Acts of gratitude, and grace.

About a month ago I got a call from a friend who is also the chaplain at my daughter’s school, asking if I would be willing to come speak to the girls in one of the daily chapel gatherings on the subject of gratitude.

“Sure,” I said, “as long as my daughter is OK with it.”

“Oh, yes,” my friend responded. “I asked her before I asked you.”

We booked the date, and I wrote my speech. When the date arrived, there was a power outage at the school, and we had to reschedule.

“How about December 3rd?” my friend offered.

And that’s how I ended up giving a speech, which also appeared as an op-ed in The Daily Memphian, on the topic of gratitude, on #Giving Tuesday. (Text below, in case you hit the paywall.)

On this day of global philanthropy I am grateful for so many things, especially my daughter, and her school, and my mother, and all of the notes I’ve received from friends over many years, and for the experiences that prompted me to write notes in response.

Here we are, you and I. Together. Aren’t we so very, very lucky. Thank you.


This article appeared in the December 3, 2019 edition of The Daily Memphian

A #GivingTuesday exercise: Consider the lowly thank-you note

by Jennifer Balink

Did you write your thank you notes yet? 

If my mother asked me that question once, she asked it a thousand times 

It was important to my mother that my sister and I write notes because writing notes was the polite and proper thing to do, a matter of social obligation. So she worked hard, my mother, to cultivate this habit in her girls.  

And what I thought, when I was a girl and my mother was hounding me to do this thing I didn’t like doing, was that my mother cared very much about what other people thought. It was not a quality I admired in her. 

Her tactics ranged from gentle threats – If you don’t write her a note, then she’ll stop giving you presents– to subversive activities like taking us to the store to select our own stationery and pens. The right tools always make the job more pleasant. 

I had psychedelic pink and orange and yellow stationery for the people I liked; a boxed set of Holly Hobbie sheets for everyone else. My sister had Strawberry Shortcake, with scratch and sniff stickers to seal the envelopes. We both had scented ball point pens. 

Every Christmas and birthday, my mother would badger us until the task was complete: Dear Mrs. So-and-so, thank you for the sweater. Dear Aunt Robbie, thank you for the book. And so on. 

I hated writing thank you notes. At best I found them to be drudgery. At worst they were, to my young, rebellious self, acts of dishonesty – all so my mother wouldn’t be embarrassed by her ill-mannered children. 

I am not writing a note to gush over these stupid, rainbow-striped toe socks, I remember saying one Christmas. You always told me to be honest and not lie, and to say I like these ugly things would be lying, lying, lying. 

“Well,” my mother suggested, “it was kind of her to take the time to shop, kind to pick something trendy that she thought a girl your age might enjoy, even if she picked the wrong thing. It was kind of her to think of you, and you could simply write that.” 

Dear Peggy, It was kind of you to think of me in this busy time of year. Thank you. I’ll never forget your creativity. Love, Jennifer. 

See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? My mother said, with great satisfaction. 

It was pointless!” I could not let this go. The South, I declared imperiously, is just a fake place full of fake people who pretend to be one thing under the guise of politeness. When I grow up, I am never coming back here. I’m going to live in New York where people say what they mean and don’t waste time on silly things like thank you notes. 

These were superficial things, these forced obligations, and I was not going to be a superficial person. 

Time went on. I graduated from high school (Dear Dodi, thank you for the towels; blue and green are my favorite colors. Dear Kay, thank you for the luggage. I am excited about the adventure ahead) and I went to college. 

On Thanksgiving my freshman year in college, the dorm chaperones, a professor and his wife, invited all of the students who were staying in our residential college for the weekend to join them at their house for Thanksgiving dinner. There were 12 or 13 of us, as I recall. We ate a lovely meal, featuring items that were prepared specifically for us, with our particular backgrounds in mind. After dinner we played Dictionary – a game that, if you’ve never played it before, involves opening a dictionary, selecting a word at random (hopefully an obscure word) and having everyone guess at the definition and origin. As an aside, playing Dictionary with a college English professor is not for the faint of vocabulary. 

After many enjoyable hours together by a roaring fire, it was time for the short walk home. 

