When I was a child and some generous family friend or relative gave me a gift, I had to make the dreaded ‘thank you phone call.’ It was usually to some relative we did not see too often and I had little interest in talking to them when they were in the room, much less on the phone. As a kid, trying to talk to any adult on the phone was difficult, talking to an adult you had no interest in was absolute agony.
For group gifts it was easier: mom would dial and one by one, my brothers, sister and I would take the phone and talk to our benefactor. I liked going last because I could glean the blest from their remarks and come up with something clever… until they asked a question.
If prepared, I can answer anything. Unprepared, I can not tell you what time it is with a digital clock in hand. I tend to go blank when any questions are asked. Even if I raise my hand, once called upon my brain locks up and I forget why I have my hand in the air.
After a couple of years it became a bit easier. I learned to wait for them to ask questions like “What have you been up to?” and the always classic “How is school?” I knew the answers to these and robotically would repeat the same answers each and every conversation.* I knew never to ask a question as that would only prolong the conversation.
I never felt free to tell them what I wanted to talk about: How my favorite summer activities were playing cars in the dirt, and sitting around in the big cherry tree in the back (but not the smaller ones), eating cherries and seeing how many pits I could keep in my mouth without swallowing (26… I believe it’s a neighborhood record). I wanted to talk about how Carol Burnett was the funniest show ever and that along with Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart Saturday night was the best night for television. How lying on our side lawn in the dark, staring up at the stars in the night sky with my friends around me was the best feeling ever. No one ever asked and I never thought to bring it up. Besides, without knowing they were going to deviate from the standard questions ahead of time, I wouldn’t have known how to answer (why no one ever thought of submitting questions in advance was beyond me).
However, on rare and lucky occasions, I would call and get the answering machine! No stilted conversation. No awkward silences. Just pure “Thank you so much for the gift, I love it. I’m sorry you weren’t home, maybe I’ll try again another time.” Meaining: “Maybe I’ll try and miss you again next year!”
However, I think they were equally grateful they did not have to talk to me. Seriously, they knew the answers to the questions as much as I knew what questions were coming. Something tells me Uncle Frank was screening his calls…
Today I got home and there was a phone message from my niece and nephews thanking me for their birthday gifts. The phone was dutifully passed around from one to the next and the relief that they did not have to actually speak to me was evidently clear.
Even though they are teenagers the message they left varied only slightly from the messages they left when they were little kids. They still have not figured out the best way to say thank you and avoid any kind of awkward silences or painfully stilted voicemails. A lesson taught to me by my mother when I was ten and it is a brilliantly simple idea that continues to serve me well: get out a piece of paper and write a thank you note.
*Answer to Question #1: “Not much.”
Answer to Question #2: “Fine.”
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