Tag Archives: letters

Letters from the Dead

by Lillian Csernica on July 4, 2019


Last Thursday my mother died.

My brother lives in Southern California. My sister is currently bound by a temporary restraining order (soon to be permanent. The hearing is tomorrow). That means it’s all on me.

All the hospital stuff.

All the legal stuff.

And, most of all, every single item of Mom’s stuff.

It’s up to me to clear out Mom’s apartment.  It’s just a studio, but still. Furniture. Small appliances. Clothing. Books and DVDs, knickknacks and photo albums. The really staggering part? Mom’s personal correspondence, files, and papers.

Mom kept everything.

I could tell you stories about some of the keepsakes I’ve found, such as the inflatable jukebox wardrobe. Or the hand-painted bamboo parasol that would be a collector’s item if it weren’t for all the rainbow glitter. While such conversation starters are entertaining, and some are quite valuable, the downside of this particular duty involves discovering a few things that I really wish had stayed buried in the clutter.


I found copies of letters Mom sent to me years ago. Some offered sympathy about my marriage troubles. Some gave “friendly” advice meant “with love” regarding how I took care of my baby, the child who would never walk or speak or do 90% of all the cute things grandparents look forward to in their grandchildren. I also found letters Mom had written to friends, letters that talked about matters I considered private. June was a horrible month. Given that I had to get a restraining order against my sister, then take care of Mom pretty much 24/7 right up to her death, I am exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I really did not need to come across Mom’s letters and the old issues they stirred up.

Have mercy on the family members who will be tasked with cleaning up after you’re gone. Do you really want your kids to read something out of context years from now when that material is subject to lingering resentments, old grudges, and well-meaning misinterpretation? Go through your personal papers now. You can’t have complete control over how you will be remembered, but you can certainly do yourself a lot of good by cleaning out potential trouble.

I’m not going to get all syrupy about making peace and building bridges before it’s too late. If you can do that, great. If you can’t, don’t feel bad, and don’t feel pressured to reach out to people when that might just make matters worse. I’ve had to take some drastic steps lately to preserve the health and safety of myself and my children. That’s going to make things awkward when it comes to Mom’s memorial service.

Unless you have family members who conducted personal correspondence at the level of Benjamin Franklin or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Florence Nightingale or Collette herself, do not read the papers that are left behind when said loved one passes. Burn them. Shred them. Recycle them. Spare yourself the torment of ambivalent feelings stirred up by unfinished business. If you just can’t resist, here’s a good guide for figuring out what to toss and what to keep.

Let me wrap this up on a positive note. One happy aspect of Mom having so much stuff is setting aside items that I know will mean a lot to Mom’s special friends. I’ve already passed on a few pieces of jewelry to the fellow artists Mom talked about from her art class. Those women thanked me with tears in their eyes, touched by knowing Mom thought enough of them to make sure I gave them those mementoes.

There are many ways to honor the passing of our loved ones. Remembering what was best about them can bring some comfort to everyone involved.





Filed under Family, family tradition, housework, memoirs, mother, parenting, therapy

Santa’s Workshop: Open for Business

By Lillian Csernica on December 8, 2014

Time once again for me to put on the Santa hat or the light-up reindeer antlers and begin my annual effort as a Volunteer Elf.  The first batch of letters to Santa has come in from my local post office.  Eight letters, which is pretty good for this early in the month.  I am well equipped with stationery, red envelopes, and an enormous pile of Christmas-related stickers.  That supply came to me thanks to my sister, who likes to hit me with great surprises like this.  She ordered six rolls from the Oriental Trading Company, which is THE place to go for good quality and good prices on holiday and party-related supplies.

I try to keep my Secret Identity as the person who handles the Santa letters pretty low key.  The newspaper did a story on me, which I allowed on the condition that they did not use my name.  They did anyway.  Argh.  Fortunately, I moved, so if anybody had wanted to find me, they can’t.  The post office folks are very protective of me and my privacy.  The number of people who know about my annual effort to preserve the magic of childhood has grown a bit year by year.  This year, people are already asking me what they can do to help.  One dear lady in my writer’s group has given me two gift certificates to a local art supply store.  Should letters cross my desk that ask Santa for art supplies, those kids are in for a dose of serious magic.

The real magic is giving without seeking anything in return, not even a “Thank you.”  It’s nice to see the kids’ faces light up when they find out Santa Claus is really listening.  That’s been my only condition in all the years I’ve been answering letters.  If the postal carriers see the kids open their letters, I want to hear all about how the kids reacted.  This somehow led to the parents giving the postal carriers gifts for me, gifts of appreciation for making their kids so happy.  The gifts were usually homemade goodies, which made them doubly difficult to refuse.  I did have to refuse them, by asking the postal carriers to express my sincere appreciation and my preference for not receiving such gifts.  I’m in this to make the kids happy.  That’s what I get out of it.

