December 1st, 2008

summer reading

Like an Overdue Thank You Card

One of the things I used to be good at was a sincere, specific and prompt thank you note after receiving gifts*.  Of course, there's a whole series of politeness if / thens that goes along with such cards - i.e. the more distant the family member, the more necessary the card - and one of them has to do with how late is too late to acknowledge a gift.  I'm sure the Emily Posts of this world would say there is no expiration date on such a gesture, but personally speaking, when I receive a vague note several months after giving the gift, I can't usually remember what the gift even was and I harbor strong suspicions that the note-writer doesn't remember, either.  In short, if the note will be both very late and notably vague, I think I'd rather not receive it.

Though late, I believe I'm still within the range of good taste in finally acknowledging the Thanksgiving holiday and specifying a thing or two that I'm thankful for.

Item #1 is going to sound like cheesy eye-roll fodder, but I'm going to go with "life".  I'll defend this with a couple of reasons why this one is at the forefront of my mind.  This Thanksgiving, my daughter and I spent the day with my husband's family.  One of the people who was there I didn't really remember meeting before, I think because the setting was a wedding where unknown people you chat with for brief moments really don't inspire recollection unless the exchange had some unusual aspect to it, but in the setting of this more intimate gathering there was opportunity to learn more about her and the Big Things that shaped this person's life.  Her Big Things included her husband and two sons dying within a very short window of time.  The husband was lost to old age, one son to a car accident, and the other son to a quick moving cancer.  There was a picture of the son who died of cancer at my relative's house that was taken a couple of years ago along with the (then) 9 year-old grandson.  This son was in his mid-30s.  I can't explain why, but that picture - one of those average studio jobs that people seem to have done to mark certain life milestones (though sometimes they are done "just because") - really hit home.  The son was about my husband's age, the grandson my daughter's, and it struck me forcibly how quickly and dramatically life can just go away.  One day a father can be getting his picture taken with his son and the next the father can be gone while the son's life is changed forever.  

Hitting much closer to home, my dad died in November.  He was an enigma to me, we weren't all that close, and he had been ill for some time, so in many senses the loss didn't feel all that unexpected or dramatic.  Nevertheless, and despite the fact that I can hardly articulate why, it was felt.  It is felt.  There is undeniably a selfish aspect in there that has to do with feeling like an orphan.  I mean, despite the fact that I'm an adult and hadn't been dependent on my parents in a very long time, there's just something to the knowledge that both your parents are gone that lets you know with a strange and emphatic finality that your childhood is gone forever.  Every interaction I was ever to have with both of my parents have now occurred, are now in the past, and what's left is my imperfect memory of them along with how they shaped me as a person.  There can be no revisting of this branch or that leaf with my mother and father to re-shape the tree to make it more true to what they intended in how I responded to the environment and nutrients they provided.  There can be no mutual review and rearrangement of past actions to sand off the splintered and rough edges and create a smoother product we can all admire.  The knowledge that a person is gone, a person who had hopes and dreams, a variety of life experiences, commitments and responsibilities, ownership of objects, that whole myriad of aspects that make up every human, that's mixed into the grief, too.  I'm just not sure where one part of it begins and another part ends, or whether it makes any difference anyway to pin down what's included in the mix.  The end result is the same: a life that existed is gone, gone forever, and it's just a fact you must get used to.

So anyway, I appreciate life.  I appreciate that I have it now, I appreciate that I'm enjoying it with people I love, and I'm thankful for the fact that we're in pretty good health, thus our odds are a little more on our side that we'll be able to continue appreciating this good fortune.  (I felt compelled to knock wood as soon as I put that down, and did.)

The next thing, which I'm calling Item #1A because it's kind of #1 in a different guise, is that I'm thankful for the present circumstances related to said life, including the type of family any person is blessed to have, employment and living conditions that are pretty damn good, and a social reality that, while flawed, is certainly better than many of the alternatives.   (More wood knocking.)

As for Item #2, it's going to sound extremely silly after Items 1 and 1A, but I can't help myself...  I'm grateful that at least one major retailer I know of took the stance that it's a good and important thing to recognize and celebrate our holidays one at a time.  A couple of weeks back, I was at Nordstrom.  At the entrance was a sign that said Nordstrom believes in celebrating holidays one at a time, and thus they wouldn't be decking their halls until after Thanksgiving.  Now I realize that it's a pretty narrow band of objects one can purchase at Nordstrom (and an even narrower band of people who have the gift of financial choice in electing shopping there in the first place), thus the opportunity for positively electing Nordstrom over other retailers is a small one.  Nevertheless, for myself, it's this kind of thing that'll have me selecting the Nordstroms of this world over the Macy's any day.  All other factors being relatively equal, on those rare opportunities when it comes up that I have the choice between purchasing something there instead of other places, I'll be going to Nordstrom. 

I've never been convinced that decorating for Christmas early has caused any appreciable increase in the number of gifts one will buy or the amount of money one will spend.  Meanwhile, I have been convinced that decorating for Christmas at Halloween has focused our culture ever more sharply on the peripherals in relation to our holidays instead of the hearts.  The point of holidays have always been, at heart, about appreciating the blessings related to the gifts of life, family, friendship, and the earth's bounties. 

And so saying, I've made myself feel a little less silly about including this Item #2 in the same company as Items 1 and 1A, and will therefore quit while I'm ahead.

In short, I'm thankful, though late in expressing it.  Now it's time to, figuratively speaking, address the envelope, add the stamp, and send this thank you note on out to the universe.  I can only hope the universe doesn't mind receiving it late.

*A good friend of mine opened wedding gifts with her husband plus the bridal party the day after the nuptials took place.  Her maid of honor had the list of people invited to the wedding - complete with addresses - at the ready.  After each gift was unwrapped, the bride wrote the thank you note while the maid of honor addressed the envelope.  It made for a long day of gift unwrapping, but the bride went off on her honeymoon feeling very light of conscience knowing those notes were going to be in the mail by the time her plane took off for the tropics.  That's the gold standard of thank you note writing promptness right there, in my opinion.