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My mother, who attended a college which contained parlors and a skirts-and-heels dress code for the all-female student body, passed many harrowing post-Christmas hours hovering over my sister and me as we anchored opposite ends of the kitchen table, engaged in battle over the matter of thank-you notes.  “Someone was nice enough to think of you, take the time to pick out a present, and spend their hard-earned money on you,” she’d say as my little blonde head banged to the table, for I was missing valuable Atari time for this crap.  “The least you can do is say thank you.”  Now that I am old and thank yous  are more and more conveyed instantaneously and stamp-free, I’m inclined to thank my mother for all the thanking, for I am finding that my needs--and my need to thank--are expanding more and more beyond any physical gifts.

Most “How To Write Anything for Any Occasion” articles assert that a truly gracious thank-you note assures the giver that the item fulfills a specific and pressing need for the receiver, whether it actually does or not.  Thus the sullen right-brained little girl, who abhorred puzzles from the first telltale loose rumbling of the wrapped box, was trained in the art of the social white lie (“Thank you for the puzzle.  I will use it.”)  But these modern thank-you notes, unforced and bound only by electrons, invert the process:  They focus on an unconscious giver and a receiver who he or she will likely never meet.

Some gifts stem from a public career or vocation—the musician, the pastor, the athlete who in the act of plying the trade had in some way positively affected an observer.  In some ways, these modern thank-yous provide a flash connection to another human being we would otherwise never have contact with. While I wrote a thank-you email to the used car dealership employee who over the course of a month patiently provided  various documents demanded from an infuriatingly bureaucratic DMV, I also tweeted former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason to thank him for inspiring me to a life of football fandom over twenty years ago.   Both thanked me for the thank you (I was slightly more excited to hear from Boomer.)

As a writer who occasionally hears from kind readers, I can attest that these moments are the most cherished part of the job—they are unexpected, they are verification of a lifepath, and they cannot be bought.  The joy with which my friends who are parents or educators report a moment of gratitude is a testimony to the power of the gesture.  It can be a little white square rectangle in the mailbox.  It can appear in under 140 characters.  But the “drive-by thank you” in a world in which the instant statement is so often used to wound can heal a day, a week, even a life.

Thank you for the 500 words we’ve spent together.  I’m glad you were here. 

Now, Atari time.

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