“She was Christmas,” Dowling, 95, said of his wife, to whom he was married for 70 years. “She did everything big; all cooking and baking.
She died on December 1, 2013 after battling Alzheimer’s disease. That year, Dowling and her daughter, Suzan Brito, took down the tree and canceled Christmas.
“My dad couldn’t stand it,” said Brito, who lives with Dowling – a World War II Navy veteran – and is his primary caretaker. “He’s only been with one woman in his whole life, and she’s gone. When December 1 comes around, my dad gets really sad.
The following year, as December approached, Brito thought of ways to cheer up his father, whose grief was all-consuming.
“Dad loves getting mail,” said Brito, 64. “I thought maybe Christmas cards would make him happy.”
She called her family and friends on Facebook, asking people to send her father a Christmas card. To his delight, they did.
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“That first year, he had about 30,” she said. “It carried him through December.”
The cards served their purpose, so Brito decided to do it every year. Every year, at the end of November, she posts a request on Facebook and mentions her home address. Her family, friends – as well as strangers – send her heartfelt holiday wishes. In 2018, Dowling received 102 letters.
“He always looks forward to them,” Brito said, adding that he reads every card and letter and proudly sticks them on the walls around their home.
Last Christmas, the number of cards dropped to 14.
“It didn’t carry him,” Brito said, explaining that last Christmas was particularly difficult for his father. “He suffers because he misses my mother.”
“This year I was like, I’m not going to let this happen again,” Brito said. “My dad is my best friend.”
She posted her request for the card on Facebook earlier than usual, and her daughter – whose social media network is bigger than hers – also offered to share it.
“We’ve been doing this since my grandma passed away,” Charlene Fletcher, 45, posted on Facebook, asking people to send her grandpa cards. “It helps him get through the holidays.”
“He goes out on the porch every day and checks the mail,” she continued. “I hope you find the courage in your heart to send him one.”
From there, the card-collecting effort exploded, heading into TikTok and local news. Dowling received over 10,000 cards in just eight days.
“I’ve never seen so many cards,” said Dowling, who served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946 and was a baker on the USS Liguria. “It feels really good.”
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Brito, for her part, was surprised.
“It’s the biggest and best thing that can happen to him,” she said.
“It just goes on and on,” Brito continued. “We process an average of 2,000 cards a day.”
Cards arrived from all over the United States (including Alaska), as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia. While some are handcrafted by children, others are written by adults. Some cards feature cute Christmas designs and many express empathy for Dowling’s holiday grief.
“The letters are just amazing,” said Fletcher, who visits his grandfather in the evenings and helps him sort through the cards.
Fletcher also received messages from strangers, thanking her for bringing her grandfather to their attention. They find his story relatable.
A stranger called. He had photos of his Holocaust-era family.
“My dad’s name was George, he passed away 6 years ago and he loved Christmas,” an Alabama woman wrote to her. “It wasn’t the same until this year when I came across your ‘George’.”
“I wanted to say thank you. It’s been such a blessing to me and brought back a lot of my Christmas spirit to try to help you with this,” she continued. “You and your George have helped me enjoy this Christmas more than any of the last 6.”
“It’s so heartwarming,” Fletcher said. “Nowadays people don’t really open up like that, especially to a stranger. They feel connected to him.
Each day, a postman shows up with several boxes of cards, and Dowling enthusiastically ventures out onto the porch to collect them. Reading them “occupies my mind,” he said. It also reminds him that “people are good”.
In addition to cards, Dowling – who has four children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – has also received numerous gifts, including candy, cheese platters, stuffed animals, gift cards, pajamas and handmade knitwear. He also received a map and ornament from the White House Historical Association, as well as letters and trinkets from local officials. Pawtucket Police held a drive-by parade outside his home on December 9.
“It was crazy,” said Dowling, who said he’s been feeling like a celebrity lately. In recent days, he has been arrested on the streets, in the supermarket and in restaurants by fans who have seen his story.
“He’s very quiet and shy, but everywhere we go people say ‘Grandpa George!’,” said Brito, a retired nurse who cares for her father full-time. “People ask for his autograph. People take pictures with him.
“It makes him so happy,” she said.
Dowling’s favorite card so far is of a 4-year-old girl named Nina.
“I love you Georges. You are my best friend. Merry Christmas,” she wrote, and included a drawing of a colorful Christmas tree.
“It’s amazing,” Dowling said, adding that there were too many cards to answer in the hand, but he’s sincerely grateful for each one.
Although he still misses his wife, he said, the unexpected support from people near and far has made this holiday season happy.
“I can’t stop smiling for him,” his daughter said.