Just received word that a short piece of my creative nonfiction, “05741,” a memoir about growing up with a post office in the house in small town Vermont, won First Prize in the “Perfect Places” competition at Movellas.com. Anyone who grew up with a family business in their house will understand.
You can read it for free here! Merry Christmas!
One place understood helps us understand all places better.
~ Eudora Welty
In the interest of privacy, some names have been changed.
California, December 1986.
Sound erupted in the stillness, rattling empty soda cans and ricocheting off the living room’s cement block walls. Another quickly followed, shattering what had been an otherwise peaceful afternoon in Valencia. I dropped my script and stared at the epicenter of the sounds, unable to move from my favorite reading spot. Right now, a rumble from somewhere deep in the San Andreas Fault would have been less unsettling than the phone’s strident ring.
I knew the call was for me. Only one person ever called the suite I shared with four other CalArts students at this time on Sunday afternoon— and until recently, every Sunday afternoon. I had my suspicions about why her calls had stopped shortly after Halloween, but preferred nursing my resentment in silence to risking a long-distance confrontation.
Now, faced with the inevitable, I bemoaned my lack of support: all of my roommates were at production meetings, rehearsals or fittings in the school’s costume shop. The lack of a working answering machine in the suite left me with no choice. I picked up the phone.
“I guess you’re too busy to thank me.” My mother’s voice shrilled through nearly three thousand miles of long distance static.
“Thank you? For what? Forgetting my birthday?” My twenty-fourth had come and gone without a word from Vermont.
“I sent you a card three weeks ago,” she said. Her warble over the word “card” meant that money was involved.
“I never got it, Mom,” I said, feeling somewhat chastened. “Sorry.”
“I knew I should’ve mailed it in Poultney.” Something meaty thudded on the other end of the line. “She’s not careful at all!”
She was Fanny Wilder, the latest owner of the East Poultney General Store and longstanding bane of my mother’s existence. Abandoning all hope of birthday wishes, I punched a pillow with my free hand and settled back on the couch, preparing for a tirade— one I knew by heart. When Mom retired as Postmaster in 1981, Fanny relocated the East Poultney Post Office to her store, thinking the “old-fashioned” post office would be a quaint addition to her then-new business. A “tourist attraction,” she called it.
Mom never forgave her for that.
I tried to lighten the mood. “My friends here can’t believe we had a post office in our living room.”
Most of them couldn’t, but it was true. For the first twenty years of my life, a ceiling-high partition divided the largest room in my parents’ sprawling Victorian house into public and private sectors. Painted light green and topped with white crown molding, thirteen feet of the partition bisected what should have been our front parlor from its bay window on the southern wall to a spot just beyond the western entryway. There, it turned at a right angle, extending itself another six feet before abutting the wall beside the large front door.
For twenty years, whenever I ran downstairs, I would have to stop short to squeeze between the post office’s shorter partition and the enormous iron safe that hunkered only a few inches beyond the stair landing, else risk a nasty bruise from one of its sharp edges (I still carry a dent in my shin from one of those run-ins). It must have weighed a ton, that safe–so much, my father had to reinforce that section of the floor to keep it from crashing into the basement.
A few jacks bracing cross beams in the cellar were nothing, compared to the other things he and my mother did while the post office was in our home. While few of those were postal-related, they were the kind of “little extras” that would have made First Postmaster, Ben Franklin, very proud.
The post office was where I learned to read and write, and where my love of language first took hold. Its gleaming, copper-topped counter was my first stage; my neighbors, the first “actors,” whose rhythmic voices mesmerized me with daily jokes and stories. I memorized zip codes the way other children memorize state capitals, and by age seven, had my first “real” job: helping my mother sort the mail.
“Go on, laugh,” she said. “If you could only see the mess Fanny’s made of it— letters and papers all over the place! I don’t know how she can keep the mail straight at all!”
