Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Card Gift

When I travel I like to pretend I am native to wherever I am visiting at that time. While I am terrible at lying, I am pretty good at pretending, which is entirely different. I went to Paris for a wedding this summer and for a week and a half I pretended I couldn't speak English. It's like a little secret life I can explore for a bit - like what if I just all of a sudden wasn't an American? Usually this just results in lots of people asking me for directions.

This idea of wanting badly to blend in to unfamiliar landscapes began as a child of transplanted parents. (NOT parents who have had transplants, just parents who moved to the Midwest as fully formed, East Coast adults.) And as transplants, my parents still have strong roots in their native city, Boston. They also sometimes have strong accents. When I was little, I thought that you had a few choices for how to describe the piece of furniture that holds your clothes. You could say dresser, bureau, chest of draws, OR chest of drawers. I thought these were all entirely separate options. This continued until third grade, when the following happened:

Nice Classmate #1: "I like your purple sweatshirt with the gold metal stars sewn on it. Where did you get it?"

Me: "I don't know, I found it in my draws."

Mean Classmate #2: "Your WHAT?? You're stupid. And your crewneck sweatshirt is ugly."

OK, so maybe it didn't happen quite like this, but that is what it felt like. And I did have a purple crewneck sweatshirt with little gold metal stars sewn on it and I wore it ALL THE TIME. But the point is that this is the point when I began to notice that my parents pronounced things differently than other people's parents. Up until that point I had reasoned that this accent was just how old people sounded. We visited Boston every summer and spent almost all of our time with my dad's side of the family. And they were all extremely old. So I thought, you must just develop this weird way of talking when you reach a certain age.

My dad calls the Boston accent the "food-falling-out-of-your-mouth" dialect. Which is a more appropriate way of explaining it than just taking the Rs out of words, because as you listen, you find all those missing Rs in the wrong places. Like my aunt Ider (Ida). Anyway, my grandmother used to quiz me on my best Boston accent by giving me the well-known prompt: "Go park your car in Harvard yard." Go ahead, give it a try. You might want to practice with some food halfway out of your mouth.

She would also tell me I was "such a cahd." I write this with an H because there is the slightest trace of an R in a true Boston accent. Not an actual R, but like you know it's there and you pay homage to it in your head before you say the word. Anyway, being a cahd includes being a joker, a goofball, a hoot to be around. And everytime I write thank you notes I think of this. Not that my thank you notes are sooo funny, (even though I wish they could be,) but that I have a giant stack of cards and all I can think of is my grandmother saying the word cahd.

I am currently in the midst of writing Christmas thank you cards, and I am excruciatingly late in doing so. By writing them this late into the new year, I have also added a few other cards that I need to get out to various people. Which made me think of how I sometimes use cards as a gift in and of themselves. Sometimes I make my own cards by drawing a design, a cartoon or a funny phrase. Sometimes I also then scan it into the computer and print and copy it at (where else?) Kinko's. But most of the time I buy cards. I buy lots and lots of cards.

One of my favorite places in the world is the paper store down the street from me. I love looking at letterpress cards, hand-drawn cards, collage cards, photo cards, all kinds of cards. (This is a reference to one of my favorite children's books about all kinds of transportation -- "Big boats, small boats, tug boats, steam boats, all kinds of boats." Anyone? Just me? Naturally.) I like to buy a new set of thank you cards after every one of my birthdays. I also always visit the gift shop of every museum I visit to buy a card of the works of art I loved the most. I buy cards from galleries for the same reason. I frame card photos or painted cards as presents or decorations in my own home, but mostly I save the cards for an occasion to give that particular picture to someone.

I found an Henri Matisse painting as a card one time that I gave to my mom, who loves Matisse. I found a Chicago skyline card to give to M. I found a dancing woman card to give to my friend A-C, who is a dancer. I have found lots of giraffe cards to give to my dad. I also usually buy four different types of Holiday cards to send to friends, and I spend an hour or so making lists of which person will receive which type of card. Mostly this is because I am so addicted to beautiful stationery that I feel as though I have to buy up as many versions as I can so I will "have" the designs as my own. Partly it is because some cards really call out to be sent to certain people.

My ground rules for Holiday cards are as follows:

1. They have to say "holiday season" or "holidays" or "winter," as opposed to "Christmas." I feel it is better form.

2. They can't just have white people on them. I have broken this rule before, but in the past few years I have been more strict about it. I usually go in favor of polar bears, dogs or my favorite, snowmen. (Which are white, but I think you know where I'm going with this.) But if I choose a card with people, I try to go for either diversity or under-represented cultures.

3. They have to be different enough from the rest of the cards on the shelf that I can't walk away from them or that I can't stop myself from smiling while looking at them.

4. This one is optional, but I do prefer that they come in a box with their own image printed on it so that I can use the box for holiday decorations later.

After I buy the cards I take a sheet of paper and write columns for each type of card, and then a numbered list under each column with as many numbers as there are cards in that particular box. Then I fill in the numbered lists with the names of intended recipients from my Excel file of Holiday Addresses. This year I had one box of cards with a dog poking out of a pet door onto the porch of a wintry, woodsy home. His snout was rested near a pair of work boots. So I chose the twelve people from my master list whom I felt would most appreciate this photo of a dog. Unless they would appreciate the skipping polar bear with the shopping bag labeled "Peace" even more...

But you get the holiday-themed picture.

Even if my address book does not know how much Type A planning went into my holiday cards, I know that they are successful gifts of their own accord. To pick out cards that include everyone, that make all their choices and lives feel appreciated, and to subtly pick up on little things that you know about them specifically is a lovely way to celebrate your friends for the holidays. It blends in with you and it's still from me. And all the work behind that is like that secret life I have while traveling - what if I just happened to love all of these things too? Except here it isn't even pretending.

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