We Mailed Out Terrible Family Photos This Year
How Christmas card envelopes that did not fit a 4x6 photo led me down a dark path
Last Tuesday: me, on my lunch break, sitting in my cold rental car in an industrial, muddy, park-and-go 25 minutes west of Toronto licking forty envelopes so I can mail them four business days before Christmas. Five minutes earlier I was sitting there, taking selfies with a borrowed polaroid camera, wearing my coat and toque wondering if my visible breath was going to block the 4x6 printed photo I was holding in front of my face. I held my breath just in case and kept looking around to see if I’d have to explain myself to anyone later.
It has never been this way: so tardy, blurry, disorganized.
A train passes, as does a coyote.
Two weeks ago: it’s Saturday, December 8th. I’d quit my job four days earlier and spent the week frantically tying up loose ends at a job I expected to be at for another year. My new contract was a great opportunity — harder and more work, and more time required, but I couldn’t pass it up. Plus, I’m great at throwing a wrench in the mix right in the middle of the chaotic, emotional, busy season.
It was a gloomy day but I had no time to mimic the weather. Instead, I hustled around our two-bedroom apartment tidying, vacuuming, shampooing like we were about to host a handful of visitors. No one was coming over, but a change was afoot and this was my attempt at getting my shit together to survive it. Today was the first day in a month that my spouse and I both had free time during daylight hours — together. We were going to take our Christmas photo today.
Ten years ago: as a young, single, socialite in Canada’s capital city, I thought it humorous to mimic traditional family Christmas cards by sending friends a self-portrait of me and my cat. I bought her a red dress meant for dogs and dawned a Santa hat, snapped a photo that I plugged into a template from an online print shop, and mailed out a bunch of postcards at the beginning of December. The cards were very well-received, much to the dismay of my cat who loathed being held up and coddled for the 45 minutes it would take to get one photo of us that I liked, where both of us were looking at the camera.
I enjoyed the activity and ensuing fanfare so much that a routine was formed. My autumns suddenly followed strict order: Thanksgiving, Halloween, my birthday, the Santa Claus parade, then Christmas photo prep and execution, ideally all before December 1st (because, as we all know, once the holiday season starts, it doesn’t end until January). (And I spend a lot of it crying, which doesn’t lend well to a photo-friendly face.)
For the most part, my routine was established and little disrupted the flow. If I was dating, I was grateful, for I had someone to take the photo of my cat and me. (Even more grateful so when I got a second cat and had trouble holding them both and pressing the camera button.)
Five years ago: I met my spouse in the spring and we began dating later that summer. It was more magical than any other relationship that had come before and I paced over my Christmas photo plan before autumn even hit. I did not want to put the pressure of a Christmas family portrait on our plates as a new couple, nor did I want to exclude them from it. I came up with the perfect solution: I decided to take a Halloween photo instead and offered a spot (and a cat) to them. I then stared intently into their eyes trying to determine if they felt strange about it.
“Okay,” my partner said without a blink. “Can we dress up for it?”
We were in London dropping off the cats at my mom’s who would watch them while we went to New York City. We pulled costumes from her Halloween box and each held one of our cats (then, they were my cats) while my mother took our photo.
I proudly printed out and mailed the winning portrait the following week with accompanying Halloween cards, thinking them a good and safe joke for recipients.
No one really said anything.
But the good news was that my future spouse was so thrilled about the photos the following years were easy. My routine became our routine, with American Thanksgiving added in between the Santa Claus parade and Christmas photo prep. In the same day, we’d discuss what we’d be wearing, grab a cat, take our photo, print them at the store and our cards would be out by the first week of December. Easy as pie.
One month ago: it has been an exciting and busy year for us. We spent most of it planning our August wedding before embarking on an almost month-long honeymoon early autumn. Our holiday routine began while we were away and we returned in the middle of seasonal change. Our pile of thank you cards still sit unwritten on my desk, and I’d been seeking ways to problem solve every task as quickly and efficiently as possible. This meant in mid-November I thought I’d get to the holiday cards early. They have been, after all, extremely easy to execute given our solid practice from years prior. I had the perfect plan: snap a photo, print it at the store, scribble our names in the cards and send them out. No fanfare. No funny business. No letters, long notes, personalized messages. Nothing elaborate this year. Easy as pie.
