks. An old print of Paris. A reproduction of a letter written from Grant to Sherman before Vicksburg, found at a yard sale.

The same goes for cards. If they are sent spontaneously and are tied to nothing in particular except a desire to keep in touch, all well and good.  Surprise and the note of the unexpected increase their value a hundred-fold over the predictable Holiday Greetings.

Keeping in touch is what is important – any time of the year.  

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