The art of the thank-you note

I didn’t know until much later in life that what I believed to be Universal Law was only Cohen Household Law: good deeds are memorialized in writing and mirrored back to the doer. This formalized ritual of written gratitude – the thank-you note – imprinted me with my mother’s vehemence for doing the right thing. As a child, my thank-you boomerangs made me very popular with my friends’ parents who were pleased to see their acts of kindness reflected back through the round, backward-slanting letters of my emphatic lefty gratitude.

At age 13, bent over a list of several hundred names paired with their accompanying Bat Mitzvah gifts, I labored to print a meaningful message into each redundant card imprinted on the front with my purple, metallic name. I remember my mother standing over me, proofreading. For those ambiguous, distant relatives who did not attend my Bat Mitzvah but sent gifts, I figured it would be acceptable to write multiple variations of the same vaguely generic message. My mother saw things differently. Each card, she insisted, was its own dialogue between the person receiving it and me. What, specifically, did I like about the gift? How did I feel about this particular person’s presence or lack of attendance? How could I make each introduction and conclusion personal to that specific person? From the lumpy coals of my junior high vocabulary, we mined thank-you notes so radiant and precise that they could have cut glass.

I hated writing those cards, many of which I had to throw out and start over, and I resented my mother for making me work so hard at them. And yet. In retrospect, I think of my mother as a master composer insisting that her protégé practice scales. Having spent my childhood cultivating those notes, chords and theories, the music of gratitude became as reflexive as my enteric nervous system. Today, I find myself replete with the pleasure of improvisational thankfulness.

For example, I hired Brant to build an arbor around my front door. I drew it exactly as I wanted, and he manifested my vision in physical form. The arbor permanently changed my experience of entering my house; its beauty uplifted me every time I crossed my threshold. Today, climbing roses and ecstatic jasmine cascade their fragrances of welcome from this lofty height of beauty. A few weeks after the arbor was erected, I called Brant. He answered the phone defensively.

“What can I do for you,” he asked, his voice a cold brillo of distance.

“You can say, ‘You’re welcome,’” I responded.

“I don’t understand,” Brant shot back across the wire.

“I am calling to say ‘Thank you.’”


“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I love my arbor, and I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your work.”

More silence.

“I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and no one has ever called to thank me for it,” Brant responded. “People only call me when they have problems.” He was incredulous.

I had a similar experience with L.J. at Honda who sold me my car. As a single, adult woman who had never set foot in an auto dealership, I was full of trepidation when I walked through the Thomason Honda doors. L.J. answered my questions, didn’t push, was reasonable and gave me space to think and decide. He completely exceeded my expectations of what a beat-‘em-down car sales experience might be. I wrote him a note letting him know how much I appreciated the respect and spaciousness he provided for me and how happy I was with my car choice.

L.J. called me a few days later. He said that his was the first thank-you note in the history of the dealership. The managers open the mail, and then pass on all acceptable communications to the sales team. Evidently, my note was circulated through the ranks, and as a result, L.J. was mercilessly teased. But I’ll bet that every one of his peers looked at him differently after that.

Encounters like these give me pause. Are we really living in an age where the only feedback loops of closure are complaints? How did we get to a place where we have mutually agreed that what’s worth mentioning is what’s wrong? Possibly, broadcast news has trained us for this. Or therapy. Maybe the legal system. But I’m less interested in what has washed us up on this shore of mutual wonderlessness than I am in floating on my back through the oceanic mystery of appreciation. It seems to me that when our focus is on solving problems, we are most likely to see problems. When our focus is on celebrating goodness, we are likely to tune into what is good.

I think I first stumbled into this concept of intentional goodness when I read Charlotte’s Web as a small child. As you probably know, in this story a message woven into a spider’s web saves a pig’s life. “Special Pig,” as told by Charlotte, changed the way the world experienced Wilbur, while changing the lens through which he saw himself.

I would like to thank Charlotte for teaching me that just one word of appreciation can liberate hope from hopelessness and unlock life from death. And I would like to thank my mother for bringing to my life a discipline of acknowledging what is good. Like Wilbur, through the mirror of language, I have learned to find myself worthy. One note of gratitude at a time, I am claiming a place for myself in this world.

Copyright © 2006 Sage Cohen. Used by permission.

By Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen writes "books and poems, essays and love letters, articles and thank-you notes." She is the author of The Productive Writer and Writing the Life Poetic. She blogs at Paths of Possibility.