When I pulled out our Christmas box you could imagine my dismay when I notice the cards I’d purchased on boxing day last year to be smaller than a 4x6 printed photo. My eyes widened, immediately irritated at myself. Why couldn’t I have predicted the needs of a full-size set of cards for this year? Didn’t I know I would have more than usual on my plate?
The idea of cutting prints in half so that they could fit inside the cards bothered me. I’d done it before and my inability to cut perfectly straight so that the border was equal on all sides made me angry — I have high standards. I began to brainstorm ways to get smaller photos: fold them? Print them off the computer? Skip photos altogether? Hard no’s to all of those options. But it was during this brainstorming session that I fondly recalled my friend Tina’s camera that she brought to our wedding. It was one of those new polaroids that printed small photos on the spot — small photos that would fit perfectly in our small cards. My heart leapt. Not only were these prints the perfect size, but they were neat. Polaroids in our holiday cards! How unique, compared to other years. How special, I thought.
Two weeks later: After discovering a friend had one of these cameras we could borrow, I spent two weeks trying to align our schedules so I could pick it up. City dwellers are busy! Calendar days ticked by as I grew more and more in denial of how great this idea was. Special photos. Unique photos. Polaroids are cool, I kept reminding myself. This is going to be fun, I said, over and over.
In the time it took to pick up the film and the camera, I’d quit my job, was working late every night to ensure the person taking over for me would be able to stand on solid ground, and trying desperately to find a time during the day that we could take these photos because both my friend and the internet recommended the use of daylight. We were also sending 40 cards, so my partner and I both realized independently we’d have to stand, each with a cat, while one of us would take the photo forty times, with a few seconds in between each for the print to come out of the camera, ten photos per film, all the while hoping the cats didn’t murder our faces for bothering them in the middle of nap time.
“You’ll have to take the photo,” I told my partner one night, “because I’d like to hold Lua and I need both hands.” She’s a large, geriatric cat now. I spoke as if Lua’s size was news to the world when, really, I was just trying to do less. Honestly, our minds create solutions to problems we don’t even know we’re carrying.
Two weeks ago: it’s Saturday, December 8th again. I’ve shampooed the rug, cleaned the tub, prepped my laundry, answered emails, chugged three cups of coffee, and had been prancing around the apartment like a maniac with an endless to-do list.
“Are you ready to take these photos?” I grunted. My spirits about this plan had shifted slightly. I chose to ignore them.
“Does this mean we have to take 40 of these, one by one? With the cats?”
“Yeah! So!” I said, defensive and high strung about it. My partner was just looking for a simple ‘yes.’ I’m sure, if I wasn’t so trepidatious about the execution of these polaroids, we could’ve just taken them in this very moment and been done with it. But Christmas season was in full swing and I had a lot of feelings prancing about. My partner sighed. “Fine! Give me a moment!” I yelled like a preteen being told I couldn’t see my friends that weekend. I walked away to stew on the couch until it got dark, unwilling to give up this polaroid plan. The plan was neat, I reminded myself. Neat is good.
We didn’t end up taking any photos that day, but we did open a card from our besties in Vancouver which featured them in matching pyjamas smiling cutely at the camera with their adorable dog. I stared at it longingly for far too long.
One week later: as days passed and our schedules crisscrossed into the night, we had come up with a solution. We decided to take one photo on one of our phones, print out a 4x6 of it, and take polaroids of the printed photo. Brilliant! I could do a little set design, fix the light, and snap away. It would take 5 minutes and wouldn’t cause us and the cats much stress. Plus, it was December 13th now and the postal strike that hindered us before was no longer on. The sudden possibility of delivery before Christmas was invigorating. Hope filled me.
My partner and I were elated when we took our selfies with the cats. We took more than fifty photos making different faces, smiling wildly, and the cats cuddled the entire time. It was perfect. My partner went to work and I skipped to the store to print one photo so I could come home to take the polaroids.
