Four Criteria for Thank-You Notes (or why Lena isn’t done yet)

IMG_6945“You’re not going to like this,” says Lena, handing me a thank-you note fresh from the printer. It is 7 already; bedtime is 8. This is the final task standing between her and TV.

I read it. “You’re right,” I say. She waits. I tell her what to do.

“That’s it?”


“OK,” she says, and heads back to the computer.

That, my friends—that remarkable exhibition of obedience—is the Principle of Parental Certitude at work. When faced with their parents’ absolute certainty, children (at least young children) tend to obey. Whatever rules you consider non-negotiable, your children will not try to negotiate.

In practice, of course, almost everything is negotiable. You’re a reasonable person. You’re willing to let piano practice go for the day, wait till tomorrow for the room to be cleaned, accept sub-standard levels of personal hygiene. Or if you’re not, your co-parent is. In our case, once we remove every topic on which either of us is at all ambivalent, we’re left with . . . kids who eat their vegetables, make eye contact with adults, and write thank-you notes.

The thank-you note imperative comes from my side of the family. If a high regard for manners and a deep respect for the written word married and had a baby, it would be me—I mean, a thank-you note. I’m not obsessed with the details. It doesn’t have to be handwritten in black or blue-black ink. It doesn’t have to be perfectly spelled or punctuated. It doesn’t have to be perfectly serious. But it does have to meet certain criteria.

(1) It must be written.

On actual paper. Which my children then put in an envelope, on which they painstakingly write the address. They thanked the person in person or on the phone? I don’t care. They’re not sure it was really a present? I don’t care. Texting is easier? I don’t care. The gift-giver went to some trouble; my children will acknowledge that by going to some trouble themselves.

 (2) It must be written by a human.

“Thank you for the ___________! I love it. I’m glad you could come to my party” could come from a robot. Not even an empathetic, Wall-E type robot; more like the kind that assembles cars. And yet that’s the sort of thank-you note that children turn out all the time. I am sympathetic, believe me: it’s surprisingly difficult to write in a human voice. So I instruct my kids to begin a thank-you note with anything but “Thank you for the . . .” If they force themselves to start in some other way—any other way—then the rest of their letter is less likely to fall down the thank-you note production chute.

(I used to insist on the different-first-line rule, until presented with a note that bore the following first line: “Mom says I can’t start this letter with the words ‘thank you.’” Outsmarted, I relented. Still, my children almost never start with “thank you” because they know it boxes them in.)

(3) It must be written to a human.

That means my kids have to acknowledge not just the gift—the particular gift—but the particular person. Children who write “Thank you for the present” become the new parents who send out a form email with a photo of Baby Trixie and a sentence thanking us (and presumably many others just like us) for our “generous gift.” Um . . . you’re welcome?

The subtext of the thank-you note is recognizing another human being: I see your generosity. I see what you mean to me. I see you. (All forms of ritual correspondence do this: a condolence letter says, I see your pain.) A form letter does the opposite: it makes the gift-giver feel invisible, unseen.

I would prefer not to receive a thank-you note than to receive this kind. At least then I could think badly of the (spoiled, heedless, or irresponsible) person rather than of my (unimportant, unnoticed, or unloved) self.

(4) It must express gratitude.

Many thank-you notes fail this most obvious requirement because they don’t meet criteria 1, 2, or 3. It can be hard to find the gratitude in a hastily written, rote, or generalized sentiment. But it is possible to meet the first three criteria and still fail to meet the last. Lena, for example, was so intent on chatting about the present in question that she forgot to write a sentence expressing thanks for it. Sometimes, too, my children kind of write around the gift itself because they didn’t really want it. These letters are still sweet and friendly, but there’s something missing: true gratitude. To write true gratitude—gratitude that can be felt by the reader—you have to feel true gratitude, if only for the ten minutes you are writing.

This exercise is important exactly to the extent that it is difficult. My kids are spoiled, materially speaking. They have and continue to receive far, far more than they need. In the midst of all this luck and luxury, they must take a moment to contemplate their good fortune and those responsible for it.

Not “they should” or “they would do well to” . . . they must. And so Lena does, without arguing, tonight, before TV. She can clean her room tomorrow.

