I love giving gifts. I will never be one of those shoppers who plucks a handful of gift cards from a carousel at CVS on Christmas Eve. I have never joined the crowd of bargain hunters out before dawn on Black Friday; even if those acrylic sweaters are a great deal, I don’t want to give my daughter one of millions that are just alike. I prefer to wait for the moment when I spot something that feels exactly right, even if it’s July. The best of those moments happen in unexpected places like a tiny gallery in an artist’s garage or at a table in front of a used book shop. The perfect gifts have a certain spontaneity to them.
But my real obsession isn’t with the purchase, wrapping, or arrangement of those gifts under the Christmas tree.
I am obsessed with the “thank you” that follows. Or doesn’t follow. Whichever.
Now, I am not talking about formal notes penned on monogrammed stationery, although I admit I own personalized note paper suitable for just such occasions. Actually, I am a little surprised that the Hallmark aisle in WalMart still sells thank you notes in neat cellophane packs of eight. They can’t be completely obsolete if WalMart can still turn a buck or two on the notion that we ought to say thanks.
Maybe it’s just me. The summer before 8th grade, i checked Emily Post’s Etiquette out of the library, and read it cover to cover more than once. Emily Post couldn’t have imagined the complexities of 21st century gratitude. Is an e mail enough? What about a tweet, or a post on a Facebook wall? Does the recipient have to actually call to express thanks, or will a text do the trick? Of course a real life “thank you” trumps all of these, but with family spread across seven or eight states at last count, that just doesn’t happen much anymore. But I notice when a thank you comes, in whatever form it takes, and I also notice the ones that go unsaid.
It’s not intentional, but when the tree ornaments are packed away and January rolls around, I find myself creating two neat columns on the left side of my brain. The first is labeled, “Expressed Gratitude for Gift Received and Therefore Qualifies as a Well-Mannered and Civilized Person Deserving of My Continued Affection.” The second? Honestly, this column would include the names of “Those Who Failed to Say Thank You and Who I Will Have a Difficult Time Forgiving at Least Until the Next Birthday.”
I disguise it, sometimes, as worry about the safe arrival and ultimate appropriateness of my carefully selected gift. I mean, what if Joanne’s package is laying at the bottom of a Fed Ex scrap heap in Tennessee? Maybe Michele’s cute Tommy Hilfiger pj’s were too big and now she is insulted because I must think she is fat. Maybe Melinda’s beautiful Irish knit sweater was too snug and now she is embarrassed to tell me she gained weight after the last baby came along. Was Adam’s gift was too heavy on clothes and too lean on the fun stuff that little boys like? Was my handmade (fill in the blank) the joke of the entire holiday season? Has it already found its way into the Goodwill box?
But often times, it comes down to this: She got it. She just hasn’t said even the simplest thank you. I’ll show her! No gift next year! No gift ever again! Just you wait and see!
(In fact, no one has been formally excommunicated from my gift list for quite some time.)
A teacher I loved died a few weeks ago. I took her poetry classes each summer for years, and rearranged everything on the calendar so I wouldn’t miss a class. I struggled, sometimes, with the assignments and I was shy about reading aloud. Everyone else seemed to be so….well, so poetic, as if it came easily to them. I loved that teacher, with her flowing skirts and gentle voice and bold way of saying, “Yes, write!”
When I heard that Margo had died, I told my husband Mike about those classes. He asked, “Did she know she had that effect on you? That you arranged your summers around her classes? Did you ever tell her?”
I didn’t tell her. I never lingered after class, or sent an e mail, or wrote one of those thank you notes. I wonder if saying thank you would have sparked a great friendship with a gifted woman. Perhaps it would have come at the precise moment when her heart carried a burden I couldn’t see. But I didn’t say it, so I’ll never know for sure.