When my mother became part-time Postmaster in 1949, the post office sat in one corner of the nearby Rising Sun Inn. After a fire destroyed the building in 1957, she decided to move the post office to our home and expand its hours. No matter how proactive, her decision did not curry favor among her more conservative neighbors, many of whom thought that a young mother supporting her family was nothing short of scandalous. My father’s seasonal employment only added to their litany of misgivings. While he cared for my older sister, my mother embarked on a campaign to win over her critics by personalizing and extending postal services. She created flexible pickup hours, allowed public access to newspaper and milk delivery on the post office porch, delivered mail to sick or elderly patrons, and in one instance, even proofread multiple versions of a local professor’s doctoral thesis–- all for no extra charge. When not painting houses, my father, an avid outdoorsman and gardener, contributed to her cause by providing free produce and wild game— rabbit, trout, and partridge— to anyone who wanted them for the price of a friendly conversation.
Although this placated some of the skeptics, my parents’ desire to please unfortunately created an enduring precedent. Because the post office was in our home, patrons— or “The People,” as my mother referred to them— always expected more from us than they did from other area business owners. In the twenty years I lived with the post office in our parlor, I never once heard my mother call our patrons friends or neighbors. They were always The People and we always had to be ready for them: our windows had to shine, every piece of metal had to be polished to a mirror sheen, and the leaves of the philodendron vines that clambered along the interior walls could never show a speck of dust. Because even the tiniest bit of dirt could spark disdain, floors and walkways were swept twice a day during the warmer months and more so throughout the winter.
Though The People, ever vigilant, always had something to say, we could not dispute their claims, however crude or thoughtless or uncomplimentary those might be. From an early age, I learned to live with the fear that if I did or said anything that even slightly offended one of our patrons, my mother could lose our primary source of income. Over time, my fear turned to bitter resentment, one whose shadow has dogged me long into adult life.
While we lived in constant pursuit of unattainable public approval, Fanny didn’t give a whit what other people thought. She left newspapers in piles on her store’s porch and let cobwebs grow in its display windows. Her two children were always underfoot and her husband, whose ambitions were more political than mercantile, rarely appeared behind its long, glass-topped checkout counter. If The People had comments or concerns, they didn’t voice them (at least, not to Fanny’s face). Fanny didn’t live where she worked, after all.
I stared out the window, watching smoke wisps rise from the mountains and mingle with the smog that always hovered over the Santa Clarita Valley like a sullen caul. The “Burning Season,” one of my friends called the flames, followed by downpours, which marked California’s equinoctial transition. As happy as I was to be away, Santa Ana-quickened brush fires were a poor substitute for the red and gold glory of autumn back home–- the first one I’d ever missed. “It’s been almost five years since you retired, Mom,” I began, “Fanny must’ve learned how to—”
“I must’ve told her a hundred times: ‘That’s not the way you sort the mail,’ but she doesn’t listen. She treats me as if I don’t know anything at all, and then laughs at me in front of other people.”
She’d been drinking again. Her words blurred into one another, like letters written with watered ink. I twisted the phone cord into a noose around my bare foot. While part of me pitied Fanny for having to listen to my mother’s “advice,” especially if it came on the heels of a bottle of sweet wine, I didn’t care for the post office’s “new” home, either. My father’s hand-painted sign looked out of place beneath the general store’s gilt banner. His handmade worktable and sorting rack seemed cumbrous, now transplanted into a plywood-partitioned cubicle next to the beer cooler in the back of the store.
I didn’t know why I felt the need to defend Fanny. Her priorities seemed to end with the monthly rent check she collected for housing the post office in her store; and she rarely dusted its displays or even swept the floor. The last time I retrieved Box 565’s mail, my fingers, after turning its antique brass combination lock, came away black and greasy. The once-proud eagle on its door looked like a crow. Still, I found myself saying, “She’s trying to run two businesses alone. She’s bound to make mistakes, Mom—”
“I didn’t,” she said with a vehemence that made my ears ring. “I never lost anyone’s mail– not once in thirty-two years! If you’d just taken it over, instead of gallivanting off to acting school…”
“Just ask Fanny if she’s seen it,” I said, cutting another unwanted diatribe off in mid-sentence. “I’m sure it’ll turn up.”
“You would say that.” The distance between us closed in a single, angry click.
Of course, it didn’t, so by mid-May, when I returned home for a summer theatrical internship, the latest battle in my mother’s silent, seething war with Fanny Wilder was well underway. I began to wonder just how much money she’d stuffed into that birthday card.
