Thursday, November 28, 2013
A few years ago at the bookstore where I work, I did a display of which I was rather proud. It was a bit yet before facebook and social media had quite consumed the world's attention. I certainly was not yet hooked. Nevertheless, "thankfulness," as a rediscovered bromide was evidently already in the zeitgeist. I decided to put up a table of books for which we might be individually grateful. I recruited various coworkers, and even a few customers, to select a book and write up a recommendation or justification for the selection. Ended up with more "thanks" than I might ever have thought, certainly more than I'd planned. In addition to the cards for each selection, I made little signs for the display featuring the words, "thank you" in various languages, including American Sign Language. The whole thing ended up being not only quite interesting, but really rather beautiful, if I do say so myself.
As it turns out, "thank you" is easy.
On this day of days for giving thanks, this way and that, to any and all that have earned them, I thought I might spare a word for what has always been for me more difficult; acknowledging the gratitude of others. I wasn't raised by wolves. I know how to say, "you're welcome," and do. I understand the etiquette. I must confess, however, that I am and have always been embarrassed by being thanked. However effusive I might be myself, I fairly flee from anything beyond a simple "thank you" for any gift or service large or small I may have made to another. As I've grown older, I have learned to be a little more gracious, but only just. (The exception has always been actual applause from an audience, which is one of life's purest pleasures, and somehow more acceptable to me for being... what? Shared? Shared, I suppose I mean, with the audience and anyone else involved in a performance, or, if I'm reading aloud and alone, with the authors whose work I am celebrating. Many more serious and successful performers, professional actors and singers and the like, have claimed to be shy, and while I can't say that of myself, I do understand how it is possible to want recognition and still be shy of praise when it comes.)
Doubtless there is some psychological explanation to be found in my unwritten autobiography, some pathology that might elucidate if not offer the means to understand and amend this peculiarity in my character. Mightn't it be a class issue, for example? Or some cultural eccentricity in the kind of language with which I was raised? "Thank you." "You're most welcome." Done. Simple, direct and effective was always the way when I was growing up in western Pennsylvania coal country. Hardly a unique experience, I know, but my people have always been suspicious of exaggeration, even or especially in complements, presumably for fear that it might suggest insincerity, or worse, sarcasm. It's a peasant's suspicion of grand language, and of advantage potentially being taken. It has been a long-held conviction "back to home," that praise from family or a friend is all but unnecessary, from a stranger barely to be noticed, and from an employer or superior, to use a very old-fashioned word, usually offered in lieu of what's probably owed and earned. Or as my father might put it still, "Don't trust a man who smiles when he's counting your money."
Yeah, we're kinda folksy like that.
I also grew up with all the adults at the table fighting over who got to pay the whole check in a restaurant. Trust me, the very idea of separate checks is insulting. Wouldn't go out to eat if I hadn't the cash in my pocket, damn it. (Seriously, my parents have never had a credit card, or let me, or anyone else buy them a meal but by stealth, unless it was a birthday dinner, or an anniversary, "and that.")
Not just about money, either, mind you. I watched my grandmothers, and my mother and father in their turn, and now my brother and sister in ours, feeding people, clothing them, sometimes, cleaning other people's houses, and people, driving them to the store or the doctor's, giving them a bed for the night, or a home. Not to be thanked for it, at least not "over much." The food was there to be eaten, the clothes to be worn, the cleaning just done "to keep busy," the bed "already made up." There's never been a stray, four-legged or two, that hasn't deserved a meal, a blanket, compassion.
Say "Thank you" and no more, is the rule. Say it more than once, or more elaborately for the same favor, and one is likely to get something back about the food otherwise "just going to waste," the clothes otherwise "gone to moths" and the like.
When my father has "helped" someone to get a car, be it his grandchild or the "girl" who sells him his lottery ticket at his favorite gas-station, he's as likely to say "try not to blow it up" as "you're welcome." When my sister-in-law picks up yet another prescription for my father, she invariably "was going in to the store anyway." When my mother drove through a blizzard once, to take an elderly friend "a plate of food" for her Christmas Eve dinner, I remember Mum made a point, having been thanked by the recipient, to mention that the pie crust was tough, the beans over-cooked, and so on.
Just the way people do.
This can be a bit confusing, I should imagine, for anyone not raised in a similar milieu, particularly the insistence of denigrating whatever it was; object, kindness, service, that was offered and gratefully accepted. (Even thank-you-cards, a staple of correspondence in my grandmothers' generation, could be described in conversation as having been "a little much" if the sentiment went beyond the usual, taciturn convention. Does not mean, by the way, that said card wouldn't have been displayed on the mantle, or later the top of the TV for a week.)
I've tried, as I said, to be better about this. Really, it shouldn't be so difficult, accepting thanks, and so I've learned to make myself just stand there and take it. I even smile, try not to wave the words away. It's not easy, but I'm learning. How hard can it be, saying "you're welcome," even more than once? Just be nice. Smile. Stands to reason, in yet another phrase from my childhood. But then, as the thoroughly "rational" Mr. Thomas Grandgrind was eventually forced to admit,
It's Dickens I'm thinking of anyway, today, and a gift from a friend, pictured above. A completely predictable association, Dickens and the Holidays, and predictably enough, I've been reading The Christmas Stories -- and not Hard Times, despite the quote -- all this week before bed. I've also been contemplating where best to hang the marvelous picture of Dickens drawn, framed and presented to me by my friend and coworker, the variously talented, Michael Wallenfels. He made it for me to thank me for the note and wedding gift I'd given him on the occasion of his recent nuptials. (I nearly modified the word gift, from habit, with the word "negligible" here, and only just stopped myself. See? I am learning.)
Is it not a noble thing, this picture?!
I'm sure I thanked him for it when I got it, and probably said no more than, "You're most welcome," when he thanked me again for my wedding present. It wasn't enough, whatever I said. "The wisdom of the Heart," as Dickens his whole life took such pains to prove, is perfectly communicable in words as well as actions, and our gratitude to those who teach it us, among our happiest obligations.
And so, I find myself again hemmed in by the habits of my upbringing, and worried now that I was too dismissive of his thanks for my present to him, and more importantly still, that I've made nowhere near a sufficient fuss being given in return this excellent picture.
Here the very image of perhaps the chiefest of my household Gods, the very spirit of my library, my only quandary being should I hang him up to watch over my books, or at the desk at work to remind me why I am so happy there, trading in the very books, when I am lucky, that have taught me so much better to accept the gifts I'm given and tell when I am grateful.
In the spirit of the day then, let me close my ramblings here by saying better than I may have before, how grateful I am indeed for such a perfect picture, for friends like Michael and his beautiful wife, Britt, soon to be the mother of his first child, for all my friends and coworkers in all the independent bookstores where I've been lucky enough to work, for all the friends that books have brought me, and to authors and the spirits of those departed who have made my life better than it otherwise might ever have been.
And as for any hereafter to whom I might give something back for all that's been given me... well, it was nothing. Think nothing of it. It was my pleasure.