Potato Chips & Gratitude

The transformative power of a thank you.

(Illustration by Hadley Hooper)

When I was a child, I learned that any joy that lingered after a Christmas or birthday would quickly curdle with one stern question from my mother: “Have you written your thank-you notes?” 

Thus, the habit was ingrained and, in a world where thank-you notes were fast becoming anachronistic, I soldiered on. 

As I got older, I began to enjoy writing notes. I jotted them after dinner parties, wedding receptions, and, sometimes, when a friend dropped by with a bunch of cut flowers from her backyard. The act of writing a note solidified the grace in these kindnesses, large and small, before they faded into the hubbub of life. 

Still, I never thought about these postmarked words of appreciation until one day, seemingly out of the blue, the food editor at the local newspaper where my husband worked invited me to her office and offered me a job as a cooking columnist—a job for which I hadn’t applied. “Yes!” I blurted out, before I could imagine what I was getting into. 

A few years later, I asked her why she’d offered me the job without so much as a résumé. “Because you wrote me a beautiful thank-you note,” she responded. In fact, I had

“Clare makes sausage,” he’d told her. 

“Then give it to her,” she responded, “because nobody around here wants it.” And thus, my career as a food writer was launched, all courtesy of a thank-you note.

Last year, as the pandemic maundered along, I was in a funk. Like most of us, I wasn’t going anywhere or seeing anyone beyond my weekly trips to the grocery store. “Why are they always so slow?” I’d grouse inwardly, as I waited for my deli order. 

Then one week, a new face appeared behind the deli counter. He filled my order with such precision, speed, and good humor that I asked his name and warmly thanked him as he cheerfully handed over my turkey. Then, on a whim before leaving the store, I asked to speak with the manager.

“Keith in the deli has transformed things.” I told him. “He’s fantastic.” 

The manager looked stunned. “We really are trying hard,” he told me, blinking in shock. 

“I can tell!” I responded as I noticed he was tearing up. “Thank you and your staff so much!” 

After that encounter, I decided that the tonic for my grumpiness was graciousness. In traffic, I happily deferred to the other driver. I smiled at everyone who crossed my path, and I thanked anyone who even remotely merited it—and sometimes those who didn’t. In time, a funny thing happened. My world started to look a little brighter.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone. My son and I were eating lunch when I told him about my one-woman thank-you campaign. We were sharing a bag of potato chips when I stopped mid-sentence to say, “these are the most delicious chips I’ve ever tasted. Where did you find them?” 

“Aren’t they?” he responded. “I picked up a bag a couple of weeks ago. They were so good that I looked at the bag and noticed a phone number in Cambridge, Ontario for questions and comments.” 

He’d grabbed his phone, dialed the number for Miss Vickie’s, and when the woman who answered asked what she could do for him, he said, “Nothing. I’m eating some of your chips and they’re phenomenal. I just wanted to say thank you and tell you what a great job you’re doing.”

There was a long silence before the potato chip lady spoke. “I’ve been answering this phone for 10 years,” she told him, “and nobody has ever called to say anything nice before. What flavor chips are you eating?”

“Sea salt and vinegar,” he responded, “Why?”

“Because I’m going right out there to the factory to hit the red ‘stop’ button on the production line. And when everything grinds to a halt and they look at me, I’m going to yell, ‘You all are doing a great job! This guy in Virginia just called to compliment you!’”

And that, my son and I agreed as we polished off the rest of his chips, is why saying thank you is magic. Whether you write a note, like your mother taught you, or you offer a heartfelt thank you to someone who’s not expecting one at all, the person who gets the gift is you. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.

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