Sunday, December 27, 2009

Great Lessons Learned From Thank You Notes

December 27, 2009

As we opened Christmas presents the other morning, the kids and I took notes about who gave us what. That list, scribbled in the chaos of Christmas morning, becomes an important document when it’s time to write our thank you notes.

I got into the habit of writing thank you notes when I was a young girl. My mother was insistent that all four of her children should write letters to everyone who gave us presents. It didn’t matter if the gift had been delivered in person and the gift giver verbally thanked, or if the present came from a perfect stranger.

Each year in the spring, my brother and my sisters and I would arrive home from school to discover a box full of presents from England. These were Christmas presents that never arrived in season. That was fine with us. We fell on them with great enthusiasm coming as they did, so long after our Christmas gifts had lost their novelty.
The box from Europe always had really cool things. One year we got some very unique mechanical pencils and boxes of replacement lead. There were toys and other doodads you just didn’t see in the States. England was still a long way away back then. My siblings and I loved the stuff that came in those cartons. For quite a while I never questioned the reason or the source of the gifts and it wasn’t until I was old enough to write thank you notes that it even occurred to me that there was a person behind the loot.

As it turned out, there was a pretty interesting story there. They came from a woman who had been communicating with my mother since the two of them were 13-years old. They were pen pals. Their correspondence continued through high school and into adulthood. In fact, my mother and Nette still keep in touch going on 63 years now.

It will come as no surprise then, that when I was in junior high school, mom encouraged me to get a pen pal. It seems so quaint now, in the age of email and IM and cell phones to think of a time when if you had something to say to someone you sat down, wrote it out, revised it, addressed an envelope, found a stamp, walked to the mail box and trusted that your news would be transmitted to the recipient within a week or two and that you’d have a reply in the next month. It sounds like I’m remembering life in a past century and I guess I am.

In any event, that is the kind of expression in which I was encouraged to engage and I have over the years filled my share of diaries and journals as well. While I was not, nor am I now a prolific epistolarian, I’ve written two books, and worked as a journalist for three decades so I guess I’ve killed a tree or two at this point in my life.

The most dependable pen pal I ever had was my grandfather, Sam. Because he was very generous with me I was obliged to write thank you notes with some frequency. I might have resented having to write the letter but I knew once it went into the mail, I’d hear back from him promptly.

When his letter arrived, it contained two things; a personal and handwritten reply, which included an update on his life and comments and questions about mine, and also my original letter with each misspelled word circled and each grammatical error corrected.
My grandfather could not bear for English to be maltreated and that went for the spoken word too.

When we were together if I started a sentence saying, “There was this girl…” I’d hear, “You mean - a girl I know.” If I reported on some activity involving my brother by saying, “Me and Jamie…” I’d hear, “You mean - Jamie and I.”

The parallel track to my grandfather’s lectures on proper English was the vocabulary and spelling component. Sam had a prodigious vocabulary. Though I never learned if it was inadvertent or intentional, I never had a conversation with my grandfather when I didn’t learn the spelling and definition of at least one new word. You may be thinking that Sam was a bit of a scold, but that’s not the case. We’d play games together. Especially Scrabble. That was a favorite.

In short, my grandfather was fascinated with words. He was taken by their variety and elasticity, how one root could branch into many others. He loved the specificity and power and structure of words.

The other thing my grandfather loved was travel. And I think these two great interests clashed because while he appreciated learning about people and nations around the world, he was frustrated that his marvelous facility with English did not serve him in many of the places he visited.
For many years he entertained the idea of creating a universal language called Pip. He used to talk to me about it and one detail that I remember is that no word in Pip would be more than one syllable. Now I think that my grandfather was ahead of his time, working out in his mind a vocabulary of words that would serve the global village.
As far as I know, Pip did not go any farther than our dinner table conversations. It certainly did not bring my grandfather fame and fortune. Sam practiced tax and estate law and made enough money so that he was a frequent donor to Rutgers School of Law, where he received his degree. His daughter - my mother - recently helped create of a law library reading room in my grandfather’s name. That is a great gift to his memory.

So when I think about my mother and her father one of their greatest gifts to me was teaching me to appreciate words. When used properly they can bridge cultures, enlighten minds and bring ideas to life. So in this season of gift giving, I want to show my appreciation for the great lessons they taught me through thank you notes.

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