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Everyday Ethics

Please don’t call child services after you read this story.

So, I’m great with saying thank-you — I’m horrendous with a thank-you note. My poor mother tried her best, but sending out thank-you notes….well, it just never took.

I dislike the sense of obligation that accompanies a gift or a good deed these days. A thank-you note is too formal, too standardized to have meaning – a hug, an appreciative comment (“That book was perfect, thanks!”) is quite enough for me. To be blunt, I don’t expect or require a thank-you note from you, and I wish you didn’t expect or require one from me.

However, when my father passed away a few years ago, I decided to make an exception. I needed to let people know how much their support and comfort meant to me during such a difficult time. It was the one time I felt that only the written word could truly convey the depth of my gratitude.

At that particular point in my life, I was slogging away as an editorial assistant at a magazine, earning a pittance while paying New York City rental prices. Through a friend, I managed to land a job babysitting for the loveliest little family you could possibly imagine. They had an apartment overlooking the Union Square area of Manhattan–one entire wall had floor-to-ceiling windows with spotlights beaming up from the floor, highlighting the gorgeous view. In a way, I considered the extra job a luxurious getaway from the realities of work, illness, family obligations and financial stress.

When I returned to New York after my dad’s funeral, I jumped right back into the relief of my day-to-day routine, including this part-time job. One night after putting the baby to sleep, desperately needing to express these feelings of gratitude to those who had helped my family through so much, I decided to make my first adult attempt at writing thank-you notes.

Now, I’m a slob when it comes to personal organization. Work? I’m great. My purse? Well, it’s where ATM receipts, bubble gum wrappers and expired Metrocards go to die. When I walked into the apartment that evening, I carelessly tossed my Old Navy canvas purse by the windows (those floor-to-ceiling windows, remember?) and sat on the floor to play with the baby.

After I put him to bed, I fished out newly-purchased Hallmark cards from my purse and started composing heartfelt and individualized thank-you’s. Obviously, once this was done I felt exhausted, having never before undertaken the Herculean task of writing thank-you notes. So I neatly addressed them, bundled them up and put them in my purse. Then, I took a nap.

It was a light nap, and after about 15 minutes I was roused by the faint smell of smoke. I jumped up, did a thorough apartment sweep to make sure it wasn’t about to burn down on my watch, checked on the baby, realized the windows were open, and thought, hey – it’s summer. Probably someone barbequing.

I sprawled back on the couch and tried to doze a bit more. Got back up, thinking, no- I definitely smelled something burning. I did my little walkaround again, found absolutely nothing on fire, and finally decided to call my mom for advice (it’s just what you do when you don’t know what to do – call your mama).

I walked over to my purse, still in its position on the floor next to the windows, and opened it up to fish out my phone.

WHOOOSH! A tower of flame rose up out of the canvas bag. All those little scraps of trash I hoard like cash (and also some actual cash) acted as kindling while the spotlights (remember those awesome spotlights lining the floor?) burned their way through my cheap, flammable purse.

Oh yeah…the thank-you notes? They burned too.

I panicked. I don’t know if you’re supposed to stop, drop and roll a purse, but what I did was pick up the purse, hold it as far away from my body as possible and sprint to the kitchen sink. I threw that thing in, still burning, and turned on the faucet. I watched sadly as the flames died down, leaving behind the ashes of my good intentions.

I’m ashamed to say I didn’t have the heart to re-write those thank-you notes after that. Due to the third-degree burns, it was hard to hold a pen for a while (ok, fine, I didn’t really suffer any third-degree burns).

But truthfully, I never did get back to the thank-you notes. I doubt I can get away with claiming that this incident was so scarring that I should never have to write a thank-you note again (or can I?).

Actually, writing this story made me realize how much I still want to commit those feelings of gratitude to paper. So I’m working on them now. It’s a gesture 3 years late, but I’m finding that the words flow as easily as if it had been the day after my dad’s funeral. And…it’s helping heal some lingering wounds.

I’ll never be a thank-you note Nazi, but sometimes a kind gesture transcends Hallmark, personal ethics and, well, fire. For the future, in those very special cases, I think I’ll make an exception to my no-thank-you-note rule.

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