Monday, October 30, 2017

Disappearing Letters, Distinctive Mailboxes: A Conundrum

The mail. Now that’s a word which has changed in meaning and importance.
The mail used to be eagerly anticipated. The mailman (before there were mailwomen) might bring good news from a distant relative, expressions of  “I miss you” echoing a romantic evening, a note of congratulations or “send money, please” or “You’re invited to help us celebrate…” The thrill of the unopened envelope was a daily possibility.

Think about the last time you received an actual letter in the mail. Been awhile, right? I’m talking about words-written-or-typed-on-stationary-in-an-envelope-with-a-stamp kind of mail. I think the last real letter I got was from my cousin Myron, who passed away four years ago. He wanted to borrow some money, to tide him over until he got back on his feet. It went unanswered. Myron had never even been on his feet. Family and money - like oil and water. I don’t count letters from Hillary and Donald and Claire as real letters. Not even Whitey Herzog, who writes the most sincere letters about a hearing aid he's pitching, guaranteed to get me back into the conversation. Sorry, guys. Those letters also go unanswered.

This lack of a written diary of our daily lives worries me. What will future historians be able to cobble together about us? Only little parcels of information from emails, tweets, instagrams, and Facebook comments. Not a lot to go on. I have a book of the letters of Abraham Lincoln. Also of Tennessee Williams. The latter is actually more than I want to know about Tennessee. Here’s a historical fact: Two former presidents - John Adams and Thomas Jefferson - exchanged 150 letters between 1812 and 1823. This, incredibly, followed twelve years of silence between them caused by a bitter political feud. But once they made up, the letters flowed like Sam Adams beer. That’s an average of one letter per month, more than I used to write to my mom when I was in the army.  

But we still hold expectations of getting a letter in the mail. I’d even like to get another one from Myron. Actual fact: The sole representative of the people who deliver the mail is the National Association of Letter Carriers. That’s really their name. Founded in 1889, they claim to be “the only force that fights to protect the interests of city letter carriers.” This is not a complaint about our postal service. I think they do a terrific job. I just think the NALC might seem more up-to-date with a relevant name. Maybe National Association of Postage-Paid Carriers. Just a thought.

While I’m on the subject of mail: Consider the lowly state of the mail box. Maybe even yours. As you drive down your street, notice the mail boxes. It seems everyone buys theirs at the same store. A redundancy exists that chills the soul. I don’t understand it. People spend big money on their homes, yards, patios and pools and driveways and - yes, even their awnings and trees. But mailboxes? Bland and black, ignored and ill-conceived, even though we visit them every day. 

There are a few exceptions. Not far from my house live two families who I don’t know but greatly admire.
They exhibit pride in their mailboxes. They have impeccable taste, a sense of worth and, yes, a sense of humor. They have discovered that your mailbox can say a lot about you. Their mailboxes transcend the utilitarian into the realm of art.

I doubt if they get more personal letters than the rest of us. But that isn’t the point. Chances are their mailboxes are stuffed with the same materials we get - flyers, brochures, magazines, statements, overdraft notices, lost dog postcards. But it doesn’t matter. Unlike people, it’s what outside that counts. It’s the messenger, not the message.

These public servants were called letter carriers. Then the letters disappeared. Now they are postal workers. They do their job well. But I wonder how many of them miss the thrill of delivering a personalized envelope, hand written, of imagining the delight they bring as they listen for that shout, “The mail’s here!” And the letter awaits, in that distinctive mailbox that says, “I still care.” 

There is still one individual in my family who looks forward to the daily appearance of our mailman. She doesn't get many letters, maybe an occasional catalogue from PetSmart or Drs. Foster and Smith. Which is okay, because she's a slow reader. What she does get, however, is a treat. A Milkbone. Sometimes two or even three, if the mailman's in an expansive mood. 

Here's a suggestion. Next time you think of someone you care about, sit down and write them a letter. Even a note card. Something in your own handwriting. When you put it into the mailbox, I know you'll smile to yourself and realize you've done something worthwhile. And rare. And greatly appreciated. Guaranteed.

This article originally appeared in the autumn issue, 2017, 
of County Living Magazine.


  1. I love this. Handwriting a letter to someone is a rarity and something to cherish. Imagine how cursive is becoming a rare art. There is something more personal when I hand write a letter than when I type one. I feel as if more emotion is going into what I'm expressing. Nice article. Best regards, a Hoser

  2. I just send my step-brother a letter as he entered hospice, he passed away 10 days later...I just kept writing about what my brother meant to me growing up and how proud I was of him...I read that same letter at his memorial last week...I cried like a baby...there is something about holding a letter in your means so much to all that touch it....

  3. You know how I feel about letters.... this was a great article and I'm glad my sister showed it to me...

  4. Truer words were never spoken, Gerry. Laughed at your reference to Hillary, Whitey, Claire and D.A.

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