The twenty-third Christmas card

By Matt Reese

Another layer of dust had gathered on the aging shoebox full of unopened Christmas cards, 22 in total. His wife got the box out and left it on the kitchen table this time of year, waiting for the arrival of the next one and watching with pleading eyes in the hope that Mack would finally open them. 

The dusty box added to the gloom of Mack’s dismal day. Earlier in the week he had to sell off another chunk of the family farm at auction. Some investment group out west bought it online. 

He had sold a couple small parcels in recent years, both to local farmers. This one really hurt — 250 acres of the best ground he had — but he got a really good price and he did not have another generation coming along to farm it anyway. He knew selling it was the best thing to do as his days farming were winding down, but he still didn’t feel good about it. 

Like it always did, the dusty box of Christmas cards brought up painful memories. It was Dec. 5, and to the day, Mack had not spoken to his son, Tyler, in 23 years. In those long, terrible years everything had suffered — the farm, the family, Mack’s marriage, Mack’s faith, and most of all, Mack. He’d followed along with Tyler’s successful career as an agronomist in ag sales two states away, but they’d never spoken. 

Every year since that day, Tyler sent a Christmas card addressed specifically to Mack. Mack had never opened one of them. In the long years since the last conversation with his son, Mack had met his two grandchildren — Tyler’s sons — three times. How old were they now? Maybe 13 and 16? They had come for brief visits with his daughter-in-law, who seemed to be a pleasant enough young lady. In the place of a vibrant operation and happy family, 23 years of hurt had left Mack with a run-down farm, a bitter wife, and a hollow feeling inside that really never went away. He was from a long line of stubborn men who’d built a successful farm out of sheer strength of will. Mack had worked longer than he should have on the farm, made some mistakes and now was trying to find ways to keep it going. 

Back on Dec. 3, 1999, Mack swelled with pride and grinned at the thought of how he’d expanded the family empire. His son, 22 at the time, was set to begin taking over the farm built by generations of the family. Despite tough times, Mack and his father had managed to keep the farm in an excellent financial position for the future. Tyler had shown great loyalty to the family, love for the farm and incredible aptitude for the task ahead of him as the next generation of the family on the land. Mack’s father had recently “retired” from the operation. Mack was not ready to retire in 1999, but he was ready to slow down a bit and start delegating more responsibility to Tyler, his only child. He was going to have a family business meeting to discuss the matter before Christmas. Mack had maybe not paid Tyler enough in recent years and his son was definitely due this opportunity. Mack still had some details to figure out yet, and a meeting with the banker, but he grinned ear-to-ear at the thought of sharing the plans with his son.   

Mack was tinkering around the shop while Tyler was out hauling grain when the phone rang. 

“Hey Mack, this is Ernie from the elevator. Sounds like you guys had another pretty solid harvest this year.”

“Hey Ernie, yes, things have been going great.”

“Hey, I just wanted to let you know Tyler left before he got his check.”

“Well what do you mean Ernie?”

“When Tyler brings in a load for contract, we just cut him a check for the extra bushels — just like he’s been doing for the last couple of years. This time, though, he left his check.”

“Oh…oh, I see…”

Well, as it turned out, those few extra bushels over the years totaled $11,327.19 Tyler had pocketed and hidden from the farm. Beyond the dollars and cents, it added up to deep hurt and betrayal between son and father. Tyler left the farm Dec. 5, 1999.

Mack knew Tyler was sorry. Mack’s wife had stayed in touch with Tyler all these years and she had told Mack thousands of times to forgive him, or at least open those Christmas cards. But what Tyler had done was unforgivable. He’d betrayed his father and the three generations before him — sold them out for $11,327.19. Tyler’s betrayal led to one problem, then another and then to the dark day when he’d sold 250 acres of his best farm ground to officially “retire” with not much left to leave to no one. The amount seemed so small now in the grand scheme of things, but the betrayal still loomed large.

His wife had left to do some holiday shopping and Mack sat alone at the kitchen table looking at that box of dusty Christmas cards, a lone tear running down his cheek. He sighed a long, tired sigh. 

“Maybe it’s time,” he said aloud to the loneliness.   

He reluctantly opened the first, oldest envelope, dated Dec. 27, 1999. Inside was a folded-up piece of tablet paper.

Dad,

I’m sorry….

“Ha,” Mack exclaimed. “I’m sure you are!”

…I know you’ll probably never forgive me, and you probably shouldn’t. But I wanted you to know I moved in with a friend in Illinois and got a job in the warehouse at a local grain elevator. I used my first paycheck to start an investment account so maybe someday I could pay you back for what I took from you. 

-Tyler

Maybe even more reluctantly, Mack reached for the second oldest envelop in the box, Dec. 23, 2000. 

Dad,

I miss you and Mom and the farm. Please forgive me. It’s not much, but that account I started for you had a good year and I was able to add some to it. Merry Christmas,

-Tyler 

Out from the folded notebook paper fell a check written to the farm for $173. 52. With each envelope Mack opened, the letter got longer and the checks got bigger. Tyler provided updates on his career, his wife, their growing family and his love for Mack and the farm. 

By the time Mack got to 2015, the envelope was thicker, containing some photos of Tyler and his beautiful family. The boys were so handsome. Mack could see his eyes in theirs. Out from the photos fell a short note and another check.

Dad,

It was a great year. I talk to the boys about you and the farm all the time. We miss you (and I finally did it).

-Tyler

The check was written for $11,327.19. In the years following, the amounts were smaller, but every year contained a check for the interest Tyler owed on the amount he’d stolen from the farm and additional long-ignored updates about the family. Mack was not one for getting emotional, but he fell asleep on the table crying bitter tears in a pile of 22 dusty, opened Christmas cards. 

Snow had fallen overnight; Mack woke up alone in the kitchen with a sore back and a tear-soaked check stuck to his cheek. There was a knock at the back door. Mack scrambled to clean up the pile of envelopes and make himself look presentable. He opened the door and a puff of snow fluttered in. Outside on the back porch stood Tyler, his sons and wife at his side, holding the twenty-third Christmas card and the deed with Mack’s name on it to 250 acres of his best farm ground.

“It’s been a while,” Tyler said with a nervous smile. “Since you’ve never opened them, I thought we’d better deliver this year’s Christmas card in person.” 

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