Signed, Sealed, Delivered

My lifelong relationship with greeting cards

It started when I was in junior high school. I'd spend hours searching for just the right one to convey the perfect message to the recipient. In my head, I'd debate whether the words were too sappy or too adoring, too generic or too blah. I'd pick them up and put them back, debating where to commit my precious 50 cents.

It was the beginning of my lifelong relationship with greeting cards.

In junior high, it was all about my girlfriends—letting them know through a picture and a few well-chosen words just how much they meant to me. Happy 12th birthday, Sarah! Mazel Tov on your Bat Mitzvah, Molly! Whatever the occasion, it was a long and tedious process finding just the right card for each of my friends.

In high school and college, it shifted to boyfriends—and then each card was even more fraught with meaning and intention. Even worse were the cards that I received. What exactly did Danny mean by "You knock my socks off?" Was that some sort of code for "I love you"?

No, it wasn't.

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Then came the bridal showers and weddings—cards that were only important because they accompanied a gift. There were 21st birthdays, 25th birthdays, and then, all of sudden, there were babies. Again, the essential thing was the gift that went with the card, but I still always searched for just the right message.

Subsequently, choices became complicated by innovations in the greeting card world. There were cards that sang or talked, cards with fuzzy mirrors (look how old you are!), cards with pages like a book. There were pop-up and holographic cards. There were entire stores devoted just to greeting cards, fancy pens and thank-you notes. Buying greeting cards had become somewhat of an investment, not just of time, but of money.

Once the babies started growing up, the number of cards I had to buy grew exponentially. Now I'd buy birthday cards for children in bulk—10 or 20 at a time. There seemed to be birthday parties every weekend: bouncy houses and gymnastics centers, bowling and clowns and puppet shows and ponies, cakes with Barney the Dinosaur or Power Rangers or Winnie the Pooh, expertly drawn with icing. Parents signed their children's names in the cards, and then the children began to sign, their names barely legible, but with such obvious effort it would bring tears to my eyes.

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Soon, my children started picking out cards for their friends, and I'd wait patiently, understanding the need to get just the right thing for the right person. I had moved on to cards for my friends that joked about getting old, cards that had three white-haired deaf women or three farting old golfers on the front. How we laughed at each other's clever choices. Who could find the raunchiest, dirtiest card became a game, too.

The years were flying by and we began celebrating Bar Mitzvahs, Sweet Sixteens, high school graduations, college graduations. More and more cards, an abundance of moments, hours, days to remember.

Now I go to weddings again, but they're the weddings of my friends' children. There have even been a few babies—not many, but enough to make me feel like I might someday want a grandchild, too. I buy cards and send gifts and gawk at the prices, remembering the 50 cent birthday cards from junior high. Some cards now cost five, six, seven dollars.

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The only ones I linger over anymore are the sympathy cards, which I'm buying with more and more regularity. Just like the cards I sent in junior high, I want to be sincere, genuine, and convey the perfect message—in this case, my deep compassion for a loss. I remember how those cards comforted me when my father died, and I want to provide the same love and support.

Things move so quickly. Time disappears and is lost like so many scraps of paper crumpled up and thrown away each day. A greeting card—to celebrate or console, to congratulate or show concern—makes me stop for a few minutes to write a note, seal an envelope, affix a stamp and drop it in a mailbox. I imagine the recipient opening the card, seeing my handwritten words, and feeling loved or cared for.

I have boxes of cards I've received, with signatures and messages from people I love. I think of them, pondering the message they sent to make me laugh or cry. Each card is a moment shared between us. Each card is a gift.