“Maybe you should just put up a mailbox,” I said to her one day in August, as I was packing my car for a return trip to California, although I knew my entreaty was doomed before its start. Putting up a mailbox meant a change in zip code; the mere suggestion of switching to Poultney’s, 05764, grounds for another row (at least when I was in a play, I could finish a sentence without someone screaming at me). Still, I tried. “It’s free,” I said, “you like the delivery lady, and you wouldn’t have to—”
“You’re never here anymore and I miss talking to people,” she said, her eyes brimming, “but Fanny doesn’t want me doing even that, now. She says I’m loitering and it’s bad for business— as if a friendly chat’s going to stop her from selling a pack of cigarettes or those awful Lottery tickets. Oh, but it’s fine for her to flirt with every man who walks through the door!”
“She’ll need to do more than flirt to keep business going,” I said, thinking of the store’s claustrophobic ceilings, uneven plank floor, and the pervasive murk that no amount of incandescent lighting ever seemed to dispel. Its cramped space swallowed conversation, light and happiness, leaving only an uneasy silence to drift down among the dust motes. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve sworn the place was cursed.
In Fanny’s case, I think it was.
Mom tottered to the car to give me a tearful hug and a sticky kiss that smelled like Richards’ Wild Irish Rose. “She’ll run it into the ground, you wait and see!”
Not long after, Fanny began to fulfill my mother’s prophecy. She shortened the post office’s hours and reduced its services, forcing patrons to mail their parcels from other post offices or engage a courier service. Her actions did nothing to improve the store’s reputation and eventually, her attempt to manage two businesses in one extracted a toll of its own. A few years later, Fanny, now divorced, sold the store.
The East Poultney General Store had a string of owners over the years. Whenever it changed hands, we would wonder if the post office would go and with it, zip code 05741, which gave our village as much of its unique, historical identity as Horace Greeley’s old home on the Green or Ethan Allen’s Revolutionary War-era graffiti on a local tavern’s wall.
Whenever I visited, I would walk by the store and stare at the post office sign my now-late father had painted so long ago, the ghosts of his black letters still visible beneath the latest veneer of whitewash and latex paint.
Each time, I would wonder how long it would be before I saw his sign burning on a bier at the town dump.
I never knew why my mother hadn’t kept the sign. It was part of my father, it was an important part of her past, and, because I’d lived so long beneath its shadow, it was a part of me. Did it evoke bitter memories for her of six-day workweeks, a position with no opportunity for advancement, and, because of the post office’s unique location, a career spent without a single vacation? When I asked her once, she shook her head and said, “Once you put the government’s name on something, it’s no longer yours.”
When my mother’s health failed, I moved back home to help care for her. One of the first things I did to make life easier for both of us was install a black, aluminum mailbox at the end of our driveway. The first time my mother saw it, she cried.
A few days after she died, I went out to collect all the neglected mail. A half-hearted drizzle fell and a blustery wind ripped at my clothes, but I felt nothing that April morning, not the sharp stones beneath my sandals or the sting of near-sleet through my thin t-shirt.
While I was opening the mailbox, a car pulled alongside me. Its tinted window lowered and a woman with hair the color of hoarfrost peered out. I didn’t recognize her or the car, at first; I thought she was a lost traveler who needed directions.
“Are you Antwa—are you her daughter?” She cocked her head towards the house.
The question landed like a blow. Remembering a time when everyone in town knew my family and my name, I nodded.
She thrust a smudged envelope at me through the crack in the car window. “We found this behind a desk when we were renovating.”
Now I recognized her. I didn’t know her name, but she was the store’s newest owner. I’d heard those “renovations” of hers included moving the mailboxes from their plywood cubicle to the front alcove, where they’d share wall space with souvenir shelves and racks of rental videos. “Thanks,” I said numbly. “You know, my dad painted the post office sign, and if you don’t mind, I’d—”
She sped away before I could finish.
I don’t know how long I stood in the rain, gazing down at my mother’s spidery handwriting and then, at the postmark, dated 1986, its bruise-colored ink still clear and crisp-edged after sixteen years lost in dust and darkness. When I opened the envelope, I found a birthday card, twenty-four dollars, and a book of stamps. Scrawled at the bottom of the card were three words: I miss you.