Lara moved her pen briskly across the paper and then came to a dead stop.
"Are you stuck?" I asked.
My daughter was at the kitchen table signing Christmas cards.
"I just don't know how to end my message," she stammered. "I feel like I'm standing in a doorway and I can't say goodbye."
"Aha! You mean 'the close?' " I asked. How many times had I reached for the perfect ending, and then, without a muse, simply signed my name - just to be done with it.
" 'Best wishes' should do it," I offered It had bailed me out many times.
"I guess so," she replied. "But does it say enough?"
Enough? Here we go again, I thought: The close. The bane of essayists: "Uh, how do I wrap this up?" The plight of pen pals: "How much should I reveal?" The rat trap of romances: "Hm. Why doesn't his letter say 'lots' of love?"
Was my "best wishes" too easy? Was I stuck in a rut? Should I be more gracious, more flowery? More gushy and less curt?
On the other hand, just how important is the farewell before you sign your name and slip the prose into an envelope?)
It's everything, confirms my college handbook, "Correct Letter Writing." "Get serious about how you exit your message," warns author Lillian Watson. Uh-oh. "Take your leave promptly but graciously," she advises. Sounds like a stage direction.
"A more personal approach will make a stronger impact on your readers and remain longer in their memories." Was she telling me "best wishes" was soggy and inadequate? Help!
Lara didn't know it, but suddenly she and I were adrift in the same boat.
I flipped through the pages of that stern little manual quickly, past the stuffy, rubber-stamp words like "regards" (my backup sentiment), hoping to find a snappy ending for those Christmas cards. Were there any?
"I beg to remain"? No way. Lara was tapping her pen.
We breezed by the business correspondence, the staid "yours truly" and "sincerely yours." Not for us. In family and personal writing, you should "let yourself go," writes the letter master. "Use your pet expressions, your favorite phrases of endearment." In other words, find a trademark.
What might that be? Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote home: "Yrs Affy, Sam." His family loved the quirky phrase. It was a little shorthand on his part, but endearing. It worked.
And my contemporaries? My friends, relatives, and associates? Had they found the formula while I was just sending them "regards"?
Uncle George signs every letter "Hi Ho," no matter whom he sends it to. Is he on a horse? Aunt Elizabeth scribbles "Ta-ta" across her linen stationery as though she'll be back in a few minutes. "Toodle-loo" is all my youngest daughter has time for as she breezes off to class. My editor throws out a "Cheers!" beside his name. Hm. Is he British? I wonder.
But wait a minute. Might it be that my college son is the pacesetter, following my manual's advice, "the trend today is more and more toward simple, unadorned expression - natural and sincere." No flowery, timeworn ornaments. No (gulp) "best wishes"?
Lara rummaged through the kitchen drawers and picked out Matt's last note home to remind us of what we had overlooked. The script was hurried, but "the close" - just two letters - was clear and unadorned.
Like a click at the other end of the phone line or the shutting of a door. Nothing clumsy about it. It conveyed that he was done writing and, more important, that the message could have come only from him. He had said it all. And it was unwavering. It was him.
So what did we learn ?
Only that as the holiday correspondence floods our mailbox this year, and as we, in turn, respond, we'll try to follow this modern letter-writing etiquette: End it quickly, with grace. Say what you mean, mean what you say: "Best" will do, but "Yo" is better.
* More closing sentiments: "God bless you, dear Barbara - you are very precious to us" (George Eliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans); "Your friend forever" (Abraham Lincoln); "You are everything to me" (Sarah Bernhardt); "A good night to you, my darling son!" (Alexander Hamilton).