Friday, September 7, 2007

Getting the Mail

By Ruth Coe Chambers

Could the post office be destined for the endangered species list? An inveterate writer of letters, I can wax nostalgic over a post office or even a mailbox without sacrificing my everyday love affair with e-mail. Yet I’m ever aware that this daily transfusion of information and communication that gets the adrenalin flowing falls short on the Geiger counter of memories, those lazy days when getting the mail was a joyous experience.

Today my print mail, AKA hard copy, consists mainly of circulars, bills and ads, not letters from distant family and friends. My first stop after the mailbox is the garbage can where I deposit a dead tree’s progeny of junk mail.

I’ve watched the slow decline of an American tradition--letters written on blue-lined tablet paper, scented stationery from a sweetheart, or elegant boxed paper. When I was growing up, we had an interactive experience with the mail. It was my responsibility to walk to the post office each day to retrieve the correspondence someone had made an effort to compose via pen and ink or typewriter. I still remember the combination to that mailbox, the joy of a little pink card that signaled a package was waiting behind the counter, though often it wasn’t necessary to open the box because a friendly neighbor would wave the card from behind his station at the post office to let me know I had a package. This was during World War II and oh the thrill of a package from a distant relative sending a bit of candy or maybe a pair of wooden roller skates to replace my worn ball bearings.

As an adult, my mail was delivered to the mailbox in front of my house. It was still one of the brightest parts of my day. I wasn’t overwhelmed with ads and circulars. There were letters written by hand from people I loved. Many of those letters with their low cost stamps are in my filing cabinet today.

Times have changed. All too often wandering vandals wreck havoc on the neighborhood mailbox. My box has been moved from the end of my driveway to a location down the street, protected in a metal bank of identical receptacles. I no longer know the name of the mailman.
I still have the joy of mailing packages though. I can’t send homemade cookies to my children via the internet. For that I take a trip to the local beach post office in my community, for what would a small town be without its post office? Ours is a hub that draws people from neighboring homes and businesses to mail letters and packages or maybe to exchange a word or two with a postal worker. It’s within walking distance of the beach, and a sea breeze ushers you inside the door.

There is a community within that building built from the camaraderie and friendship that has grown over the years between postal workers and customers from Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville Beaches. There’s a feeling of kinship with neighbors. The building rings with laughter. Many are on a first-name basis. We’ve walked into another era. There are employees who know when a customer is mailing a latest manuscript to a publisher, the bride who wants special stamps for wedding invitations or the mother who is sending homemade cookies to a soldier in Iraq. They know these things and care.

Wrap your merchandise in a box that isn’t strong enough, or is the wrong size or weight, and they won’t allow you to mail it. But that postal employee who wouldn’t accept your package a minute ago will, in the next minute, try to locate a suitable box for you. They are generous with their suggestions. Eager to be of help. And they don’t get raises for kindness.

A long table separates customers being waited on from those still in line. But it isn’t a barrier. It’s a convenience, a place to put heavy packages until “Next in line” means you. The table also serves as a receptacle for gifts. In the fall, around Thanksgiving and later, a basket of tangerines might be placed on the table or passed over the counter. And when winter flowers are in bloom you’re likely to find the table brimming with trays of red, pink and white camellias. Bouquets of gratitude. Even homemade bread has been known to exchange hands. It’s a community we never take for granted.

These relationships are as treasured as nature’s artistic rendering in the beauty of a seashell. Hold it to your ear and listen to the sigh of regret. Postal workers and customers know the beach life of this community is little more than two years. If a wrecking ball demolishes the building, the scars will be paved with asphalt. Its fate hasn’t been decided, except that it will no longer be our beloved community post office.

But blessings ride the crest of the waves and even e-mail or a wrecking ball can’t send memories to the endangered species list, not as long as we remember, cherish, and write.

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