Dear Sis: Thank you, even if you didn't open my gift

A friend of mine, determined to uphold the gracious custom of thank-you notes, sat beside her 6-year-old son and gave him an M&M for every word he scrawled out. I admired her commitment.

I've concluded - and one unforgettable thank-you note I received several years ago proves this - that it doesn't matter what you say in a thank-you note. It only matters that you write it. Preferably by hand. On decorated stationery.

E-mailed thank-yous are nice. But I notice that when friends or relatives who communicate everything else by e-mail really want to thank me, they do it the old-fashioned way.

I love those hand-written messages because no matter what the words are, what the note actually says to me is this: "I acknowledge that you went to the trouble to get me something (or to do something for me) and I appreciate it." I'm only mildly concerned with whether the individual liked the gift or not. After all, gifts are often just gestures, especially among people who pretty much have everything they need.

That was the case with the Christmas gift I sent one of my sisters several years ago. But the unforgettable note that came back in response had a life of its own.

All I had sent my sister was fudge, partly because we had agreed to keep the gift giving between our families simple, and partly because we lived a continent apart and I had no idea what she needed.

I had made the fudge myself, wrapped it carefully in aluminum foil and plastic, and shipped it in the small, sturdy box my new electric mixer had come in.

The thank-you note that arrived in early January reflected plenty of my sister's wonderful individuality. It had a cute picture of a cat on the front, and the message inside - written in my sister's lilting hand - exuded enthusiasm.

"Thank you so much for the mixer!" she wrote. "I really needed one!"

I burst out laughing and wondered how long it would be before my sister discovered that the box held something other than a mixer.

When I saw her in June I couldn't resist questioning her on the subject. I was curious to find out if she had discovered the fudge yet. Or had she stored away the "mixer" until it was really needed? Maybe she had even given it away as a shower present.

"So," I said to my sister, smiling, "you know that Christmas present I sent you in the electric mixer box?"

"Yeah, what -" she began, then looked perplexed. "You mean, it wasn't an electric mixer?"

When she saw the amused look on my face, her hand went to her mouth and her eyes froze wide open. She still had the box but it was still unopened.

My homemade fudge had probably turned hard as a rock.

I laughed off her excuse until she started laughing, too.

I was not the least bit offended. After all, she had written me a thank-you note. How could I feel anything but affection for her?

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