I want to break down what I do so I can encourage other people to become volunteers and keep the Benevolent Order of Santa’s Elves alive and well.

The primary source of the letters is the Post office.  The children post their letters to Santa Claus and they get routed to me.  If you want to volunteer, just go talk to the postmaster or postmistress and ask for the kit they give to volunteers.  It helps to be creative.  I keep a file on my computer of good ideas I’ve come up with over the years in response to the questions the children ask.  Such ideas come in very handy as we get closer to Christmas Eve and my brain starts to get a bit frazzled.  Speaking of Christmas Eve, it’s my personal policy to see to it all letters are answered by Christmas Eve.  Some years that’s taken a bit of doing, but the postal carriers are great about helping out.  Sometimes they’ve sent the “package truck” as it’s called out my way with the day’s incoming letters.  I’d have them answered and ready to go out when my postal carrier came by.  That, or I’d hit the post office in person to pick up or deliver.  If you’re going to do this, folks, understand that you’re entering into a very special relationship with the children who believe in Santa Claus.  Follow through on the commitment.  My worst fear is a child whose friends have gotten replies from Santa Claus but that one child has not.  Can you imagine the disappointment, the confusion, the hurt?  That’s not how Santa Clause takes care of business.


You may also find that local charity organizations receive letters to Santa Claus from the children in the families such organizations help.  Another friend of mine in my writing group is in charge of the local food pantry that helps the homeless and other people in need.  She told me that as part of their intake program around the holidays they have the children write letters to Santa so the volunteers can do their best to get at least some of the items on those wish lists.  Last year my friend’s organization received two hundred and fifty letters to Santa Claus.  Can you imagine?  So many families are in so much need these days.  Toys for Tots does an amazing job every year.  Other charities do their best to provide at least something for the children of the needy to open on Christmas morning.  I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the occasional letter to Santa Claus that comes across my desk that stands out to me so strongly I do something about it.  I’m careful, I’m discreet, and I make sure what I do is appropriate.  For example, those gift certificates my friend gave me.  When I add one of those to the appropriate letter to Santa Claus, it will pass into the hands of a child who will suddenly believe wishes really can come true.  You never know what a chain reaction this can set off.  Perhaps that child will be inspired to donate some old toys to Goodwill or a local family shelter.  Perhaps there will be a delayed reaction, and that child will grow into an adult who remembers the kindness of the gift included in Santa Claus’ reply.

Let me address the issue of donations.  I’ve been very fortunate in that people who know about what I do have come forward and offered their assistance.  A few years ago I went out actively soliciting donations from business with whom I already had a relationship as a customer.  Toys R Us offered me ten per cent off anything in the store.  A local independent bookstore provided a gift certificate for a young lady who asked specifically for something from that particular bookstore.  All the manager wanted in return was a copy of the letter to Santa Claus.  That year I was able to go to the local charity that handles the most families in need and deliver a sack of toys, baby clothes, other items, and the donation of one hundred dollars from someone I will refer to as an anonymous benefactor.  The lady at the desk almost burst into tears.  It was quite close to Christmas Eve, and one hundred new families had just applied for assistance.

As I’ve said, various friends of mine have pitched in now and then with tangible items, offers of matching donations, and help with transportation.  You’d be amazed how many people are willing to lend a hand if you simply put out the word.  This time of year people are more prone to such generosity because we all remember being little kids who believed in Santa Claus.  Let it be known that you welcome any assistance people want to provide, but don’t ask unless you get a letter with a specific request you think you can meet in an appropriate way.

The bottom line is, do whatever you can do.  Whenever I go to the local Dollar Tree, I make sure I pick out a gift to give to a child.  At the register I tell the clerk that item is for the children of the military, and it goes into a special collection box.  These gifts are for children who have one or more parents on active deployment.  I really want to do what I can to see to it Santa Claus shows up for them.

Times are tough.  We have to take care of each other.  If you do choose to volunteer to help answer the letters to Santa Claus, please do so right away.  I guarantee there are letters waiting to be answered, and the more volunteers, the more children will receive replies.  If you have questions about any of this, I will do my very best to answer them, or at the very least point you to where you can find the answers.  Thank you, and God bless us, every one!

P.S.  This is the 300th post in my blog.  Woo hoo!


Filed under charity, Christmas, Family, Food, Goals, love, Special needs, Writing