An earlier version of this essay appeared in HuffPost on 11/10/2015
I was mortified because I didn’t send thank you notes after my birthday the year my mother died. The flowers had drooped and died, but other presents — a couple of gift cards, an adult coloring book (very Zen), a cuff bracelet — were tangible reminders of my negligence. It’s not like me and I felt guilty. It’s not that I wasn't grateful. I was. And I was raised better than to blow off this time-honored tradition and most basic piece of etiquette.
My mom drilled into me as soon as I could write, it seems, the importance of acknowledging a gift-giver’s thoughtfulness and generosity. After every Christmas and birthday she provided me with stationery, stamps and addresses, and hounded me until I wrote my notes. The year she gave me sealing wax and a brass stamp with an “M” on it I couldn’t wait to get to the task so I could light the deep red wax like a candle and watch, mesmerized, as it dripped onto the back of the envelopes before carefully stamping my initial into the hot goo. I’m grateful for the lesson. My mom taught me it’s important to express gratitude and let the people I care about know I don’t take them for granted.
So how did I go astray four years ago?
My mom died in August, a week after my birthday. I left town in a flurry and joined my family to keep vigil at her bedside. There was a memorial service, a reception, friends stopping by the house to comfort and feed us, and charitable donations in her honor.
The thank yous I wrote following my mother’s death took precedence. I bought some dignified new notecards because the stash I had — which included New Yorker cats and vintage photos of frumpy old ladies — seemed frivolous. I penned words of thanks, some to people I’d never even met or even heard of, for memorial contributions... to the clergy who’d been so loving to my mother during her illness and so pastoral to us afterward... to the hospitality team who saw to it that we had a lovely reception following the service... to a woman from the church whose weekly encouragement cards to my mother we found while clearing out her room at the assisted living facility.
Inspirational writer William Arthur Ward said, “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” As I expressed my appreciation, I was moved by the impact my mother had on so many other lives. Sure, writing those notes was daunting because I was heartbroken, but at the same time, it buoyed me to acknowledge the compassion so many had shown for my mother and our family. It turned out to be an important part of my grieving process. I was grateful.
When I returned to my hometown a month after my mother’s death to settle some of her affairs, I carried blank notecards with me to finally write my birthday thank yous. Regrettably, I got bogged down in clearing out a storage unit and never wrote the notes. The cards I set aside reproached me from the desk in the kitchen. I know my friends understood. I doubt they were checking their mailbox daily for acknowledgement, but I didn't quite let myself off the hook.
That’s because I know how meaningful it is to be on the receiving end of a thank you. And as much as I love good stationery, pretty cards and lovely handwriting, some of the most touching thank yous are words scratched out by kids in pencil on a piece of notebook paper or a post-it note. While it’s true that an exceptionally well-written expression of gratitude is akin to a lyric poem, it really is the thought that counts and sometimes a simple “thank you” will suffice.
Maybe I didn’t write those birthday thank yous in the wake of my mother’s death because deep down I knew my dearest friends deserved so much more than a perfunctory note jotted off in an effort to tick a box on my to-do list. So when Thanksgiving approached that year, I decided to right (write?) the wrong of neglecting that handful of notes and use the occasion to express my thanks for all the ways those friends had gifted me and supported me throughout the year. Because, really, is it ever too late to say "thank you?" I even bought some sealing wax.
P.S. An Episcopal priest friend once shared with me that clergy often preach messages that they themselves need to hear. In the spirit of full disclosure, I dusted off this piece because it's a message I need to be reminded of.