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Home: The Toast

The post office was central to the life of our village in the 1950s. It stood right at the corner where the main street took a sharp bend, and from its front steps, you could see down one way past the jeweller’s and the dry goods store as far as the Felt Boot Factory, and down the other past cars and buggies parked in front of the telephone exchange, the Five-and-Dime, and the blacksmith, all the way to where the road turned again to cross the bridge beside the cenotaph. This was a dour, sensible Lutheran-Mennonite village, and the post office was a dour, sensible building. The exterior was a blah yellowy-brown brick, and the walls inside a blah smudgy beige. No faces of villainous outlaws WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE like in Western movies hung on those walls; just the large official black and white photo of our serious new Queen looking off towards greater things. The patterned linoleum was brown and worn, and through much of the year, smeared with snow and mud tracked in on rubbers and galoshes. The place had a unique smell too, something like the dusty dry vanilla of the library only richer, and overlaid with the pungency of wet wool and mothballs in the winter, and in the good weather, a mix of the sour cheesy smell coming from the creamery and the malty fermenting grain from the nearby feed mill.

There were always people in the post office during regular hours—women out doing their errands, old people waiting in case someone they knew showed up, and farmers stopping in when they were in town with their milk or grain. The tall counter along one wall was often occupied by people licking their stamps amid the tiny strips of perforated paper others had left behind.

Since the village had no mail delivery, all in-coming mail either went into the rented mailboxes, each with its own special key and tiny window, or it was held for General Delivery for those people my mother referred to as rural. These rural sorts would announce their family name to the clerk behind the single wicket, though that was seldom necessary as most of the clerks knew most of the people. The clerk would then reach up to a pigeon hole for the stack of mail for everyone with last names starting with the same letter, and riffle through the pile. Some people also came in to buy postal money orders, mostly for their purchases from Eaton’s mail order service which was a huge business then, and entirely dependent on the mails: catalogues came by mail; people placed their orders by mail; they paid for their goods with postal money orders, and they received their orders by mail, anything from corsets to harnesses, beds to rugs to garden seeds to hardware. Some people even got whole houses by mail-order; first they bought the blueprints of their choice; then they ordered all the building materials designated in the plans.

My parents began entrusting me with the key to Box 125 when I was about eight, and I could be trusted to just get the mail and come right back. While I was there, I would often linger a little while and watch and, when I could, boldly eavesdrop on the conversations around me. I could understand as people exchanged news, and passed around photos or postcards from faraway places unless they were speaking German. The majority of people in this village were descendants of either German or Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants all of whom who had arrived in the early 1800s, and, even then, 150 years later, many still regularly spoke German. I was amazed that they had a whole set of different words to talk with, but nosy child that I was, I was also annoyed at not being able to understand them. In fact, I was so put out that for a while I’d insist that my friend walk down the main street with me while we chatted back and forth entirely using our made-up words. I thought that would show people we passed by that they weren’t the only ones with a secret language.

My biggest reason for liking the post office was that I got good stuff there—my Humpty Dumpty magazines, my Jack and Jill magazines, presents from my mother’s friends, and sometimes clothes or toys my mother had ordered from Eaton’s catalogue. As the only child of a woman with many unmarried friends, I got lots of cards at Christmas, Easter, and my birthday—funny ones with pictures of not-very riotous children’s birthday parties or cartoon characters or puppies or kittens or coy chubby little girls with the wind blowing up their skirts. (Why did no one find these creepy?) Often money was included with the cards, and sometimes parcels arrived wrapped in brown paper and tied with butcher’s string. Some of these presents were pretty dull—tiny silver spoons for my Hope Chest, and a white slip every year from the woman who married my grandfather late in life and didn’t know a thing about children—but I also got great presents: a kit for making gaudy beaded rings; a kit for assembling wallets, change purses, and belts from pre-cut pieces of dark brown tooled leather; diaries, and perfumed soaps, bath salts, and boxes of bath powder with big poofy puffs. For each gift, my mother required me to mail off a thank-you note, and so I wrote one after another: Thank you for the _______. I really like it. I also got a ________ and a ________. Love, Mary.

The mail even brought me the prize I’d won in a Popsicle contest, the kind where you collect a bunch of sticky wrappers, cut off the red and white coupons, provide the required skill-testing drawing, and mail it all off to a far-away place in the States. That year we had to design a brand for an imaginary cattle ranch. My pencil-smudged entry was The Flying Horseshoe. Many weeks later Dy-Dee Doll arrived at the post office asleep in her own pink suitcase. She was so revolutionary that she wasn’t even in the Eaton’s catalogue, and so daring that she could blow bubbles from a pipe, drink from a bottle, and even wet herself.

***

My parents got lots of mail too: letters and parcels, magazines and newspapers. Most of the letters addressed to my father were just bills connected to their business, the local movie theatre, but occasionally he got letters from his two aunts who were Grey Nuns in Pembroke sending him reports of sicknesses or deaths in his family. These women would close their letters with promises that they were keeping us in their prayers, as well as cautioning my father not to forget his prayers. He would read these letters aloud to my mother, and I’d be astounded to hear my father spoken to as if he were a child.

