The phone call came early, just as I was getting ready to start my workweek.
"Did you send us a package?" my sister asked in a hushed and serious tone.
"Um, no," I answered sheepishly, making a mental rundown of birthdays and anniversaries I might have missed.
"What about the kids? Did one of the kids send something?"
"Well, hopefully a thank-you card," I answered, wondering if the eldest had gotten around to it.
Dropping that thank-you note in the mail in a timely fashion is a high priority of mine, a mother's "mind your manners" directive for a brood whose long-distance connection to family has been made more tangible with the spatter of gifts and cards that come through the mail on special occasions.
"Someone thought of you," I tell them. "You need to acknowledge that with a personal note."
It can be a tough sell, especially for those who tend to reach out via email, texting and Facebook.
In my book, that doesn't fly. My guess is that Miss Manners is with me on this one.
Our middle child is a champ, typically penning notes before the wrapping paper makes it to the recycle bin. On occasion, the youngest needs a gentle reminding, but she comes in second. The eldest, well. That's been hit or miss.
In his early years I pestered, leaving stationery and an address book with a note in his room to "Get to it -- NOW!!!" I even enlisted the help of Santa Claus, who each year tucked a new box of thank-you notes and postage stamps in each of the kids' stockings. Later, I dropped subtle hints with the hopes that the importance of a proper "thank you" would eventually sink in.
As with a lot of life lessons, the reward often comes down the road, when the kid does the right thing sans prodding, or maybe when they're about to take on a parent's perspective.
I'm delighted to say, he's made it -- on both counts.
But never did I think that his thoughtful gesture would prompt a series of panicky phone calls between relatives and arouse the concerns of an observant postal worker, a federal postal inspector and local police, all of whom were wanting to know about a suspicious package from an unfamiliar address in Florida sitting in a post office in Marshfield, Mass., where my sister resides.
The inspector tried calling my sister and her husband, but they don't answer their land-line phone anymore. After searching for other family members, he rang up my 23-year-old niece in New York City, identifying himself as a federal agent and jolting her awake by telling her about the package that was laced in white powder. Then he asked if she knew of anyone who might want to harm her parents. The police had already been out to her parents' house, he told her, but no one was home.
Suffice it to say, she was freaking out, thinking about ricin and anthrax and frantically dialing her mom and dad, while searching online for the name of the postal inspector to make sure he was the real deal.
She finally got her dad, who was equally alarmed after being summoned to the post office and escorted through a side door to meet with a police officer and a very serious-looking postal inspector.
Then came a skittish standoff over who would open the package that was now sealed in plastic.
My brother-in-law refused, so the officer acquiesced.
Inside the box was a small, pink envelope containing a nicely printed "thank you" message written by my son, along with a conglomeration of baking ingredients that had spilled out of the container in transit.
The gift was innocent when it started its journey: a glass Mason jar adorned with pale pink ribbon and filled with instructions and the ingredients for making a fun batch of cookies -- flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and a layer of pastel-colored M&M's.
For the soon-to-be-dad and his fiancee, it was a way to thank loved ones who could not attend their June baby shower but had sent gifts for the child expected to arrive in August.
If you haven't guessed already, it's a girl -- one who one day will undoubtedly be taught the importance of sending a well-thought and -- well-packed -- thank-you.
(Michele Miller can be reached at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com)