Two hours later: I sat on the couch pouting, about the throw the camera against the wall but resisted, only because it is not mine. Our photos were blurry, unfocused, glaring messes. The framing was all off — it didn’t match what I saw when I looked through the viewfinder — and there was no way for me to focus on the spec of an image I was trying to take a picture of. It was a quick disaster. I left the photos, the camera, and the film in a pile on my partner’s desk with a note: “Please do these.” I refused to ruin them further.
Two days later: the pile on my partner’s desk was seemingly untouched. As I ran out the door at 7:00 AM I leaned into the bed and whispered, “Good morning! I’m leaving. Oh, and can you take the photos with the Polaroid camera so I can mail the cards tomorrow?” No response… because my partner was still asleep. But I put it out to the universe to find a fix that neither of had to handle.
Later that night my partner told me they had tried and couldn’t get a clear photo either. For some reason, I was shocked that this was the case.
Another two days later: it’s December 16th, 7:00 AM. I was fed up. This lingering task was too much, I thought, as I tossed the pile in a paper bag and hauled them to work with me. I would take the photos at work, outside, in the brightness of the sun. I wasn’t going to put up with this nonsense any longer. Today was the day to be done with it.
But it was a grey, dark, and cloudy day and the one photo I took looked no different from the rest.
The Next Day / Last Tuesday: me, sitting in my cold rental car in an industrial, muddy, park-and-go 25 minutes west of Toronto holding our beautiful Christmas selfie in front of my face so I can take a photo of it. I thought it would help to focus if a human was in the frame. I’d given up all hope of a nice, clear polaroid. Frankly, I didn’t give a sugar anymore. I sat there and didn’t stop snapping until I had a print for each card. I laid them out on the car seat, watching them develop.
You know, they’re artistic, I told myself.
Experimental is neat, I thought.
And… This, is a story I could tell anyone who might ask.
There are just some things you do because they’re on your to-do list, and mailing these cards before Christmas was mine.
I tossed a blurry, awkward, unclear photo into each envelope, sealed them with a begrudged lick, and snickered out loud to myself picturing each person opening the card and going, “What the — ”
Of course, between licks, I kept looking around the parking lot to see if anyone was watching me. I also wondered if I was going to die like that lady who licked all those envelopes and got glue poisoning. I mean, I just started a new job. The last thing I wanted was to be avoided because I spent lunches in my car taking selfies and licking paper. Or worse — found dead on the job. I hadn’t made many friends yet. The worse part about the latter is that I don’t think many people would even care.
That night, I mailed the cards.
Friday, December 22nd: we’re having dinner at my in-laws. I’m sipping soda and pressing pizza dough into the edges of the pan when my mother-in-law comes in with a pile of mail. She holds up our card. “Oh, what is this?” she gleams, noting our return address on the back.
My partner and I exchange glances.
Never did I once imagine being present for the opening of one of these cards. Oh gosh, I thought. This is terrible. I really pressed into that dough as she tore the envelope open, pulled out the card and photo, casually smiled at the card and then stared at the photo, squinting. “Is that you,” she said to me, “with the massive light glare in front of your face?”
“It sure is,” I said, trying to speak with purpose. Yeah, I thought, like, we totally planned that light glare.
She didn’t say anything before putting it on the fridge.
“Do you want to hear the story?” I asked as my partner and I exchanged another look, waiting eagerly for her response.
“Yes,” she said, before heading into the other room, adding, “You know, this is really nice.”.
“What is?” my partner asked.
“I thought my Christmas vacation would start with me making dinner for us all, but you’re already almost finished and I’m sitting here by the fire relaxing. I did not expect that.”
My partner and I smile. We decided, without words, that we’d just leave the Christmas card story for another time.
I returned to the dough I’d been spreading on the pan and began to smooth over all the holes I’d just torn. It would be alright, I thought, to never speak of this again, and to never see any of those photos again. Yeah, that would be alright.
To everyone who received a photo from us this year: I am sorry. We’ll do better next year. I promise.
To everyone who did not receive a photo from us this year: You’re welcome.