50 birthday cards


Aunt Elaine is my great-aunt, the wife of my late grandmother’s late brother. She’s 94. Last week, I received a birthday card from her, as I have every year of my life. OK, maybe she didn’t send me a card for my first birthday. But she probably did when I turned two.

Aunt Elaine is part of my extended family. I didn’t grow up nearby and saw her maybe once a year when I was a kid, less as I got older. We were never part of each others’ day-to-day lives but we’ve always loved each other. I smile when I think of her energy, her matter-of-fact intelligence, and her perfectly-set hair and polished nails. I don’t think I ever saw her without earrings and a manicure.

A couple years ago we were in Southern California and I arranged a visit. My husband, kids, parents and I descended upon her immaculate little apartment and sat with her, listening to her stories, eating her cookies, looking at her photos. When I told her how much I loved the cards she sent every year she brushed me off. “Oh honey, I love sending those cards!” As if I did her a favor by having an annual birthday.

I just got off the phone with my mom and found out that Aunt Elaine isn’t well. Her body and memory are faltering. Her daughter takes devoted and loving care of her, but otherwise she doesn’t want visitors.

I immediately sat down to write a card to Aunt Elaine. I told her again what it meant to count on a birthday card from her in my mailbox every year. I told her how much I loved our visit to her apartment. I told her how much I loved her.

I’ve never been good about remembering birthdays. I try to send cards but my record is spotty. I feel good if I manage to call or text on the right day.

Tonight, I’m thinking about the fifty times my aunt stood in the drugstore aisle searching for the perfect “Dear niece” card. The fifty times she sat at her kitchen table and wrote out “Dear Asha, Happy birthday. Love, Aunt Elaine.” The fifty stamps she affixed to the envelopes, the fifty trips to the mailbox.

Tonight, I’m reminding myself that telling the people I love that I love them is the most important thing I will ever do.

Update: Her daughter told me that she read my letter out loud to Aunt Elaine, who was delighted. Aunt Elaine passed away a couple weeks later. I saved my birthday card.

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  • My dad died when I was 39, of head trauma from a fall. He was 74, not in bad health, and we thought he had another decade, that he’d come to our kids’ graduations if not their weddings. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye— we found out from the police at our door that he was gone. But I can tell you the last thing I said to him that morning when we spoke, and the last thing he said to me: “Love you, Dad.” “Love you too, pet.” Because we always said that. So yes, I totally agree with you.

  • Anya, I don’t know what to say besides thank you. I wrote this post because I’m giving many of my choices a good, hard look. The fact that I’ve missed so many opportunities to say that is a truth I must face. Aunt Elaine’s cards reminded me about that, and so does your comment. Thank you so much. I’m so glad you shared that moment with your Dad.

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