2007.10.03 Thinking about thank you notes

Written by David Green.


Quite possibly, I am the world’s worst when it comes to writing thank you notes. No matter how grateful I am for whatever gifts I’ve received, for whatever kindnesses bestowed upon me, it always takes me way too long to communicate that gratitude in written form. Or else I compose them in my head, and then think I sent them already. And when I’m thanking many people, chances are, I’m inadvertently going to leave somebody out. It’s no excuse, but I suppose I can attribute my weak ways to my upbringing.

When I was growing up in poverty in the Bronx, I don’t think I ever wrote a thank you note. Nobody outside of my immediate family ever gave me anything so there was nothing to say thank you for. My granddaddy sometimes used to give us a little change when he dropped in for a visit. But he had 32 grandchildren so that didn’t happen very often. Among my aunts and uncles and cousins we did not exchange presents. It was enough for each of my mother’s seven siblings to take care of their own families; throwing nieces and nephews into the gift-giving mix wasn’t in the cards.

I recall an occasion now that, had any of my children been the recipient, I would have made them write a note of thanks: I received a camera from my elementary school when I graduated sixth grade as salutatorian. I’m sure my mother never made me write a note. I’m sure we didn’t have several boxes of thank you notes lying around the house as I do now. I’m sure we didn’t have any thank you notes.

When the presentation of the wrapped camera box was made at graduation, I probably would have said thank you to whoever gave it to me, but it never would have entered my head to follow that up with an official note expressing my gratitude.

I don’t fault my mother for failure to enforce this rule of etiquette. In my neck of the Bronx I don’t think it was common practice anyway. My more affluent friend, Adrienne, who grew up in Queens, wrote thank you notes as a kid, though.

“I use to send them to aunts and uncles,” she said.

“Did your mother make you?” I asked.

“I suspect it was probably at her prodding,” she admitted.

My mother on the other hand, had more immediate demands on her plate. She was always in survival mode, constantly figuring out how she was going to feed and clothe five children single-handedly while keeping a roof over our heads. Thank you notes? Not a priority. Not even on the radar screen.

“Why are you writing about this?” Adrienne wanted to know.

“I wrote a thank you in the paper to people who had helped with the Summer Reading Program and forgot to include a few who were major contributors,” I said.

Kym Ries and her community issues class made papier mache decorations for the annex and Mike and Carolin Gregerson of the Rex donated free passes to the theatre, and a free soda and popcorn, to boot, for our VolunTeens. These are really wonderful, special people, I bemoaned to Adrienne.

“Why don’t you write the column about Alzheimer’s—early onset,” she suggested with a laugh.

It wasn’t a bad idea. When I began this column I had a nagging suspicion that I had already written one on this subject, but David couldn’t find it in the Observer index.

“Are you afraid you’re going to plagiarize yourself?” asked Adrienne.

My encounter with thank you note writing began with expressing gratitude for the wedding presents we received 25 years ago. David, who had a childhood of proper training in the art of thank you notes, must have been bored by the traditional note writing. His plan involved taking photos of us using each of the presents and then accompanying the photos with a note. In those days, he developed his own film and printed his own photos—I think it was a long time before those notes made their way to their recipients.

I asked my children about their thoughts on the subject. Not wanting them to adopt my evil ways, I’d always impressed upon them that they had to write notes for gifts received.

“You seemed more concerned about that than anything else,” said Ben.

He didn’t sound too happy about it either.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It seems like it was the most important thing. You were always on us to write them,” he said.

“You made us do them and now I always do—it’s ingrained in us,” said Rozee.

Maddie might not include herself in that assessment. She seems to be following in my footsteps.

“I make the cards, but never write in them,” she lamented. “I write the cards and never send them.”

But if it’s the thought that counts, she’s still ahead of me.

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