Connecting Through Mail

Connecting Through Mail
The post office in Mexia, Alabama serves as a community gathering place. (Courtesy of Gwenyth McCorquodale)
A recent Pew research poll stated that Americans have a 91 percent positive view of the United States Postal Service. However, a poll done by the USPS noted a drastic drop in service for delivering letters and First-Class mail. Of course, one is quick to realize the cause of this decline. Most Americans prefer the ease and speed of communicating through the internet.

My hometown post office was postage-stamp sized—certainly one of the smallest buildings in our community. But it was big in my view because it welcomed all God’s children in Mexia, Alabama,—regardless of race, religion, gender, or age. An ambiance of cordiality existed between neighbors as they exchanged friendly nods or greetings.  It was a scene perfect for a Norman Rockwell painting.

“That’s the way it is,” the legendary news broadcaster of the 1950s, Walter Cronkite, would assure his viewers every evening at the end of his show. And, it was that trust that Mexia neighbors placed in the local news they heard outside the post office doors. The Mexia Post Office was a busy place of coming and going, not a place for sustained conversations—maybe a brief chat outside the door.  Somehow this tête-à-tête offered just the right amount of time for a person to glance at the letters, packages, or cards in a neighbor’s hand and form opinions about the contents. Soon an analysis would be dispensed as the “ultimate truth” to those who would listen. Dottie might tell her Sunday school class that Martha Jo would be engaged soon because she was receiving a letter-a-day from that boy in a nearby community. A visit to the post office was for official mail reasons, but one could always count on learning some news (or gossip) about the neighbors.

I had always associated patriotism with the Mexia Post Office. The American flag that hung on a bracket outside of the building shouted to me, “Respect this place for it belongs to all.” When my sisters and I crossed the threshold to enter the post office, we knew to mind our Ps and Qs.

The post office was a place where my thoughts ran wild.  If a man I didn’t recognize came through the doorway, I immediately imagined him to be a Russian spy getting top secret documents from his mailbox, or perhaps, he was one of the fugitives pictured on the “F.B.I. Most Wanted List” on one of the walls.

The post office fascinated me because my family did receive mail via the rural route delivery system. Just as the school bus arrived every school day at precisely 7:20 in the morning, the mailman’s car arrived at exactly 3:20 in the afternoon. Throughout the years, the traits I came to admire in a person or an institution were punctuality and dependability.

My respect for the post office probably dates back to when I was a student in the fifth grade. It was then that I requested information from the State of Montana Tourism Bureau to complete a geography project that Mrs. Cain had assigned to our class. The day I saw a large manila envelope crammed sideways into the mailbox, I knew someone had answered my letter. As I opened the package, guidebooks of places to visit, highway maps, and colorful brochures from cities in Montana spilled onto the floor. Mrs. Cain was certainly going to be impressed with my ingenuity in acquiring so much information. The assignment had two requirements: an oral report and a visual display to be placed on poster board.  What was poster board? Where could I buy poster board?  I surmised that butcher paper from Uncle Glynn’s store could be a substitute for poster board. On the day the assignment was due, my sister, Ginger, listened with patience as I recited my oral report over and over on the school bus; however, my eagerness to present my project swiftly evaporated when I saw my classmates’ poster board presentations. How tacky the butcher paper appeared when compared to the neat, concise, and uniform shape of the poster board. The butcher paper was limp and I knew it would definitely sag when I placed it on the wall. I held back tears. Mrs. Cain called for volunteers to begin the reports, and it seemed as if everyone’s hand but mine shot up. I cringed when Mrs. Cain called my name.  I gave my oral report and reluctantly began to unroll the butcher paper.  To my amazement, Mrs. Cain said, “Oh, Gwen, you have so much information that it couldn’t begin to fit on poster board.”  Saved by the U.S. Mail!

My interest in the postal service today directly relates to the teaching practices I experienced in Mrs. Cain’s classroom. As an educator myself, I found that something as ordinary as post offices, stamps, and mail delivery could spark students’ interest in topics related to reading, writing, and arithmetic. I imagine that adults would be fascinated to learn that a slave mailed himself to freedom.  Read the award winning children’s picture book, “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad,” to learn more about this amazing story. In this time of virtual learning, students need meaningful work for real learning. Mailing addresses offer real-life experiences in language arts lessons, on proper nouns and punctuation, as well as learning how to format an envelope properly.

The Mexia Post Office of my childhood delivered much more than mail to my small, rural hometown. Today, the post office still anchors a community to a place in this big, wide world. I’ve lived in small cities and in big metropolitan areas, and in each, the U.S. Post Office has stood as a valued community institution, a magnet of connection.

The U.S. Post Office connects people whether they live just down the road or many miles away. The letters and cards that come through the post office bind humans to each other. Most of us know the opening lyrics to the song, “People.” They are “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” The ending lyrics of the song are not so famous; “So send them your love.” The post office is one vehicle for carrying out that important work of connecting us.

During the pandemic, the mail carrier might have been the only person I saw regularly. It let me feel that something in this nation was still working, and I was comforted by this sense of normalcy. Maybe, the popular old saying “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” was made for our time.

I hope that even with the dire financial needs that are confronting the postal service, we always appreciate the legacy of the post office as an institution. It has stamped the word community in the hearts of most American town citizens.

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