I believe in the United States Postal Service. Yes, you heard me ? the Postal Service. The same Postal Service that has made the term “Going Postal” a synonym for psychotic meltdowns. The same service that has given us countless opportunities for eye rolls and smirks ? “Another lost letter, well, that’s the Postal Office for you. What did you expect?” Yes, that Postal Service ? I believe in it.
I believe that when the brass mail slot in my front door snaps and I’ll gather up the envelopes, magazines and catalogues scattered on my carpet knowing they’ve arrived within a reasonable time. I believe that they haven’t been read by anyone else. And that no one has used the return address to report to a central authority who’s been corresponding with me. This is an astonishing thing. Day after day, year after year, mail comes and comes, and nothing happens. Daily delivery is a function of government so intimately connected with our lives, we scarcely notice it. Or, when we do, it’s only by its lapses ? those lost letters again.
It could be otherwise. And in many places in the world it is. One hundred ninety-one countries belong to the Universal Postal Union, an agency of the U. N. that aims to organize and improve postal service. But membership does not guarentee that postal delivery is dependable. Even in sophisticated countries like Mexica and Italy it’s unreliable at best. Elsewhere, like Madegasgar and Laos, it’s worse.
The citizens of those countries are almost akin the inhabitants of the remote, frigid villages of Alaska when the United States bought it from Russia in May 1867. Since Russia hadn’t established a postal system in Alaska, it’s probable that the people that vast territory didn’t even know about the sale. Before the transaction was completely finalized, however, the United States had established a post office at Sitka, and within six months regular service ran between Alaska and the Washington Territory.
The right to efficient, dependable mail service had been embedded in our national character almost a century earlier when the Continental Congress elected Benjamin Franklin our first Postmaster General. The mail, the communication it afforded, was recognized as a way to unify the country. With the westward expansion, the ability of mail to extablish a sense of commonality became evermore critical, and ingenious means were employed to ensure that it was delivered quickly. Horseback, sailboat, steamboat, coach, dogsled and bicycle ? they were all used. Mail was sorted enroute by handlers in railroad cars, send over pneumatic tubes, relayed by the famed Pony Express and transported by plane, bus, trolley and truck. In a large sense, the ingenuity applied to mail delivery exemplfies our national bent experimentation and embrace of technology.
The United States accounts for nearly fifty percent of the world’s mail. Last year, the Postal Service toted and sorted 25 million tons and delivered 211 billion pieces, averaging 750 million pieces a day. In December, that balloons to a billion a day, some of which will fall through my mail slot in Baltimore.
Over the years that Christmas mail has changed for me. No longer come the cards Florida, Connecticut, or California. I no longer pick up an envelope and note how feathery my mother’s handwriting has become. Now I get cards from my children and my grandchildren and no doubt in not-too-many years they’ll be noting how feathery my handwriting has become.
About 20 years ago, on Christmas Eve, I got a phone call from my sister. She was laughing as she told me that she’d discovered the best time to mail Christmas Presents. “Christmas Eve,” she said. “There’s no one in the Post Office and all the clerks are in a greatamood.” Now her Christmas cards don’t fall through my slot anymore either.
Some years after her call, I instituted my personal Christmas Eve ritual. About mid-morning in December twenty-fourth, before church and presents, I wash my hair, do my nails, clean off my bulleting board, and write checks to all the institutions and organizations that have helped me, my family, or others I consider deserving ? schools, colleges, mostly, but also a Catholic charity that takes care of babies with AIDs and a local hospital
Then I affix the few remaining Christmas stamps and walk to the mailbox a block away. Whatever I am feeling at that moment, the nostalgia for Christmases past, the pain for those who are gone, the hope for those who grin from cards sent to “Grandma,” it’s undiluted by worry that my checks won’t get to the ones they’re intended for. I’ll open the box, slip them in, and let the lid clang closed. Everything will be fine. This I believe.
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