When I was ten, my mother enrolled me in Margaret Howell’s School of Dancing and Etiquette. It was a phase of my male finishing school education designed to rid the savage within and transform me into a Southern gentleman, i.e., Chaucer’s “veray parfit gentil knight.” (For the record, all gentlemen do not reside below the Mason-Dixon line. I’m sure there was a Northern version of Margaret Howell’s School. I just don’t know what it was.)
Following on the heels of dancing and etiquette classes, Mother signed me up for drawing lessons at the Hunter Art Museum perched on the bluff in North Chattanooga and overlooking the roiling waters of the Tennessee River below. As it turned out, I was terrible at drawing. The resident art instructor said as much, telling my mother she’d wasted her money. Undaunted, and still determined to civilize me, she pressed on, insisting that I select and learn to play a musical instrument. I chose drums – mostly out of revenge at having to play anything.
Looking back, I suspect my mother considered her efforts negligible. What she didn’t figure was that I was a work in progress. One thing she instilled in me that stuck was the importance of the handwritten note – especially the thank you note. She even ordered personalized stationery embossed with my initials. I admit, I was impressed with my new sense of self-importance. The letterhead sheets begged for deliberate and precise calligraphy in cursive script. Sadly, the instruction we received in school on “making our letters” is an artifact of the pre-digital age. For the most part, my college students’ handwriting is atrocious, if they bother to write by hand at all. Last semester one young woman in remedial freshman composition complained that she couldn’t retain key grammatical concepts.
“Write them out my hand,” I said. “If you do, the brain to eye to hand connection will reinforce your ability to remember them. They’ll become yours, in effect.”
“I’m lazy,” she admitted. “I don’t like to write. Besides, if you’ll write them on the board, I can take a picture of them with the camera on my phone.”
Make no mistake. Regarding the thank you note, in particular, technology makes it increasingly convenient not to practice the discipline of gratitude. Gratitude, to my thinking, requires time, focus, and attention to detail. Who of us doesn’t recall the thrill of being small and receiving a handwritten note or letter from family or friend on a birthday or Christmas? If the thank you note teaches us anything, it’s the value (and joy) of reciprocity. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was expected to write great-aunt Matty (who smelled like moth balls), thanking her for the pair of socks identical to the ones she sent last year. (I would be remiss if I didn’t interject a stern dictum at this point. If you don’t understand why an email thank you is gauche, inappropriate, and tacky – my mother’s word – then there’s little I can do for you.)
However, I’m happy to report that at least some parents are resurrecting the lost art of the handwritten note and instilling it as an important practice. I know this fact because I recently received an arduously penned thank you note from my six-year-old friend, Theo Trucks, son of friends Heather Schroeder and Jesse Trucks. I was also privy to the agonies writing that letter produced. I got my first clue when Heather called one day a few weeks ago. Her first words were,
“Can you hear the existential howl in the background? That’s my son melting down at having to write you a thank you note.”
I almost caved – telling her not to worry – that my birthday gift of two books didn’t require a thank you note. But Heather was adamant. She and Jesse are determined to rear a child (Note: one rears children; one raises pigs.) who is compassionate, thoughtful, respectful, and a pleasure to be around. They are succeeding, but it’s not easy work for today’s parents, especially when friends of theirs don’t hold their own children to the same standard. A few weeks earlier, Heather attended a gathering where those present were stunned that she required her son to write thank you notes.
“How bourgie [sic – bourgeois]!” One adult scoffed.
Another offered: “I didn’t even send thank you notes for my wedding gifts.”
Apparently, these speakers were proud to flaunt their disregard of fundamental courtesies that prevent us from inflicting misery on one another. This withering exchange didn’t deter Heather, though. She was unmoved, not folding even at the moment Theo wailed,
“I love friend Eddie, but he doesn’t neeeed a thank you note!”
I’m proud to say that Theo’s missive arrived in the mail a few days later. The old excitement surged through me as I withdrew the envelope from the mailbox. I couldn’t have been more thrilled than if I’d been a six-year-old on the receiving end of a pen pal exchange. Relationships take work, and in my hand was evidence of a tedious, painstaking, and laborious expression of friendship that I happily display on the wall of my office as testament to the lost art of handwritten notes. Another bonus is that Theo graciously consented to let me share my handwritten treasure with our readership. To that end, I proudly append the result:
Featured Image Source: Unsplash, Kelly Sikkema