Before writing, family history passed from generation to generation through complex storytelling. Thousands of years ago it was easy enough to tell your children not to throw stones at the lion. Much more effective was the passionate telling of a story, around a camp fire, of what terrible things happened to the little boy who threw stones at the lion. Through storytelling not only would the child understand the cause and effect of such behavior, he would also be provided a tool to instruct his own children when the time came. In current times we have plenty of opportunity to learn through books and film that a certain behavior will have consequences. Yet, storytelling remains an important part of passing a family’s culture and experience through the ages.
One Christmas during the time our family was living in Japan my father bought two handmade porcelain china dolls for his brother’s two pre-teen daughters. The dolls were fairly expensive and unique. He lovingly packed them in shipping boxes and mailed them to his brother’s home in Oregon along with a letter to each niece. My parents were excited about the gifts they had sent their nieces for Christmas and hoped the girls would appreciate and enjoy them.
Months after Christmas my dad heard from his brother that the packages had arrived safely. Word was never heard from the nieces, not a call, not a written note – nothing. Being a highly disciplined naval officer this did not sit well with my dad. These events took place in 1963 and he never had contact with his nieces again. Never wrote, never called and obviously never shopped for a gift for them again. They were off the list.
I will never know if my cousins learned a lesson in giving thanks as a result of the events of that Christmas. I do know that my sisters and I learned the lesson well. Our cousins were several years older than the three of us. We were not yet old enough to write. We did hear our parents talking about our cousins and the deep disappointment they had in them; that they had not taken the time to acknowledge the dolls. This resonated with my siblings and me at that young age.
From the time that each of us was capable of writing, immediately following the receipt of a gift; we were sat down and instructed to write a thank-you note. And it couldn’t be as simple as, “Thanks for the art set!” Our notes had to be personalized; share how much we enjoyed coloring with the art set or describe what we planned on doing with the art set. As we grew older we were no longer sat down at the table, we found our way on our own. We understood the family ritual; we enjoyed receiving a gift acknowledging an event and we responded by giving thanks to the giver.
It seems a fair trade. It most certainly takes less time to produce and mail a thank-you note than it does to shop for and ship an appropriate gift. When my daughters were old enough to understand, we shared with them the story of the Fable of the Ungrateful Child and the China Doll. They were bright children and caught on quickly. They needed prodding at first, but as they aged they completed the task on their own. They no longer live with us, but I am pleased to say they continue to send notes and cards at appropriate times.
Why is it so may twenty-somethings seem to struggle with this basic rule of etiquette? When you receive a gift, you respond with a hand written note. Not a text message or a Facebook comment; a hand written note. We have considered that perhaps those who are out of college and earning a salary find the value of our modest gifts trivial and not worth the time to respond? That hypothesis doesn’t fly for the those who are still in school. We are befuddled as to why so few of the twenty-somethings we have contact with refuse to participate in this ritual. Our best guess is they were spared the telling of the Fable of the Ungrateful Child and the China Doll.
It is easy to tell the note writers from the others. Following a holiday, graduation, birthday or similar meaningful event, the note writers may be found in a local coffee shop writing notes. The others may be found throwing stones at lions.