Our family does a lot of celebrating this time of year.
Right on the heels of the holidays, we have three family birthdays in the same week. Cake temporarily becomes a regular food group at our table.
As the sweet leftovers start to dwindle, another less popular but still anticipated package makes an appearance: Mom’s thank-you card basket.
Yes, I am one of those parents who insists my kiddos pen their thanks to the friends and family who help us celebrate our presence in the world.
My kids moan about it just as much as I did at their ages.
The truth is that if we delay at all after the holidays and let the Christmas thank-you writing bump into the birthday thank-you writing, it’s a bit difficult to sustain the attitude of gratitude that we’re trying to cultivate.
When the writing commences, our conversation often starts with a math problem: “If Mom says I have to finish thank-you cards this week and I have X many to go, what is the least number I can write each day after school and still make the deadline?”
We talk about how they need to go beyond what we’ve termed the “cave man” thank you: “Dear __, Thank you for the __. Love, _.”
They need to say at least one specific thing they like or anticipate liking about the gift — sometimes with mixed results. My most reluctant writer adds honest and factual details, such as “I haven’t played with it yet” or “I don’t know what I will buy with it.” It meets the three-sentence minimum and gives more information, right?
Then comes the philosophical conundrum — the gift that you truly don’t care for, but must acknowledge. Is this dishonest? I had quite the nuanced conversation with my second-grader about how occasionally, omitting the truth or acknowledging a partial truth to save someone’s feelings is truly OK. If a gift was purchased with you in mind, what you are acknowledging is the time, planning, and thoughtfulness. Yes, there might be a little bit of faking involved.
I have to keep my collection of on-hand cards gender inclusive because my son will no more pen a thank you on a flowered card as he would wear a flowered shirt. This year’s card, brown with white polka dots, was even pushing it. Since my predilection for all things stationery started early in my life, I understand. Never let the card project the wrong image.
I know that for my grandparents, three of whom my kids have had the privilege of knowing through their young lives, these small acknowledgements mean the world and are expected. As they age, I realize that the effort they make to shop, wrap and mail gifts that arrive on time is significant. The yearly thank-you cards are little time capsules that are perhaps the only direct, written communication great-grandparents receive from our kids.
My paternal grandmother, once a schoolteacher, always notes the changes in handwriting year to year and delights in the details the kids choose to share. This same grandma hopped on her email recently to thank me for having the kids write to her and shared the observation that handwritten thank-you cards seem to be a lost art these days. The arrival of anything handwritten is somewhat remarkable, apart from Christmas cards.
I concede that in the future it may be perfectly acceptable to use email, texts and other yet-to-be-invented mediums to acknowledge people. But I want to believe that the well-written, handwritten note may take on even more distinction with time. While etiquette in the business world has evolved to a place where email is perfectly acceptable, say after a job interview, my friends who work in management assure me that a handwritten note still stands out.
When the process gets really cumbersome, I reassure the kids that they’ll be glad someday that I’ve given them this skill. (How cliché is that?)
Some of it must be sinking in: My youngest actually penned an unprompted thank you for US on her birthday this year (just thanking us for making her birthday special) and wrapped it up like a present for us to open. I have to say that midway through the gauntlet of frosting multiple sets of cupcakes for parties, she made us feel pretty darn wonderful.
At the very least, my kids will always know how to make their mom happy when I send them gifts. When they’re grown and gone, I hope they’ll take the time to send me the occasional thank-you note. I promise to treasure them.
Megan Blair-Cabasco is a Walla Walla writer and mother of three interesting children who inspire the wonder and humor that makes this column possible.