March 25, 2023

In 1982, Steve Mathwig sent a birthday card to his cousin, Karl Freund. 
It was a typical birthday card, with a typical corny joke. The setup was on the cover of the card: “Happy Birthday. It’s plain to see we’re related.” Inside was the punchline: “You’re the only one that’s as good looking as I am.” 
The following year, Freund did something less typical. He sent the same card back, with a note written under the punchline that said, “Remember this card?”
The cousins laughed at the joke the next time they spoke. Then the following year, Mathwig crossed off the year, wrote in the new year, and sent it back to Freund. On his cousin’s next birthday, Freund did the same.
Soon, the cousins stopped just crossing off each year. Instead, they started writing notes — personal milestones that had happened that year, such as getting married, having babies, starting jobs, buying houses. They also noted local and national news from the preceding months — the Packers’ Super Bowl wins, the Brewers and Bucks playoff runs, the COVID-19 pandemic, the price of gas. And they continued their inside jokes — like a 2003 note from Freund that said, “A half million Harley drivers came to town in honor of Steve’s birthday.”   
As the years went by and the notes continued, the card became too small to hold the cousins’ memories. They started adding panels to the card so that now — on the 40th anniversary of their tradition — it opens like an accordion. They also decided the notes weren’t good enough to document their shared history, so they also enclose photos of each other.
“The pictures aren’t necessarily from that specific year,” Freund clarified during a recent interview with the Journal Sentinel. “They’re more just to say, ‘hey, remember when we did this?'”
One photograph from the ’70s or ’80s includes a sarcastic caption reading, “Nice pants.” Another picture, with one cousin smiling into a mirror, is partially obscured with a caption, “I’m handsome — and Gosh darn it, people love me.”
The cousins, now in their 60s, grew up together as part of a tightknit extended family. As they describe it, their lives have unfolded in parallel. They are both the youngest of three siblings, and when their families would get together for parties and holidays, the cousins always paired up according to age.
“He’s one year ahead of me, and that’s kind of the way it’s worked out our whole lives,” said Mathwig. “He got married one year before me, he bought his house one year before me, he started having kids one year before me.”
Freund grew up on 60th and Capitol, and Mathwig grew up in West Allis. Mathwig remembers riding his bike to Freund’s house during summer vacation when they would spend their days together. “We would hang out at Capitol Court and play mini golf,” said Mathwig. “We were best friends.”
As the cousins grew up, their bond remained strong. They were best men in each other’s weddings, and when they bought their first houses, they worked together on remodeling projects. 
“I was a computer guy and he was a handy guy and we’d spend one night a week alternating houses, changing electrical, doing projects like that,” said Mathwig. “We called it house night.”
As their lives got busier and their families grew, they had less time to do things like house night, but shared interests and traditions like the birthday card have kept them close. Now they both live in Franklin and are co-directors of a weekly lawn bowling league.
A lifetime of shared experiences lends itself to a lifetime of inside jokes, and many of them are enclosed in the cousins’ shared birthday card. One photo shows them loading up plates with food from a buffet table. The caption reads, “I’m going for seven plates of food today.” Freund and Mathwig said the photo references the many trips they used to take to O’Hare airport in Chicago. Mathwig — who worked for Midwest Express, then Midwest Airlines for much of his career — and Freund share a love of airplanes and occasionally traveled to O’Hare to watch planes take off. The first leg of their day trip was always a stop at a restaurant for brunch where the competitive cousins would try to one-up each other on how many plates of food they could eat from the all-you-can-eat buffet.
“Then we would walk it all off at O’Hare,” Mathwig said.
The card now has more than just photos enclosed in it. 
“You know those cards that make sounds when you open them?” Mathwig said. “I took the mechanism from another card and put that in our card one year. It survived for three or four years before the battery ran out.”
The card — which the cousins see as a time capsule of sorts — also has a 1980s-era video game called “Zork!” on a floppy disk inside. A few years ago, Freund put the disk in the card to remind his cousin of the time they each got the brand new-at-the time Commodore 64 computers. Freund jokingly wrote, “Happy birthday! This is the hottest new game in computing — hope you enjoy it! It’s a little dog-eared because I had to fight someone for it!”
As the card grew bulkier and the enclosures became more numerous, Freund engineered a sturdier, “heavy-duty cardboard” envelope for the card. He affixed a sticker with the acronym ARRT to the card. While the initials actually reference Freund’s membership to the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, he made the acronym more appropriate to the cousins’ tradition by writing: “Atomic Rated and Research Tested: first bullet-proof, nuclear-protective envelope for a birthday card.” 
Mathwig appreciates Freund’s work on the new envelope: “That envelope will be around till after we die,” he said.
“Yep, that and the cockroaches,” Freund agreed.
Freund’s and Mathwig’s relationship is characterized by good-natured teasing and lots of jokes, but it’s also clear they both care about their shared birthday card and the relationship it represents.
It’s why Freund made the heavy-duty envelope, and it’s why Mathwig has taken pictures of every component of the card, just in case it’s ever lost. “I also keep the card in a fireproof file cabinet when I have it,” Mathwig said.
“It’s too valuable to lose; that’s one reason we don’t physically mail it,” said Freund.
Every July 19 — Freund’s birthday — and Aug. 30 — Mathwig’s birthday — the card is delivered to the birthday cousin’s front porch, along with some balloons and a few treats. Favorites include doughnuts, ham and rolls, licorice and beer.
Although the birthday card swap is an important tradition to the cousins, they don’t always get everything right. Case in point: Mathwig admitted he forgot Freund’s birthday this year and had to sneak his gift onto Freund’s porch late at night.
There’s also a bit of a sore spot around the timing of the cousins’ birthdays. 
“Steve gets the better deal. He gets to keep the card for most of the year and I only get it for a month,” said Freund. “Steve gets first dibs on all the news that happened that year.”
Mathwig agrees he gets the better deal: “I do get to steal all the good stories,” he said. “But Karl become a grandpa for the first time this year, and I let him write down that story.”
As the cousins reflected on the 40-year life of their tradition and flipped through the card and its many enclosures, Mathwig pointed out an SD card with digital photos of the cousins that he started including in the card a few years ago.
Looking at it side by side with the 1980s-era photographs and the floppy disk video game, he said, “Wow, even the SD card is starting to look dated. We may have to add something like a QR code next.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” said Freund, his eyes lighting up. “Then you can really see how everything has changed over the years.”
Mathwig nodded in response. “Yeah, that’s kind of the point of our card, isn’t it?”
Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram at @wisfamilyjs or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.
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