By Susan FitzGerald

I start my Christmas cards early because it's my annual chance to spend time with my address book.

This year, when I pulled out the tattered book, I calculated its age as almost 39. The address book was a high school graduation gift, and at the time I marveled at how cool it was. Forget traditional brown: My book was pinkish-red, skinny, and a foot long.

Paging through the book is like revisiting key moments of my life. Even the handwriting speaks to various stages. Among the first entries was my family address - The FitzGeralds, 811 Hillaire Road - written in blue fountain pen with the perfect, rounded cursive I acquired over 12 years of Catholic school. It would be a few years until I adopted a more careless approach to handwriting.

The names in the book reflect places that shaped me: Lancaster, Penn State, England for a semester abroad, back to Lancaster for my first job, and then on to Philadelphia. Then came marriage, a move to the suburbs, and new friendships that flourished as the kids were growing up.

I took my address book seriously over the decades, and no one was entered into it casually. I'm not a person to collect friends, and the ones I have I take seriously. Paging through from A to G to W (no X's, Y's, or Z's) I'm struck by how well I know the stories of most of the people in the book, even if we have fallen out of touch. Only one name in the entire book draws a blank.

Each year, I wonder which of my friends has moved the most. Mary Beth, one of the smartest, most accomplished women I know, has 11 entries. Patty, who is carefree and unencumbered, has a dozen.

I also marvel at the old phone numbers, amazed that I remember some of them from my high school gang. I hope I never forget the phone number that matched my family's name for 56-plus years - but just in case, it's in the book.

Scattered throughout my address book are big X's, crossing out of entries to note, without erasing the memories, that someone has moved or died. My book took a hit the past couple of years, but I'm grateful to have a reminder of the friends and family who passed on.

Most of the Christmas cards arriving in the mail this year have computer-generated address labels. Instead, I set up my card-writing station on the dining room table - with the cards, pens, two kinds of Christmas stamps (religious and secular), and, of course, the address book. When Patty's Christmas card arrived, like clockwork, I checked the return address: same as last year, so no need for a new entry.

My address book, falling apart in places, reassures me that even though life changes, the constancy that comes with friends and family remains. My childhood home - 811 Hillaire - was sold last year, a few days before Christmas, though I haven't put an X through that entry and doubt I ever will. Like all the others in my book, the address is a reminder of why we have to recognize the places we've been, and the people who have loved us along the way.

Susan FitzGerald teaches journalism at La Salle University and is coauthor of the parenting book "Letting Go with Love and Confidence." She can be reached at sfitzgerald610@msn.com.