all of the selves we Have ever been
I have always loved getting the mail.
Real mail. Paper mail delivered by the U. S. Postal Service.
In years past, opening a mailbox filled to bursting was like striking gold in the Yukon. That level of excitement cannot be compared to the nauseating feeling of opening your email inbox today and seeing 200 new messages.
As a little girl, I lived on-and-off in a small town where there was no door-to-door delivery. Citizens walked to the post office to collect their mail from a small, square box inside the main post office building. There were no keys to these mailboxes. Patrons had to remember the combinations. As I moved ahead in grade school, I was sometimes sent to the post office to fetch the mail. To a seven year old that was the equivalent of being named a diplomat. In our family’s diplomatic corps, I had a father serving overseas, and we sometimes received letters from him in special air mail envelopes with red, white and blue borders. International mail in a small town was a big deal. As my father’s image grew hazier in my young mind, the letters he sent reminded me that he was real and still out there somewhere.
Sometimes my older sister and I would fight over who got to do the honors of getting the mail. It was always dangerous if we walked to the post office together without having worked out the details in advance. Truth be told, each of us walked along plotting how to get to the box first and apply the combination that would open the little door to the mailbox. There were times when my sister and I got into arguments about this while at the post office. This was dangerous. In a small town where everyone knows your name, someone was going to call your parents and maybe your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well. That could get a girl kicked off of the honor detail. Skirmishes aside, I never lost my love of getting the mail.
In later years after we relocated to a suburban neighborhood, we grew accustomed to the rhythms of our daily mail carrier. We would kneel on the couch and watch for him through the bay window. The mailbox lined up directly with the middle cushion of the couch. As soon as we saw the mailman, we zoomed outside for the mail. If we saw the mailman getting out of his truck, we knew there was really big news—maybe a certified or registered letter or a package too big for the mailbox. Of course, there was rarely mail for children back then. The fact that it was rare but it DID happen made us all the more faithful to mail-watch duty. Ah, the power of intermittent reinforcement!!
For me as child, mail might be a birthday card. My Aunt Lillie faithfully sent each of her nieces and nephews a birthday card containing one dollar for each year of life. It was especially exciting when we crossed into the double digits— to 10 and beyond! The other exciting mail came from my paternal grandmother who lived in New York City. She was quite the seamstress, and she would send the most beautiful handmade clothes for our Barbie dolls—it was like a shipment from the House of Chanel—teeny tiny haute couture.
By the time we were further along in grade school, the mail included subscriptions to Highlights for Children. Thus began my love of magazines. Over the years, we also enjoyed the magazines our parents received--National Geographic, Life, Look, Good Housekeeping, Readers Digest, and Redbook. Back then, magazines were loaded with content, pictures and coupons too. Another special assignment of childhood was to clip those coupons.
Catalogs came in the mail in an abundant supply. We didn’t shop a lot back then. You got new things on special occasions or at the start of a school year or season. But that didn’t stop us from dreaming. We wore out the pages, marking items with pens and pencils, dog-earring the corners, and coming back to certain pages over and over again. There were catalogs for every product imaginable. If someone in the household did make a purchase then that led to a flood of new catalogs arriving in the mailbox in the days following. Those catalogs allowed us the joy of hope, longing, and occasionally, the anticipation of an order that was coming not overnight, but “any day.”
High school brought new types of mail. We were inundated with flyers and brochures from colleges and trade schools. Our personal magazine subscriptions included Teen, Glamour, or Seventeen. Friends on vacation might send postcards, and now, in addition to birthday cards, there were graduation announcements and cards.
By the time we were young adults, the junk mail had our names on it. And the bills were addressed to us too. Some good things still arrived like birthday cards, letters from friends, income tax refunds, our own magazines like Self and Runners World, and an assortment of catalogs. We received personalized Christmas cards and not just the one addressed to “the family of.” As I and my friends married and had children, there were bridal shower invitations, wedding and birth announcements. I received a letter from one dear friend that her mother had died and news from another that her husband had passed away in his sleep.
In the current times, my young adult children check their mail maybe once a week. While younger people may have packages arriving daily, they are not invested in the paper mail like those of us from earlier generations.
During this time of shelter- in-place, I find myself returning to that time in my youth when I memorized the rhythms of my mail carrier. I can hear the purr of the mail truck’s engine a mile down the road—and that is in urban traffic. I watch from the window as his truck arrives. I know about how long to wait before checking my mailbox. Most days, I find the mailbox empty. So much is done online. I sort through the occasional junk mail, store flyers and coupons. But it is always a joy to find something personal.
Getting mail is a reminder that your people are out there somewhere, and that they still care about you and are thinking of you too. They went to some effort to create, stamp and mail this item to you. Seeing the familiar handwriting of someone you love is like catching the scent of someone familiar when you are lonely and least expecting their presence. The return address physically brings another part of the country or the world into our hands even as we cannot leave our homes.
In my house there is a box filled with treasures that once came in the mail—letters and greeting cards saved from friends and family, people both present and long gone. They are special reminders that renew old relationships and memories. The familiar handwriting and the sometimes corny messages bring them back to me. Each saved letter or card is not just a piece of mail, it is a snapshot of my history and piece of someone loved.
I cannot imagine a time when I will wait a week to check the mailbox. Especially not now.
I know I will never outgrow the joy of getting the mail.