I had a memorable birthday celebration on July 4, made no more special by the 10 people (only one of whom I know) who pressed three buttons to wish me a “Happy Birthday” on LinkedIn. Likewise, the 63 Facebook messages, many with the identical auto-filled and poorly punctuated “Happy Birthday Amy!”, were a nominally satisfying way to feel remembered by former coworkers and other folks I’m rarely in touch with anymore.
But that isn’t how my closest friends reached out to me. They sent birthday cards with personal, handwritten messages, the old-fashioned way, through the U.S. mail.
“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” reads one, a quote from Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that women of my vintage sported on T-shirts and book bags when we were young. Another card, from a friend I have known since my mid-20s, pronounces us “friends for life” in a touching handwritten note. “If you have a garden & a library, you have everything you need,” reads a card from a friend who is as busy with work as I am and who suggests we continue our tradition of occasional Sunday morning teas and talks.
- My birthday was special because each of my two grown sons gave me a book with a long, handwritten letter inside.
- My birthday was special because my neighbor surprised us with a homemade cake and a socially distanced gathering in her backyard.
- My birthday was special because my husband’s best friend swung by in his 1981 Corvette with a piece of lemon meringue pie (which I don’t like, but no matter) and sang an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the top of his lungs from the front sidewalk.
Friendship has become a commodity these days, a point of pride to be measured more in quantity than quality, with hundreds of people on social media calling themselves my “friends.” Except they’re not. They are well-meaning acquaintances — just as I am to them — who are good enough to “like” my family photos and raise a fist in camaraderie to my political posts. My friends are the women I called when my parents died. My friends are the people who help me stay sober. My friends are the ones I can pick up with, after weeks or months, and enjoy a long, freewheeling talk over breakfast or on a bike ride.
My friends send greeting cards, hand-selected to evoke laughter or a sense of well-being, because that process takes time and thought, just as a true friendship does.
A sidewalk sign outside a family-owned business in my neighborhood started me thinking about the thoughtfulness, artistry and relative permanence of greeting cards. “Anyone can send a Facebook post,” it read. “Be a friend. Buy a card.”
Avalon on Grand — one of those charming, well-curated gift shops that has nothing you need but a whole lot of everything you want — boasts “one of the largest selections of greeting cards” in the Twin Cities. It’s one of several stores where I shop for cards all year-round, choosing cards for friends and siblings (sometimes bursting out with laughter in the aisles), and then stashing them away for just the right occasion.
The Greeting Card Association (who knew there was one?) traces the history of greeting cards back to the ancient Chinese and the early Egyptians. Wikipedia is another good resource for the card curious.
Europeans began exchanging Valentine’s cards as early as 1415. Twenty-five years after the 1775 founding of what is now the U.S. Postal Service, Valentines were becoming an affordable way to express love and affection throughout the fledgling United States. The “first known Christmas card” was published in London in 1843.
Unfortunately, the latest entry in the GCA’s “History of Greeting Cards” is 1943, which doesn’t signal optimism for the practice of card-giving, especially in our digital age. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll learn that Millennials are giving new life to an industry that was faltering with the advent of social media and e-greetings.
“Millennials are . . . seeking a feeling of nostalgia in card-giving,” says a National Public Radio story from Valentine’s Day 2019, just as they’re embracing vintage clothing stores and mid-century modern furniture — the plastic, minimalist ugly basement of my childhood.
Americans overall buy some 6.5 billion greeting cards a year, and women are 80 percent of those card carriers.
An Amish card holder hangs on a wall by the front door of our home. It’s a vertical piece of maroon cloth strapped around a small clothes hanger; interwoven pieces of green, blue and black fabric decorate the three pockets that are the perfect size for greeting cards.
I don’t remember where we bought it, or when — likely 15 or 20 years ago, when the boys were small, and my mom would watch them over my birthday so my husband and I could bike the Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota. We’d stay in Harmony, near an Amish enclave, and probably found the handcrafted holder in a coffeehouse or antique shop.
The cards I have saved and selected to place in those three pockets are keepsakes:
- Smart-ass ones from my oldest sister (“What’s the difference between you and a senior citizen?”).
- Cards with handwritten notes from my husband and sons.
- An artsy thank-you card from a friend and spiritual guide that includes a quote from the late, great U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (“Let there be no distance between the words you say and the life you live”), who raised his three children in Northfield only blocks from where my husband and I brought up our own sons.
- An undated birthday card from my father with an affectionate note in his barely legible handwriting: “It’s getting hard to think of you as my little girl.”
Most precious are the two cards I kept from my mother, one from 21 years ago when I was turning 42 and she was a robust 73. I had been sandbagged, apparently, by someone I loved and trusted, though the anger and shock have long since faded. Mom gave me a journal and a handwritten card: “I hope what you put in this little book will help your feelings to heal,” she wrote, with wisdom I surely failed to appreciate at the time. “Recapture the joys and delights you’ve had. Life goes by so fast. Be happy. Love, Mom.”
The other card I saved from her is dated July 4, 2012, four months after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The handwriting is shakier, the message simpler: “I’ll buy you lunch wherever you want to go.” Could she even still drive? But I can touch the card and see it, and I can feel my mother with me, in a way that an old social media post (“Your Memories on Facebook”) could never replicate.