My roommate, who lived in upstate New York, had gone home for the holiday. I returned to my quiet dorm room that night, planned to get in bed with a magazine, and somehow found myself instead digging out the box of stationery and stamps 

Dear Professor, thank you for including me in your family’s tradition and for making me feel welcome. Growing up in the South, I’d never eaten the turnips before, only the greens. They were delicious, and I’m touched that you thought of something that would remind me of home. 

The odd thing was, I did actually feel grateful for having been invited. Far beyond the social obligation – the drudgery part, to me – I had a genuine feeling of warmth and happiness writing that note, remembering the day.  

It was the first note I can remember writing all on my own, without any prompting. Many notes followed, mostly to parents who visited campus and took us to dinner, but there were other notes, too. 

The habit, it seemed, had stuck whether I’d wanted it to or not. 

After college I moved around for many years. We didn’t have cell phones or email or even computers then. We did have regular telephones, mounted on the wall like you’ve seen in movies and pictures. But the way I most enjoyed keeping up with college friends, and, over the years, with friends I made as I moved from place to place, was by writing notes. 

I was an art history major with a concentration in visual arts, and making art was – and still is – an essential part of me. So I made letters and art at the same time, turning blank paper into cyanotype prints, and little pen and ink drawings, and wood block prints, and I sent them to places far and near, to old friends and new ones. 

Dear Tom, your father was a beacon of joy…. 

Dear Mary, thank you for the silly hat on my birthday…. 

And this crazy thing happened, like a boomerang in the universe: 

I started getting notes back. 

Dear Jennifer, Thank you! I slept with your card under my pillow. Warren is away on a trip, and it was a great comfort. Love, Margie 

Dear Jennifer, Two for tea, and tea for two… that’s what I said to Harry last night as we devoured the delicious birthday mousse. Thank you for feeding my soul. Love, Lisa. 

I saved these notes – not all of them, of course, but ones that were special in a personal way. I pasted them in journals, piled them into file boxes. I look through them from time to time. The feeling I get is one I can describe only as pure happiness. 

When my mother died, a number of years ago now, I discovered that she, too, was a hoarder of the notes she had received. 

Going through her drawers and boxes, my sister and I found an abundance of paper correspondence. 

As we expected, she’d saved the various hand-colored notes from Margaret and me in our childhood. (Dear Mama, thank you for this strawberry smelling pen.) 

But she saved many others too. One, in particular, affected me deeply. 

My parents had separated, soon to be divorced, when I was in high school. Going to Princeton was possibly only through financial aid – loans and scholarships and a work study job. The scholarships then – and now – were provided by individual people and families who wanted to use their good fortune to make Princeton possible for others. 

Did you write a note yet? My mother asked me, in the first few weeks of my freshman year. 

I knew this was a note I must write. It was the epitome of social obligation and good manners. Every part of me knew that I needed to drag out the paper, write something meaningful, and send it in the mail. 

I did not. 

But my mother did. 

To be clear, she did not write a note on my behalf – at least I don’t think so. She wrote a note of her own. Because going through her papers, I found its response, dated in the fall of 1983, from the person whose family had given my scholarship fund. 

Dear Betty, Thank you so much for telling us about your daughter. We enjoyed getting to know more about her and wish her every success. 

There were several notes like this, in a series over a few years. Although I’ll never read the ones my mother wrote, to which these were responses, it was easy to see that they had been outpourings of her own gratitude, written to strangers who helped make possible something my mother could not do on her own – something important to her. In the words written back to her, I could see a reflection of my mother, beyond social obligation and good manners. Reading them, I felt gratefulness bloom within me. Grateful for my mother. Grateful for my college experience. Grateful for a lifetime of gifts. 

If gratitude is a feeling, if it is a warmth that spreads from your heart all the way through your body, a feeling that swells inside you, then a written note might be its physical embodiment. 

Putting that feeling into words, writing the words on paper, sealing the envelope and sending it on its way, makes gratitude a tangible thing. A way to hold gratefulness in your hand.  

It’s an act, perhaps, of truest grace. It’s a way to say: We were here, together, you and I. How very, very lucky we are. Thank you. 

6 Comments

  1. I was so happy to read your article in The Daily Memphian this morning. Anything written about your mother is special. Still miss her in my life. Glad you are here.

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  2. I was crying by the end too. Thank you. Your writing is so amazing. I used to feel that same way about thank you cards too… I just loved reading your story, and your memories of you mom. Thanks again! Just Beautiful!
    Love,
    Liz

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