Something Like Hallmark Moments: My Life In Greeting Cards

A pretty great card I found in Powell’s World of Books.

As I opened the fold of textured cardstock, my nose began to burn and hot tears filled my eyes. A neatly illustrated queen of hearts sat on the outside of the plain white card, while the inside read “I’m betting all I’ve got on you.” It felt poignant, standing there with my husband in our new neighborhood’s health food grocery store where we couldn’t afford anything, time zones away from our friends and family. It also felt clean, a little jolt of emotion tied up in a brief moment, the medium not serious enough to drag us down in contemplation. A moment of catharsis. I don’t remember anything like this from the Hallmark cards I grew up around.

We moved along from the queen of hearts and spent the five dollars on something else; food, probably. Yes, five dollars for a piece of paper sounds a little steep to me, too. But these days, many retail racks are furnished by freelance artists who have to keep up with the costs of their wares. Sites like Etsy and Instagram have helped catalyze a handmade revolution, and artisan goods are more widely available than they were a few years ago. The young creatives of this movement have freshened up soap sections, enamel pin collections, and, indeed, greeting card aisles. When I peruse their ranks for a holiday or a relative’s birthday, the intelligent designs I see there catch me off guard.

I immediately spot the card I am going to give my dad. He always says he only wants a thoughtful note for Christmas, but I don’t see why that has to be on plain ruled paper. The gorgeous letterpress imprint shows a clumsy brown Bigfoot juggling pink donuts while unicycling, with the inscription “Something In Portland Loves You.” In the space of four by six inches, the pain of distance and the strain of being a misunderstood child are alleviated. It’s perfect, I tell my husband. I buy it.

I remember as a kid thinking it was cheesy to buy a card for someone and expect it to adequately communicate how I felt. How could watercolor flowers and a trite phrase like “Thinking of you” help someone who’s navigating a tragedy, for instance?

I’m flipping through the stationery section at a bookstore downtown. “Better each year,” says one birthday card, nestled in a rugged linocut print of redwood trees. Simple, sweet, and reminiscent of our catalogue of great camping trips, it is a strong contender for my husband’s birthday card. I finally settle on a whimsical depiction of Smokey the Bear exclaiming “Happy Birthday! Now, put out those candles.”

I hand the card to the bookstore cashier and she giggles, “that’s so cute!” Tears fill my eyes unexpectedly as I long to tell her all about why my husband will love it, how he loves bears, how I’m desperate for human interaction outside my home but can’t seem to make a friend, how five dollars for a card, like it was at the grocery store earlier in the month, is, frustratingly, still a lot. I wish I could express how the deafening roar of depression’s nothingness in my brain was silenced for a few minutes by the sentiments in the store’s stationery section. I wish I could explain that I forced myself to buy this card because I need just one tangible moment of giving, of making someone else happy, of not collapsing inward. I swallowed the sting in my throat and answered “Right?!”

Greeting cards have long been brushed aside as a stale medium, even used as a token of irony in trendy venues such as the movie 500 Days of Summer. Perhaps my dad won’t think much about the front of the card I give him, skipping on to the written note. I doubt my husband will react to the birthday card with more than a chuckle. But with no expectations from the recipient for anything profound — after all, it’s just a greeting card — and a little spark of creativity on the designer’s end, I am finding a very human connection.

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