Memories of a rural mail carrier
As the seasons turned, her route told its own story.
Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor / File
I spent 10 years delivering mail amid rolling fields and soft meadows. One hundred and eighty stops in 90 miles, a ballet’s cadence. A route full of twists and turns: Sometimes I’d be dizzy inside the maze – all those pirouettes.
It’s all bits and pieces of memory now. But here is some of what I recall:
The old farmsteads looked like oases with ancient, gnarled trees and farm equipment scattered about like giant toys. There were wheat and bluegrass, peas and lentils, a yield dependent on enough rain in the spring and none at all at harvest.
Afraid of strange dogs (as I am to this day), I stepped away from the car, parcel in hand, when the German shepherd came roaring at me. Baby robins fledged in my chest as I backed away. A boy ran from the house, shouting, “It’s all right! He doesn’t have any teeth!”
Calves appeared in early spring, white-faced, pristine, and spindly-legged. Before long, they became sure-footed and silly, bucking and frolicking. Then later came the mournful lows as mother and calf were separated into different pastures.
People whose names I can’t remember lived in an old farmhouse with many children. One day the youngest, a little blond-haired boy, stood next to the gravel road, arms outstretched, palms up, waiting for me to place the letters and pretend he was the mailbox. He was naked.
Grasshoppers plagued me during harvest. They’d spatter against the grille and roast on the radiator, emitting a fried-bug aroma that, oddly, did not seem entirely unpalatable. Mostly, though, they’d catapult through the window and boomerang through the car’s interior. On more than one occasion, one of them would creep up my pant leg. To avoid wrecking the car, I’d reach down and squash it through the cloth, shivering.
One time, I saw something up ahead in the road. An injured bird perhaps – a large one. But no, a miserable huddle of seven yellow Lab pups, in shock, abandoned and alone. I loaded them into the hatchback and finished the route, then the 40-minute drive to the city’s Humane Society. I picked up my children from school – dog lovers all – and took them along.
On a sweltering day, someone left fresh lemonade in the mailbox for me, condensation dripping like rain from the icy Kerr canning jar. Another time, there was a piece of chocolate cake, still warm. At Christmas, I’d be overwhelmed.
A snowstorm brought visibility to nearly zero. Reaching across the car seat to put mail in a box, I turned back to find a white pickup parked alongside me. In the truck bed, a man was on his hands and knees. He barked at me! I pulled away, stunned, and continued my route. I never learned the identity of the practical joker.
The smell of earth wafted through my open car window as the first anxious farmers plowed a spring field. I heard the buzz of crop-duster planes, choked during bluegrass-burning season, and schussed through deep snow that insulated sound and led me gliding down long hills like a sledder.
I recited his sister’s letters to an old man who’d never learned to read – bland notes on lined paper done in a shaky hand. I wonder what she’d have written without the invasion of a stranger’s eyes? I was thanked with an unwrapped pink peppermint candy that had shared a shirt pocket with a cloth pouch of pipe tobacco.
I drove a little Subaru hatchback for several years of mail delivery. The day my family and I traded it in for a new car, we all turned to wave goodbye to the forlorn, dusty thing sitting in the dealer’s lot.
And then, finally, the day came to say goodbye to my mail route. But it lives with me still in the fragments of memory that linger.