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Monday, September 14, 2009

A Different Kind of Post

The white postal truck swung in one house beyond mine as I pulled into the driveway today, so I veered wide to our mailbox, yanked down the aluminum door and discovered an empty vessel--well, unless you want to include the Daddy Long Legs dancing multi-legged grand plies across the rusty bottom.

It happens sometimes that no mail arrives, which isn’t a bad thing. These days, a normal delivery contains a stack of the usual water, electric and mortgage bills, as well as window envelopes stuffed with unasked-for address labels or pens from non-profits soliciting donations--we get several of those a day. The standard gamut of junk turns up, department store flyers, credit card offers that we shred, catalogs, coupon envelops and fliers. It’s a good haul when a magazine to which we do subscribe appears. So rarely do we receive personal mail that when my husband checked the box on Saturday, I asked him if there was anything exciting, then muttered, “I don’t know why I’m asking--there’s never anything good.” I chuckled when he produced a palmer-method addressed envelope containing a belated anniversary card, but it’s uncommon to get a letter anymore.

Slapping together a half of a tomato sandwich, I pondered the loss of letter writing as a communication form. Scribbling on loose leaf paper or designer stationery was a primary means of entertainment for me, starting when I was sixteen. That year, my best friend moved away and our rotary-dial, land-line long distance calls weren’t covered by any national plan. I mitigated this loss of my BFF confidant, the same year that I moved up to high school, by pouring the day-to-day ordeal of it down on paper. I stuck a stamp on an envelope to her every few days.

After the next summer, when I stayed with her in her new town and bonded with her friends, my letter writing volume increased four-fold--these days, I'm quite sure we'd call it over the top. Worse even, was how I stalked the mailman in a torment of teenage angst, to my poor mother’s aggravation, stomping the seven stairs to my bedroom and slamming the door when the delivery arrived absent a letter for me. There were no inboxes to check, it was a twenty-four hour wait until the mailman returned. Even now I shudder when I think of my reaction to Sundays--the day of no mail and therefore no hope—a grueling test of my adolescent endurance.

During college summers evenings, I’d petal my bike home from my life guard job and write at least one letter to an out-of-state friend, sometime responding to letters received the same day. I even wrote to my now husband, then a “just a friend” who lived 45 minutes away, receiving witty responses in return. All this mail is now stacked into a file box down in our basement; evidence of life as it unfolded back in the days before Outlook, Gmail, Facebook and “tweets.”

Let's face it; if you don't write them, you don't receive them.The weaning from my full-time letter writing habit began with, ah, let’s see, the acquisition of a forty-hour-a-week job, a family, and to no surprise, the birth of email. The last vestige of my compulsion, hand written Christmas cards to over fifty people each year, shuddered, sighed and closed its eyes last December, as I gave in and typed a broadcast missive folded into thirds and placed inside each card I sent. I know credit is due for still sending holiday greetings, but that’s another story.

Encountering the empty box today though, it occurred to me that there’s little in today’s technology that mirrors the reward surrounding snail mail. With no back space key, no cut and paste, well--other than a manual version--a letter took thought, concentration and usually involved writer’s cramp. Between the time involved to write one and the mouth watering anticipation of return correspondence, we considered every missive, sent or received, meaningful.

Whether it was to a slot on the side of your house or a container on a rural route, either way mailboxes not only offered up contact from friends, but in addition, the thrill of job offers, contracts, college acceptances, wedding invitations, weekly newspapers and even contest winnings, many of which come on-line these days. Bills, taxes and sad news arrived too. But no matter, when the postman gunned his engine after stopping at our house, there was a feeling of optimism and expectation—the prospect that as you reached into the box, a treat could be in the offing.

So much arrives via computer now that for the most part, walking to retrieve the mail should be a chore. Which bills came today, which piece of junk can be thrown away? Yet, I still look forward to the mailman's arrival--today’s empty box caused a brief uneasiness. Email, Facebook, LinkedIn and even Middle Passages all keep me current with our loved ones, but when the mail truck's wheels spin on the sand at the bottom of my driveway, I always hop up to check the delivery. It doesn’t matter how rarely it happens--each day I smile at the rising anticipation, the possibility that something special may arrive.

Today, I’m disappointed to report, nothing did.

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