Go tell it on the mountain
By ANDREW MCGINN
The mailing list is less than half what it was, but then again, the price of a stamp is 12 times more.
At one time, Pauline Irwin’s yearly Christmas letter was finding its way to at least 225 mailboxes.
“Of course the post office loved me,” Irwin said.
Now 82, the Jefferson resident has kept the tradition alive for 57 years.
In the age of Facebook, though, people are about as likely to sit down and craft a Christmas letter as they are to get a group of friends together and go caroling in front of someone’s house.
“This is a dying art,” Irwin said. “It’s the people over 80 who still do them.”
Irwin recently compiled all 57 years of Christmas letters into a spiral-bound book for her family with the help of The Printer’s Box. They titled it “Oh! What a Life: Irwin Family News as Told Through the Yearly Christmas Letters.”
On one hand, it’s little more than a sentimental gift to her loved ones from one mom/grandma. But on the other, the yearly letters have an endearingly universal appeal as they track the evolution of one family.
Did daughter Jan ever get the Midge doll she wanted for Christmas in 1963? If she did or didn’t, it was a moot point by 1982, when she was giving birth to the family’s first grandson.
The chicken pox that hit the Irwin house in 1965 clearly didn’t stunt anyone’s growth — by 1969, daughter Cindy was almost 6 feet tall and still in junior high; by 1973, son Scott stood 6 feet 3 inches and sported a “knuckle buster size 13” class ring.
Perhaps more than anything, though, the book begs us to reconsider how we keep in touch with one another.
Just ask yourself: Will that status update I post in 2017 still be there in 57 years?
Admittedly, Irwin isn’t sure why she kept every letter going back to 1960. Just two years, 1961 and 1962, are unaccounted for, and it’s entirely possible she was so busy with three small kids there was no time to write.
One by one, the names of those kids — Cindy, Scott and Jan — disappear from the closing line, as each leaves the nest and begins a family with traditions of their own.
By 2009, there’s just one name gracing the letter.
“I’m trying to adjust to my new life, but I’m not very good at it,” Pauline wrote that Christmas about the death in November of her husband of 55 years, Jim, from Alzheimer’s disease.
The book is a potent reminder that a lifetime is virtually little more than just a season.
“I can’t believe I’m going to be a grandma and Jim a grandpa!” Pauline wrote in 1979. “Time does fly.”
Irwin prepared 18 copies of the book in time to surprise family with at Thanksgiving.
“I had to autograph every one of ’em,” she said.
The Irwins farmed near Bagley for more than three decades before moving to Jefferson in 2003 in retirement.
The previous year, they’d held their machinery sale.
“Jim managed very well seeing all of his big equipment leaving the farm for the last time,” Pauline wrote at Christmastime in 2002.
Just a few pages before, farming had been but a dream of Jim’s. He got his chance to come home and farm 440 acres south of Bagley in 1966.
He had a new Gleaner A combine to his name.
“Jim and I are so happy we had the chance to farm in this new era of agriculture,” Pauline wrote that Christmas. “We were blessed with record breaking crops and much good luck.”
In looking over the letters, Irwin today can’t help but get the feeling they were perpetually at the mercy of the weather.
“The summers were always so dry,” she said. “Then we’d have trouble harvesting.”
They also grew their farming operation right along with the times.
In 1975, Pauline wrote of their new, 900-head hog confinement.
In 1978, they bought 360 more acres, located only about a half-mile east of the hog farm.
“Will be great to spread that ‘liquid gold’ over more acres,” Pauline wrote that Christmas.
In the letters, son Scott goes from being a kid with a butch cut in the summer of ’63 who was afraid to venture out to the deep end of the swimming pool to “the guiding hand for his dad on the markets” as a graduate student in economics at Purdue.
Today, Dr. Scott Irwin is an international expert in agricultural economics at the University of Illinois.
Each letter is like its own time capsule.
In 1963, the year the Kennedys and their version of Camelot captivated the nation, the Irwins got a black and white puppy, and they named it Jackie.
There are passing references to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and to Hurricane Katrina.
By 2016, the letters came to be punctuated with emojis.
Pauline wrote in 1981 that it had been a time of upheaval for daughter Cindy and son-in-law Duane, an air-traffic controller. Air-traffic controllers were on strike, and that summer, then-President Ronald Reagan infamously fired more than 11,300 of them for refusing to go back to work.
Duane kept their new daughter, Lindsey, during the day and worked evenings at Sears, Pauline wrote.
Today, granddaughter Lindsey works in Hollywood, and in 2018 will be producing the new Amazon series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.”
Pauline Irwin was a Jamaica gal whose parents, the Hansons, had come to the area in 1939 from near the Sandhills of Nebraska to farm. Her dad’s mother’s cousin, Jefferson librarian Nellie Hopper, found them 80 acres to rent that year near Farlin.
By 1942, the family was able to buy land of their own north of Jamaica.
A 1953 graduate of Jamaica High School, she and Jim married in 1954, having met at a dance.
For their first five years together, Jim taught ag education at the high school in Reinbeck.
The Christmas letters began out of necessity in 1960, when the young family — then living in Ellsworth, where Jim had bought the local grain elevator — was so rushed and so busy, they didn’t manage to get photos taken.
Parents today know the struggle.
Cindy at the time was 4½; Scott was 2½; Jan was a newborn.
Christmas 1960 at the Irwin house was marked with a sunburst aluminum tree, Pauline wrote.
“Why would we ever want an aluminum tree? Ugh,” she said, 57 years after the fact.
They later moved to Medford, Okla., where Jim managed a co-op, and then briefly to Rochester, Ind., for Jim’s job with Monsanto supervising fertilizer plants.
On the back of the 1964 Christmas letter, Irwin found a floor plan for the house they never built in Oklahoma.
“This is the worst plan I’d ever seen in my life,” she said in hindsight.
Year after year, the letters continued in order to keep in touch with the friends they’d made along the way.
The Irwins, too, received as many letters as they mailed out.
“Jim loved to get all these letters and sit down on a cold winter’s night and read how our friends were doing,” Irwin said.
Along the way, the Irwin kids broke bones, got their tonsils out, showed cattle at the county fair, played basketball, lettered in football and joined the school band.
In 1971, Jan was a sixth-grade clarinettist at the school in Bagley.
“She plays the clarinet and piano, Scott the French horn, and with KIOA what more could anyone want?” Pauline wrote that Christmas.
Other letters could have been mined for punch lines to accompany the “Family Circus” comic.
In 1973, Pauline wrote of passing out on the hospital floor when Cindy got her tonsils out:
“Cindy told the nurse, ‘Oh, well, she does that all the time!’”
The pages of Irwin’s book contain all the triumphs and tragedies of a life well lived.
There are times of joy, like when corn and bean prices were soaring, and times of sorrow, like when Jim’s father, George, was killed in a train-truck crash in Bagley.
But more than anything, there’s great truth in Irwin’s book.
As she wrote in 1974, “The kids are growing up too fast.”