Families across the U.S. reflect on the year’s bright spots

Jennifer Randall skimmed through her journal entries and tried to find a bright spot in a challenging year.

Her mother died in February of natural causes at 88. The following month, her partner underwent heart valve repair surgery. She became his caregiver.

By the time the Portland, Ore., resident sat down over the weekend to write an end-of-the-year letter — a longstanding tradition for families across the United States — she had learned to lean into her grief.

“We have a lot of shared sorrow in the world,” Randall, 57, said in an interview. “Sharing that is OK; talking about it is OK. There’s so much to learn out of grief.”

Jennifer Randall and her mom, Bonnie Randall, pose for a photo at the beach in 2012. Bonnie died in February of natural causes.

(From Jennifer Randall)

Randall is among scores of individuals and families who write end-of-year letters to friends and family that reflect on the good moments in their lives. But in a year derailed by the coronavirus, 2020 has been a year unlike any other, riddled with pandemic-related restrictions and a volatile election season. These letters — often called family newsletters — are traditionally upbeat and inserted in personalized holiday cards. People share their accomplishments, vacations and important life events.

Now, families are using them as a form of positive retrospection, showing gratitude for the simple things in life they may have taken for granted in the past: In Phoneix, Lori Rogers’ 11-year-old dog, Lucy, is cancer-free after four rounds of chemotherapy. The Van Voorhis family from Cambridge, Mass., squeezed in a trip to Honduras before the pandemic hit. The Johnsons spotted bald eagles and deer from the comfort of their Rockbridge County, Va., home.

“It’s been a chaotic, stressful year for everyone,” said Michael Johnson, 74. “We’re lucky to have survived this year.”

The Johnsons have written these newsletters for more than 10 years. Gaye Johnson, 58, organizes the family portrait and outlines which moments should be mentioned in the letter. Michael puts it all together in an essay format with his own commentary.

From left, Jamie, Michael, Ian and Gaye Johnson pose for their 2020 holiday photo.

From left, Jamie, Michael, Ian and Gaye Johnson pose for their 2020 holiday photo.

(From the Johnson family)

For the Johnsons, the final letter is rarely delivered by Christmas. Gaye Johnson said they have “great intentions” but fall behind because of errands and sometimes procrastination. They aim to have them mailed to about 80 recipients by the start of the new year. “As long as it’s within the first quarter, it’s still New Year’s, right,” Michael Johnson joked.

The pandemic forced a shift in the family’s routine, but they were unaffected by the coronavirus that has taken the lives of more than 320,000 people in the United States. Even so, with this year’s election and racial reckoning, their letters will take on a different tone. They plan to compile all of their letters and holiday cards into a book to see how they’ve changed over the years.

Several hundred family newsletters are preserved at the Library of Congress in Washington. It is unknown how or when this tradition began, but the library has collected them since the 1800s. Much like the newsletters this year, other letters in the library provide snapshots of significant moments in history, such as war time, the 1918 flu pandemic and the invention of the automobile. At one point, the library also collected social media posts from notable people, but it no longer does.

Sheree Budge, reference librarian in the local history and genealogy section, said these letters provide a record of family histories and help researchers interpret moments in time through the eyes of individuals. They’re useful as well as gratifying, she added.

Unlike social media notes that are easily forgotten or lost, letters are a simple way of preserving moments from loved ones. Letters come in all shapes and sizes. Some put pen to paper or type their messages into a Word document. Others combine the two mediums.

The Van Voorhises always brainstorm to come up with creative themes. This year included a personality quiz. In 2019, they used a dictionary template to describe their year-in-review.

An example:

  • Le-go (ˈlɛg-oʊ) n. 1. A small object that is magnetically attracted to the bottom of your feet, particularly when walking in the dark. 2. Something that Jordan often uses to build fabulous creations. (ex “Hey buddy, why don’t you go build something with legos?”) — See also: Tips, Parenting.
  • Ex-plo-ded (ɪkˈsploʊd ɛd) v. 1. To expand with great force, leaving behind a large mess 2. The way our house looks at least once a day.

Rogers, 61, kept it simple. She wrote about her housekeeping projects, health updates and her boyfriend’s safety precautions when he works for Uber. She printed her letter on green-colored paper, attached a Christmas-themed sticker and signed the holiday cards she mailed.

She displayed the holiday cards she has received on the kitchen counter. Letters are stored in a decorative bowl in her living room. She only saves a few. The retired secretary keeps them on hand to read to a colleague who doesn’t get them. She later passes them on to another friend to enjoy.

Rogers prefers to stay connected via snail mail instead of social media. She’s on Facebook but rarely uses it. She owns a flip phone and doesn’t send text messages. “I love hearing what everyone is doing. Some of our friends put pictures in there too, which is great. I’m just not knowledgeable on that to insert pictures,” she said.

In a year where gatherings have been limited to Zoom calls and social media, these families are relying on letters to provide a more human connection. These holiday letters serve as tangible tokens of love and affection in the coronavirus era. Families are extra mindful of what they write, trying to find a balance in what they share while also instilling hope.

Despite the good intentions, this tradition is criticized by some for being impersonal and boastful. “If you’re using time-saving ‘tricks’ like sending everyone the same letter, then you’ve done your holiday shopping in the sale section,” said Donovan Beeson, 38, a Chicago resident. With more time at home now, she urged snail mail enthusiasts to slow down and enjoy the process. “It just doesn’t connect you with the receiver; it helps connect you with yourself,” she said.

For Randall, this year’s letter is special. She needed it to be more personal and authentic.

In her double-sided, four-page letter, she delved into the new life lessons she learned in hopes of sparking new connections. She shared the warm and fuzzy feelings she felt when her sweetheart surprised her with a picnic for her birthday. And then there was the satisfaction in renovating a property she purchased in San Luis Obispo County.

Randall also talked about the emptiness she felt on Mother’s Day. She missed hearing her mother wish her a happy birthday. She gave thanks to her mother after she temporarily moved into her mother’s house — providing her with a home — to self-isolate during the first rounds of stay-at-home orders in March.

“During COVID, we’re learning to sit with a lot of things that are uncomfortable,” she said in an interview. “Sitting with it and being present with it — no matter how uncomfortable. When it’s written down in front of you, it makes it therapeutic. It’s like I’m giving a name and place for the sorrow.”