Mail Call

I am in deep, grading a final paper that proposes a solution to worldwide pollution, when I register a scuffling and scraping at the front door. The mail slot clanks open; paper shuffles through.

But the front door doesn’t close right away. Instead, there’s an electronic peeping…the peep that says a package has been deposited. As the outer door softly closes, I yell, in chorus with Jim, who’s in the dining room, and Mark, at his desk in what we optimistically call ‘the Florida room,’ “THANK YOU!”

The mail carrier’s response is pleasant but muffled. I force myself back to my paper. It’s a good one, a pleasure to read and respond to. I post the grade, email a message to the student, and jump up.

Time to see what’s in the mail.

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Mark and Jim are there ahead of me. There’s a stack of ridiculous— three Medicare supplemental plan solicitations, the bane of the almost 65-year old. There are two invitations to buy life insurance: only 14 dollars a month for $25,000 (IF you qualify). Don’t leave your family stranded by debt when you pass, reads the unctuous text on the bottom of one envelope. Old people junk mail. We slide those envelopes and a stack of retail ads into the recycling basket, and sort through what’s left.

There’s a bill or two; there’s a midwestern travel magazine…a dreamer’s book, right now. There’s a pretty envelope with a handwritten address. My heart does a little dance: a letter from a friend.

Mark’s push pins, for the tattered bulletin board he covered with the back of an old tattersall plaid shirt, have arrived.

Jim cuts open packaging to find the graphic novel he ordered last week.

Good stuff, I think, feeling satisfied. We dispose of packaging; we wash our hands. Mark heads off to his office space, ready to pin up some physical, hard copy, important documents. Jim runs downstairs to fit the slim new book into its place in the series he’s collecting. I take my letter to the reading chair; when I open and read that familiar handwriting, I hear my friend’s voice so very clearly…more clearly, maybe, then when we actually talk.

The house settles in after that pleasant energy spike–after mail call in the COVID-19 quarantine.

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The mail, the real, tangible, paper mail, has always held that sense of wonderful possibility. Most days, it’s ordinary, banal, unexciting. But every once in a while…

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When I was a child, it was an exciting day when a letter from Aunt Annie arrived. She lived fifty miles away, in the City. Not too far by modern reckoning, but at that time, visits were rare events requiring careful planning. Aunt Annie would write about what my cousins were doing, about new clothes she had made or special treats she fixed. She asked me about schoolwork and about my brothers.

Sometimes, her envelope was tantalizingly lumpy. There might be a bookmark enclosed, or a tiny pin on a small, stiff square of cardboard, or a pretty card festooned with a jaggedy plastic flower.

I would flatten the letter on the kitchen table, and respond right away, carefully answering all my aunt’s questions on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. Sometimes I, or my younger brother, would include a drawing.

I would painstakingly address the envelope, a cheap white business class number, all by myself. My mother would yield me one stamp.

It was my first correspondence. I took it very seriously.

Writing to Aunt Annie ignited a lifelong love of letter-writing in me. There were pen-pals through Girl Scouts: what joy to come home from school and find a grubby envelope on the table, “RMA!” or “2 Young 2 Drink 4 Roses!!!” written in pencil where the flap was sealed. In high school, as exchange students came and went and friends began to travel, parchment airmail letters appeared. Inside would be fragile stacks of paper, sheets of ponderous missives inked in the crimped, fountain pen, East Coast script we all espoused. (I began, then, to cross my upper-case Z’s and my 7’s, trying to be Europeanly trendy. That’s a habit—or maybe an affectation–still.)

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In those high school days, we had a wonderful mailman; his nickname was Yogi, because he really did resemble the iconic ball player. He kept track of us through our mail, and he wasn’t shy about asking questions or demanding explanations.

Once a boy I liked loaned me his white tennis jacket after we’d played a set or two; the sky darkened, the air cooled, and I was walking home. Gallant, he insisted; I pulled the light covering on, and I hoped people would see me wearing it.

