Dawn Coolahan's workday starts when she loads her minivan with 6-foot plywood cards of gorillas, teddy bears and girls popping out of cakes...

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Dawn Coolahan’s workday starts when she loads her minivan with 6-foot plywood cards of gorillas, teddy bears and girls popping out of cakes — and miniature gravestones, too.


“I admit this job is a little weird,” she says. And you have to agree with her. As owner of Card in-the Yard in Howard County, Md., Coolahan installs giant, sprawling greeting cards on front lawns for birthdays and anniversaries.


This is a new way people in the suburbs talk to each other. Even though they spend more time hunkered down indoors with computers and flat-screen TVs, 21st-century suburbanites still want to communicate with their neighbors (and anyone else who happens to drive by).


“Sure, this stuff is in your face,” Coolahan says of the great public celebration playing out on the nation’s cul-de-sacs. “This is what the business of spreading cheer is all about.”


Hmm… “a bit tacky”?


Once upon a time, a blue ribbon tied on a mailbox was enough to announce a baby boy’s arrival. Today, towering fiberglass storks plunked down in front of a house broadcast the name and weight of the latest family member.


“Americans like the grand gesture,” says John R. Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University in Rhode Island. “Yes, some people might think some of this is a bit tacky, but it is expressive.”


Actually, Logan says, yard cards and other front-lawn pronouncements are not always done for the neighbors, but often for the homeowners themselves: “It’s a statement about what is important to them and their family. Doing something in a public way may make it more special to them.”


It’s a trend that can be traced to the plastic pink flamingos of the 1950s, which are still around today. They are, perhaps, the longest-lasting front-yard art. Beginning in the 1970s, decorative flags with dancing leprechauns or martini glasses were hung near front doors across the nation.


More recently, enormous inflatable figures of pumped-up NFL linebackers, Frosty the Snowman or bears cradling dreidels have sent seasonal messages to passersby.


I really need to say this!


Houses all over are sending out signals.


In Tennessee, one entrepreneur tried renting gigantic gold messenger angels to homeowners. In Illinois, your 50th birthday can be commemorated with an 8-foot Grim Reaper holding a cupcake in one hand and a sickle in the other.


In Oklahoma, a company called Smiles for All Occasions offers for rent a birthday display made of 22 red, black and pink cloth bras (in sizes from A to DDD). It’s called “We Support Your Growing Older.”


Decorating the yard is more than celebratory, says David Edwards, owner of Festival Flags in Richmond, Va., a city where seasonal flags are still a common part of the landscape. It’s emblematic of the American culture of communicating who we are.


“Look at people who put bumper stickers all over their cars and wear T-shirts with messages on them,” he says. Festival Flags does a lot of business in custom-designed nylon flags.


Recently he sewed two flags of cats, which were designed from photographs. The pet owner wanted the flags to commemorate her beloved felines, who are deceased.


Well, they’re happy tombstones


There are endless reasons to communicate.


On a recent morning, Card in-the Yard owner Coolahan drove to a yellow house on a quiet circle of well-clipped hedges and kids on bikes. Neighbors had chipped in to put up “A Hero’s Welcome for Dave Lee” card. Lee was returning to his wife and three girls after more than a year of Army duty in Afghanistan.


Coolahan has 16 cards for a multiplex of occasions, from team wins to bridal showers. Each is personalized with a banner, and the yard is dotted with “props” — mini signs, such as stars, graduation caps or hearts. Yard Cards cost $60 for 24 hours and $10 for each extra day.


“Most are happy occasions,” says Coolahan. ” ‘Get Well Soon’ is the saddest I get.” If you inquire about the gravestones, she explains those are “tombstone add-ons” to sprinkle around the “R.I.P. Here Lie the Years Gone By” birthday card.


You don’t like the fat cow?


For Kathleen and Steve Lawrence of Washington, D.C., the arrival of second son Henry Robert Conrad Lawrence earlier this year was marked with the rental of a stork for the front of the family’s 1926 bungalow.


“The funny thing was that our 2-year-old was fixated on the name Robert for his new brother,” says Kathleen Lawrence. “He told everyone at school. We couldn’t figure out how to break it to him that Robert wasn’t going to be the name. So we told him that the stork delivered the statue with the name Henry preselected.”


All this public celebration is not without pitfalls. One child cried miserably when Coolahan took away her giant turquoise “Hip Hippo-Ray” hippopotamus birthday card.


Then there was the woman who did not appreciate the 6-foot 40th-birthday card sent by her husband. It was called “Out to Pasture” and featured a chubby black-and-white cow.


“I guess she was not happy about turning 40,” Coolahan says. “She asked us to come and remove it right away.”