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The healing power of a Barbie Christmas card

Story submitted by Janine Weisman, as a way to remember that small things make a big difference after losing someone special

In December 1995, I committed a Christmas card faux pas and almost got away with it: I sent out the same cards as the ones I mailed in 1994.

It was a Hallmark card (of course) with a photo of a vintage glammed up Barbie doll and the words “How to Have a Barbie Holiday” on the front. I had a few left from the box I bought the year before. No one would notice a whole year later. It’s not like there’s a statute of limitations on holiday cards, right?

Wrong. Helen was my dad’s first cousin, a woman of perpetual cheer. And, apparently, she had a memory like a sponge. If mine is correct, I think she called me up to call me out.

“Hey, you sent me this same card last year!” Helen told me.

I laughed and forgot all about it. Until December 1996 when my holiday card from Helen and her husband Ronnie arrived in the mail. It was the Barbie card I mailed them the year before with my signature on the right side. “I love the new Christmas stamps” I had written. (Both Helen and Ronnie worked at the post office in their town.) On the left, Helen wrote in her trademark print block lettering, “Dear Janine, Just wanted to be the first to wish you a very Merry Barbie holiday.”

A holiday tradition was born. I tucked that Barbie card away and sent it back to Helen and Ronnie in 1997. It came back to me in 1998. And so on. And so on. Every other year, Helen added a little heart or star sticker. By 2001, I was married and adding my husband’s name to it when I sent it back. Barbie yellowed with age.

Then Helen’s breast cancer came back. I thought she would beat it again because no one had a more positive attitude than Helen. She never stopped smiling. She was the most optimistic person I’ve ever known. You always felt better when you were around her.

In 2011, it was Helen’s turn to mail me the card. My husband and I had just renovated our house. “Heard when you go to see Newport mansions, the new map points to your street,” she wrote.

Helen passed away in November 2012. I didn’t send the card to Ronnie that year. The grief just felt too raw, and I didn’t want to make things worse for him. Barbie stayed in the cardboard box the next year too. Then in December 2014, I saw a feature in the Portsmouth Times about two sisters who had been exchanging the same Christmas card for 53 years, as they raised families, became grandparents and eventually widows.

“Bet you thought I’d forgotten …”

Two days before Christmas in 2014, I pulled Barbie out of the box. “Bet you thought I’d forgotten all about Barbie,” I wrote in a letter to Ronnie to insert into the card along with the Portsmouth Times article. There was no more space on the actual card to write anymore.

Ron didn’t get the card in time for Christmas that year, but he sent it back to me in 2015. And we have picked up where we left off. One year, he sent my husband and me a little Barbie Christmas ornament.

Just the other day, Barbie came back in the mail again. The card had finally split down the middle and is now in two pieces. I leave it on my mantel on display and think of the woman who saw the light in Barbie’s glammed up eyes and her silliness. She gave that light to me. I promise not to hide it away anymore.

If you are coping with grief this holiday season, HopeHealth’s grief support team is here for you. You can join one of our virtual grief support groups held through Zoom. See the schedule here. If you have any questions, please reach out to us at (888) 528-9077.

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