When I was a kid, I hated writing thank-you notes.
Christmases and birthdays would come along with presents in the mail (always welcome) from my Alabama grandmother, my poet aunt and composer uncle in Pittsburgh, and my two sets of godparents in New Haven and Woodstock, N.Y.
I would open each package with glee. My grandmother in Alabama was notorious for stashing little things in the corners of a larger cardboard box, so we combed through every scrap of paper to make sure nothing got missed. What fun, what joy — the oil painting set when I was 8 years old, the pink outfit when I was 11, the art books when I was in high school and college, and the heirloom silver frames with old photos when I was a young adult (and they were, maybe, cleaning house). The stuff never failed to please me. I was a happy girl, until my mother would say, “Have you written your thank-you notes yet?”
As a child and young teen I would put it off. I would embrace homework and kitty-litter changing, make phone calls and take a bath and even clean my room to avoid writing the little notes.
My mother was a stickler about those notes. There would be no perfunctory “Thank you for the lovely gift, Love, Me.” Oh, no. My mother, who then would check my childhood spelling, would insist that if the gift was money, I spelled out what I planned to do with it, and maybe include a drawing of the thing to be had. If the present happened to be clothing, I needed to say how well it fit, and where I was going to wear it. In other words, I really had to give the giver the gift of my time.
Not a big deal, when I think about it now, but it was an ordeal then. I saw these relatives and semi-relatives once a year, and didn’t really have a deep personal relationship with any of them day to day. In the mid to late ’50s, long-distance phone calls were not thought of in our house. When I was 10, it was sitting down the day after Christmas and taking nice paper and a pen (not a pencil) and being the well-brought-up nice girl they knew (thought) I was and just doing it.
A few years later, I sometimes had to prompt my teenage swains to write their obligatory (to my mother’s thinking) bread-and-butter notes after a summer weekend in Orient. This lasted through college. My mother sort of kept score. Nice boys wrote notes. Nicest boys wrote long notes. She would save them. The note writers would be invited back.
But then came the Mother of All Thank-You Notes, the wedding-present thank-yous.
By the time I married (at age 36), I had my notes down. No more whining about what I would write to the Alabama grandmother I hadn’t seen for three years. (“Just tell her about your day,” my mother used to say. “She will love to know what you do.”) She was right and so I wrote.
When the wedding presents started arriving — oooh, Tiffany! — I opened each one, memo pad in hand. At that moment, I would write down my immediate thoughts. Won’t this look great on the dining table full of cherries! We will enjoy the champagne flutes every Sunday, when we have the mimosas that we so enjoy! That kind of thing. Then when I got around to actually crafting the note, it would at least seem spontaneous and fresh. No “Thank you for the gift” for me. Oh, no.
The biggest wedding present thank-you challenge came when the antique brass candlesticks arrived from my mother’s club members. I knew that a single note to all of them would be met with raised eyebrows. I decided to write to each woman, 15 in all, not allowing myself to repeat a sentence since I was quite sure they would compare notes. I managed to make the ladies happy, and patted myself on the back for the many ways I found to say “ We love the candlesticks, thanks.” A challenge well met, and a lesson shared. My mother beamed with pride.
Fast-forward to today, the present of presents, when I am the one mailing stuff off — to grandniece and grandnephew, stepdaughter, and various buddies far and wide across the United States. Now, as my relatives did when I was a kid, it’s me waiting to get their thank-you notes.
I realize how much more blessed it is to give than to receive and all that jazz, but I really do want to know that the package arrived. That’s another function of the thank-you note, by the way: Don’t fret, it got here.
Since I myself was never allowed to write the generic “thanks for the present,” I really love getting special thank-yous (e-mail is fine, by the way). A friend of — can it be . . . 40 years? — who lives in Texas makes a comment on everything I send her, including the wrapping paper if it is particularly special. What fun to relive the opening of my carefully chosen and wrapped gifts with the note writer! That I send her more than one thing in a birthday box is a legacy I cherish from my Alabama grandmother. (Thank you again, Danna.)
I think that a thank-you note is itself a gift. It is a gift of time and effort, of enthusiasm and connectedness.
Thank you, and you are very welcome.
Durell Godfrey is The East Hampton Star’s contributing photographer.