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Stories, Poems and Humor
Left Book A Halfway-Decent Thank You Note
by Panarese, Tom
Right Book

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Language: English

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My family has always had some strange Christmas traditions. Every Christmas morning, my sister and I sit at the top of the stairs and pose for a picture. My aunt Ingrid makes us sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" using her commemorative plates. My mom has adopted my aunt Marion's tradition of walking the wise men from the edge of the couch to the manger set up next to the Christmas tree. My sister and I try to one-up each other with cheesy gifts. And we drag our parents to the mall on the day after Thanksgiving to shop for the clothes they'll give us on Christmas Day.

Of course, Nancy and I have, for years, been doing our best to avoid unwanted gifts on Christmas, going to the point of fool-proofing our Christmas lists based on our parents' shopping habits (where they shop, what they'll buy, what they will tell relatives to buy). I learned to do that in 1985, when my sister opened up a Cabbage Patch Kid-a doll that had a dress custom made by my grandmother to match her Christmas dress-and threw it back into its box with an authoritative, "Just what I didn't want."

Isn't it ironic, then, that our gift-getting season began with a gift we didn't ask for from someone we'd never really met? Mrs. Irene Bonner, or "Rene" as she was known, was a colleague of my mom's from her New York Bell days. Every December, maybe two weeks before Christmas, a package would come in the mail. Nancy would nearly froth at the mouth, staring at the brown package, and saying "All right, the Bonner gifts," which was followed by my reminder that mom was going to save the gifts until Christmas morning. Of course, I made sure my dad was within earshot when I said this because he would give us permission to open them. My sister would hop off the counter and lunge at the package, set aside the petit fours for my parents, and viciously tear open her gift. I'd do the same, and then stare at it, bewildered. It's not like Mrs. Bonner gave bad gifts-I still use my electric razor, and my college roommates made extensive use of my leather (or at least what looked like leather but was probably naugahyde) portfolio. But for every briefcase, shaving bag, grooming kit, necktie travel case, and dartboard set, there were random gifts like my skateboard-an official Bart Simpson Vehicle of Destruction-and Nancy's tackle box full of makeup, the kind that is standard issue in New Jersey.

Somewhere in my parents' house is the portable black and white television I received when I was twelve-I never could get the vertical hold to work. The camera I received when I was nine didn't seem to work either, but I had a lot of fun blinding people with the flash. My parents may have used that remote-controlled boat one summer at the lake in New Hampshire. The telescope, which was a cool idea when I was eight, was too weak to pick up anything but the neighbors' yard-if she had given it to me ten years later, I might have had more use for it. I used the safe/bank and walkie-talkies, but the safe wasn't hard to crack and the antennae on the walkie-talkies broke and became the jagged metal that most walkie-talkie antennae eventually become.

The first words out of my mom's mouth upon discovering we'd already opened the Bonner gifts were always "Isn't that lovely. Make sure you write a thank-you note." I would whine about writing that thank-you note-not because I was a spoiled brat or because I didn't see any reason for writing one when we always called and thanked Mrs. Bonner on Christmas Day anyway. No, I was reluctant to write a thank-you note because I simply cannot write them. I know the gesture matters more than the quality of my work, but my thank-you notes are always a horrendous two sentences of "Thanks for the gift you got me for Christmas. I really appreciated it." My chosen profession being writing, that's a little more embarrassing. I'm sure my relatives, when they receive that three-weeks-too-late card, roll their eyes and say, "He really needs new material." It's only been what pride I have left that's prevented me from printing a form that reads:

Dear (names),
Thank you for the (name of gift). I really loved it/appreciated it/thought it was thoughtful (circle one).

Tom/Tommy (circle one)

The "Tommy" comes in not because the letter sounds like an eight-year-old wrote it, but because certain people, Mrs. Bonner among them, have retained the right to call me by a childhood name I more or less despised as a teenager. She'd earned it-my awkwardness seemed to be reflected in the awkwardness of my Bonner gifts at the time, so I had no choice but to be grateful. The woman, somehow, knew me.

Mrs. Bonner was 78 when she passed away last October and my first question upon hearing the news was "Did she have any family?" Sadly, the answer was no, but that didn't mean she wasn't loved. In fact, mom attended a small memorial service where Mrs. Bonner's friends and many people she'd known through her charity work had come to pay their respects. It's comforting to know that she lived a full life, even though I'm still a bit bewildered that she took the time to buy gifts for someone who would treat them like velveteen rabbits and could never write a decent thank-you note.

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