We were pushing the season; it was before Easter, and the boy and his family were heading to Florida for two weeks in the sun. He needed the jacket back before they left.

One of my brothers dropped it at his house. I pinned a piece of paper to the right breast pocket, a note that simply said, ‘Thank you.’

The boy and his family went off south, and school let out for a two-week break. I was there when Yogi brought the mail in the morning, when he said, “Ahhhh, nothin’ much today. Just bills and junk,” and, disappointed, handed over a thick stack of boring.

One day, though, I heard his heavy boots pound up the stairs, but I didn’t hear the mailbox squawk open. I waited, and then, finally, opened the front door.

Yogi was scratching his head, flipping a postcard back and forth.

“It’s for you,” he said, “but I don’t GET it.”

One side had a picture of a pristine Florida beach. The other side just read, “You’re welcome.”

I had to explain the whole story about the jacket, assure Yogi that no, that boy wasn’t a smart ass, that he really COULD put a whole sentence together, that he really was a nice guy; he was just being funny.

Finally, Yogi was satisfied, sort of, but he did mutter that when HE wrote to a girl back in the day, he had something to say and he said it.

“I don’t GET it,” he said again, clomping back down my front steps, shaking his head.

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When friends went off to college, we wrote.

When we graduated, when life picked us up and whirled us around, we wrote.

And always, I felt that same warmth and glowiness, coming home from work, finding a handwritten letter in the mail.

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The mail can yield a magical missive from a much-missed person; it can offer other wonders, too. Magazines are wish books: look what I could do with my kitchen! Look at this wonderful restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri; this funky museum in Toledo, Ohio; this park in Indianapolis, Indiana: maybe, after, we could go…

Magazines offer recipes when standard fare becomes boring, they give craft ideas, they share stories of fascinating or inspiring people—the famous and the unknown alike.

I read my magazines, sometimes more than once. Sometimes I plunder them, ripping out a recipe or a book review. Sometimes I put them on the Half Price Books stack, and we take intact copies in for trade-in.

Always, the magazine imparts a little jiggle of excitement and possibility, of lives lived differently, of the chance to grow and change.

Sometimes the mail yields an unexpected check…a refund from an insurance overpayment, say. Hey, we say. Eighteen dollars and 75 cents! We could…go get frozen custard at Whits…buy a new nozzle for the hose…put the money in the travel jar…

Every once in a while, the mail serves up an exciting letter. The editors liked your essay and would like to run it in the June issue…

Thank you notes and museum newsletters, rich with glossy photos. Professional journals. Catalogs for fun goodies; catalogs for sustainable stuff.

The mail can be dull, but it always holds the potential for adventure.

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And the people that bring it are important, like Yogi was,–known characters who handle those important arrivals with respect and responsibility. I thought our current mail carrier would be annoyed when my heavy vats of detergent arrived from Amazon—one for dishes, one for laundry. But when I went out to the front steps to wrestle those babies inside, he stopped to talked about them.

I told him I was buying bulk to save on the plastic we use, and he was really interested in that. He is interested, too, in ways to save money, and he asked me what a five-gallon tub of laundry detergent cost. He did the same when my box of eighty rolls of toilet paper arrived (temporarily unavailable during COVID days, more’s the pity. The eighty rolls come wrapped in paper and boxed in cardboard; the eighty rolls don’t require me to use even a tiny shred of plastic.)

The mail carrier tipped me off to buying shampoo in bulk, another way of downsizing plastic use. It’s cheaper, too.

There’s something about knowing the information and stuff that lands in my house are delivered by hands attached to people who are not strangers, but more like friends.

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And there’s something, in this at-home time, about the once-a-day possibility of something wonderful falling onto the floor by the front door. Anything could happen. Any number of miraculous things could arrive.

And sometimes they do. Not always, maybe not even frequently, but enough to make mail call an adventure, a chance to scare up and entertain possibilities during days when most adventures have been hog-tied and contained in very small spaces.

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I wish you something wonderful, something that makes you laugh or smile, in your mailbox today.