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Atheist at a Funeral: A Contemplation in Four Hymns

Heaven1. “Be Thou My Vision”

During the first hymn, which I′d never heard before, I practiced sight-reading, trying to anticipate each rise and fall in pitch as I studied the hymnal. It was an absorbing mental game, a relief from thinking about the last time I saw Helen, when she had been twisted and slumped and barely responsive. Up a third, down a third, down a third, crap. Focus! By the second verse I gave up and sang by ear, following the pianist and the well-practiced congregation of Presbyterians. By the fourth verse, I had it.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

As we rustled back down into our seats, adjusting skirts and suit jackets, I realized I had no idea whether Helen would have sung such a hymn sincerely, to God, or whether she would have sung for the pleasure of it, as I had. I had known Helen all my life and yet I did not know whether she was a believer.

She did celebrate Christmas; I could vouch for that. Christmas Eve at her house was a treasured ornament of my (Jewish) childhood: we kids sitting on the carpet by the pretty little tree in the parlor, the grownups settled around us on sofas and chairs. We each got a Bible passage to read, and I was terrified I’d have to read the word “Selah,” which I sort of knew how to pronounce but could never make sound natural, like I meant it. Christmas at Helen’s made you want to mean it. The presents were modest, the decorations more loving than lavish, and when we sat down in the dining room to eat, the candlelight gave her laughing eyes an extra sparkle.

2. “On Eagle’s Wings”

The next hymn sounded familiar, especially the chorus, which had the push and swell of a diva pop song. I bided time through the verses for a chance to sing at full voice.

And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of his hand.

It wasn’t just Christmas. I always thought of Helen and her husband Jim as the best of Christians—kind, loving, learned. This church we were in—their church—was known for its good works, and Helen was an active member. But did she believe the Bible was the Word of God or a work of literature, like her beloved Faulkner only maybe not as good? Did she believe in God? In Heaven? Did she think, as she took her last breaths a couple of weeks before, that she would soon be seeing Jim again?

I could ask one of her daughters, couldn’t I? Maybe not the one I knew to be a practicing Christian—the one who had chosen the hymns—but the one I knew best, who’d stayed in my hometown. I looked among the mourners and found Karis’s face. But she was weeping and I had to look away.

3.  “We Shall Overcome”

I could not sing the next hymn. I kept trying, but my voice kept breaking into ugly pieces. This one I knew, of course; it had already worn a groove in my hopeful liberal heart. It also reminded me of Helen. The first political discussions I remember hearing were between Helen and my father, two progressive Democrats who managed to find plenty of room for debate. Just a couple of years ago, bed-moored in a facility, she still read the Washington Post religiously and lit up at the chance to gripe about House Republicans. That was my husband’s gift to her, on our infrequent visits. Better by far than flowers.

We are not afraid;
we are not afraid;
we are not afraid today.

I gave up trying to sing; I cried instead. I cried because she was gone and because, though I had loved her, I hadn’t really known her. I cried because it didn’t occur to me until she died that she taught me—without ever lecturing me—what a woman could be. She was an intellectual, a reader, an activist, a traveller. She was radiant. She made a lovely home, liked a stiff drink, relished a good argument. And boy, could she tell a story.

Helen had been 88 and ill, her dying past due. But still, how was it possible that she no longer existed? I looked around the light-filled church, and cried for everybody in it. For all of us humans, burdened with the knowledge of death, doing everything we can to bear that burden more easily. Trying for millennia to make it make sense. Trying—with giant contraptions of mythology adorned with poetry and rules and songs—to make death not permanent, not true.

Religion is beautiful and touching, when you think of it that way: a massive, communal labor of invention.

4. “Amazing Grace”

For the last hymn, I pulled myself together. I loved this tune, and when did I ever get to sing it for real? I could do that now. I could add to this fragile fiction for a few minutes. I could lend my voice to this heart-breaking, age-old attempt to make the end not be the end.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.

As the song came to a close, the pianist dug into a crescendo. He hadn’t done that before, and it surprised me. But my voice followed joyously, and I was, for a moment, consoled.


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