"As a young boy, I sometimes traveled the country roads with my dad. He was a rural mail carrier in southwestern Michigan, and on Saturdays he would often ask me to go on the route with him. I loved it. Driving through the countryside was always an adventure. There were animals to see, people to visit, and freshly-baked chocolate-chip cookies if you knew where to stop, and Dad did. We made more stops than usual when I was on the route because I always got carsick, but stopping for me never seemed to bother Dad.
"In the spring, Dad delivered boxes full of baby chicks. Their continuous peeping could drive you crazy, but Dad loved it. When the peeping became too loud to bear, you could quiet them down by trilling your tongue and making the sounds of a hawk. When I was a boy it was fun to stick your fingers through one of the holes in the side of the cardboard boxes and let the baby birds peck on your finger. Such bravery!
"On Dad's final day of work on a beautiful summer day, it took him well into the evening to complete his rounds because at least one member of each family was waiting at their mailbox to thank him for his friendship and his years of service. 'Two hundred and nineteen mailboxes on my route,' he used to say, 'and a story at every one.' One lady had no mailbox, so Dad took the mail in to her every day because she was nearly blind. Once inside, he read her mail and helped her pay her bills. And every Thursday he read her the local newspaper.
"Mailboxes were sometimes used for things other than mail. One note left in a mailbox read, 'Nat, take these eggs to Marian; She's baking a cake and doesn't have any eggs, and don't stop to talk to Archie!' Mailboxes might be buried in the snow, or broken, or lying on the ground, but the mail was always delivered. On cold days Dad might find one of his customers waiting for him by the mailbox with a cup of hot chocolate. A young girl wrote letters but had no stamps, so she left a few buttons on the envelope in the mailbox; Dad paid for the stamps. One busy merchant used to leave large amounts of cash in his mailbox in a paper bag for Dad to take to the bank. On one occasion, the amount came to $32,000. It's hard to believe, but it's true.
"A dozen years ago, when I traveled back to my hometown on the sad occasion of Dad's death, the mailboxes along the way reminded me of some of his stories. I thought I knew them all, but that wasn't quite the case.
"As I drove through Marcellus, I noticed to aluminum lamp poles, one on each side of the street, reflecting the light of the late-afternoon summer sun. When my dad was around, those poles supported wooden boxes that were roughly four feet off the ground. One box was painted green, and the other was red, and each had a slot at the top with white lettering: SANTA CLAUS, NORTH POLE. For years children had dropped letters to Santa through those slots.
"I made a left turn at the corner and drove past the post office and across the railroad tracks to our house. Mom and I were sitting at the kitchen table when I heard footsteps on our porch. There, at the door, stood Frank Townsend, who had been Dad's postmaster and great friend for many years. So of course we all sat down at the table and began to tell stories.
"At one point Frank looked at me across the table with tears in his eyes. 'What are we going to do about the letters this Christmas?' he asked.
"I guess you never knew."
"'Remember, when you were a kid and you used to put your letters to Santa in green and red boxes on Main Street? It was your dad that answered all those letters that the kids wrote every year.'
"I just sat there with tears in my eyes. It wasn't hard for me to imagine Dad sitting at the old oak table in our basement reading those letters and answering each one. I have since spoken with several of the people who received Christmas letters during their childhood, and they told me how amazed they were that Santa had know so much about their homes and families.
"For me, just knowing that story about my father was the gift of a lifetime."
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Posted by Mark at 21:22