By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
Like many people, I enjoy giving cards. I especially like the challenge of finding the perfect card for the intended recipient, one that accurately captures the essence of the person while also conveying the feelings I have for them. In anticipation of my sister’s birthday last month, I perused dozens of cards, sorting them into a group of potential winners. Ultimately, I chose a very sweet card for her, one that expressed how grateful I am to have a sister as wonderful as she. When my sister read the card, she hugged me, remarking how happy she was to have a relationship in which we can give and receive beautiful cards which have warm, loving messages.
My sister and I do not take the relationship we share for granted. We were not always close, and, in fact, we were estranged for several years. During that time, birthday cards were exchanged through the mail, if at all. It was difficult to find an appropriate card, one that conveyed the state of a relationship characterized by distance and lack of connection while still qualifying as a birthday card. Often it was easier not to send anything.
I’ve never been estranged from my father, but selecting birthday or Father’s Day cards for him over the years has proved challenging. My dad is a good man and was always a good provider for our family. He has many fine qualities, and I love him very much. At the same time, if I am honest, I have always wished we were closer and that he were more available emotionally. In the card store each year, I wistfully reviewed the cards that described a father as a supportive listener who provides emotional validation and sage advice. In the end, I eschewed those cards in favor of ones which were less personal, or I chose a sarcastic or humorous card instead.
When we look through the types of cards we wish we could give, we experience a longing for greater connection[.] The card we choose will likely represent a compromise between our aspirations and the status quo.
A few years ago when purchasing a card for Father’s Day, I decided to choose one of the cards I had always avoided. The card I selected described my father as always having been there for me, and as the kind of father who helped me through challenging times with words of wisdom and comfort. At the time, I was acutely aware of my father’s advancing age, and I thought he might appreciate receiving a different kind of card from me. When my father read the card, he looked at me, laughed, and exclaimed, “Yeah, right.” As it turned out, there was no fooling him. It seems he was well aware, after all, of the type of father he has been and that the card in his hand was not meant for him. His insight regarding his limitations endeared him to me all the more.
Choosing a card for someone to whom we feel a close, positive connection can be quite pleasurable. On the other hand, trying to find the right card for a person with whom the relationship is important, but complicated or disappointing, can be emotionally challenging. When we look through the types of cards we wish we could give, we experience a longing for greater connection, coupled with sadness and regret about the limitations of the relationship as it is. The card we choose will likely represent a compromise between our aspirations and the status quo. Our deepest hope is that the recipient will read between the lines and realize that, while we have not given up hope for a better relationship, we are willing to accept things the way they are today.