My mother loved getting mail, and she was a loyal correspondent. Every single Sunday afternoon she got out her fancy, dignified stationery, and wrote letters to members of her family and to several of her old friends from her days teaching in Toronto. One of those friends had had TB, and although she was cured, she worried greatly that the paper, envelope, and stamps she had touched might pass the disease to my mother. She mentioned it in every letter. My mother kept a list of each letter she wrote in a battered pocket-sized notebook labelled Correspondence, so I know she wrote over 10,000 letters in the years after she got married. She also sent and received over 200 Christmas cards every year, as well as anniversary, Easter, and birthday cards, the popular kind of the day that wished the person many more happy years without ever mentioning which birthday it was. Most of these cards were illustrated with bouquets of flowers or elegant ladies with wasp-waists, big skirts, and Scarlet O’Hara parasols, and the messages were usually rhyming and sentimental: Just wanted to let you know, It’s your birthday and I miss you so.

Despite how much my mother loved getting mail, she kept almost none of these letters, none from my father or her friends: she was determined not to have people reading her mail after she was gone. The only correspondence she kept, and which I found after she died, were the cards, letters, and telegrams she’d received when I was born. In these, one after another, people said they were “shocked and overjoyed”—happy for the safe arrival of the baby, but shocked because my mother had gone through the whole nine months without telling a single person that she was pregnant: no one in her family nor anyone in the village. Only my father and her doctor knew. My mother was almost six feet tall and heavy, so by standing very straight and continuing to wear her sturdy corset right up to the end, no one was the wiser. The village busybody was so suspicious of the tale that she made a special trip to the city hospital to see if Mrs. Breen was actually in the maternity ward. Mrs. Breen was very proud of her subterfuge, both then and every time she repeated the story over the years. Her explanation for the secrecy was “in case you weren’t alright.” I know now that the concern was because she was having her first child at 41—though of course I didn’t know her age then, nor did I understand why that might have mattered. All I knew was that I didn’t like the story. I think it was probably unsettling to hear that their first thought was to love me “only if.” Weren’t parents supposed to love their babies even if they weren’t “alright?” And what were they planning to do with me if I wasn’t “alright?” These were questions I was afraid to even let form in my head, but even if I had, I know I’d have been afraid to ask them.

***

It’s true that I was a nosy child. I hated when my mother forever pointed this out, but it was true. Being a curious child was partly the result of being an only child who was forced to spend a lot of time with adults, and as every child knows, adults are baffling. Of course I didn’t appreciate it then, but the one benefit of being an only child is the early access it gives one to the adult world. These letters my mother received did just that: they provided me with little windows into adult women’s goings-on. I wasn’t allowed to touch the letters, but my mother would often read parts aloud to my father (no doubt omitting anything she would have deemed unsuitable for my and possibly his ears), along with her approval or, not uncommonly, her disapproval of what her friends had said or done. Although I wasn’t interested in the news these women reported—a successful church bazaar, a nasty gall bladder attack, a new parish priest who gave inappropriate sermons—I still liked being drawn closer to the world of grown-ups. Besides, I was certain my life would never be that dull. My mother would show me the extras that were often tucked in with the letters: cake recipes, photos, cartoons clipped from newspapers (often about being fat), clippings about friends, and often prayer cards from funerals. These remembrance cards would sit on our table for a week or two propped up against the salt and pepper shakers, and the dearly departed would be remembered every evening in our prayers.

I can only think of two of my mother’s correspondents whose letters upset her. One was Loretto, her critical, impossible-to-please sister. Loretto’s letters always came with tales of wrongs done to her by everyone in her small world, particularly my mother, each letter a recitation of these instances of ill-treatment, displayed like precious jewels. Because she was so difficult, my mother visited her sister in Toronto at most once a year, and this neglect gave more fuel to Loretto’s fires. My mother would often cry after reading a letter from Loretto, no doubt realizing again the futility of trying to sort anything out with her. I didn’t like seeing my all-powerful mother apparently defeated by anything, but at the same time I was amazed to know there was someone who actually had the nerve to disagree with, let alone scold her.

The other distressing letters were from an old friend she was very fond of. His name was Father George, a priest from Cape Breton. Years earlier, George was one of several young seminarians my grandmother took under her wing because these men couldn’t afford to travel the long distances from Toronto to their homes for holidays. My grandmother was, I’m told, a kind, warm-hearted woman as well as a country woman used to opening her door and bringing people in for a meal. My mother was just a teenager when she got to know George, and Father George, as he became, remained her good friend ever after. When he was in his 60s, he developed some form of dementia. Several years went by during which he continued to send her letters that were, more and more, nothing but large sprawling words across the page, words that, even when she thought she might have deciphered them, made little sense, and provided her with undeniable evidence that her friend was disappearing in front of her eyes.

There was also a four-year period during which we received weekly letters from my father. When I was nine, our movie theatre and thousands of others across North America failed because of the arrival of television. My father was forced to return to his former career, teaching physics and chemistry. Since our village had no high school, he had to find a position elsewhere. For two years, he taught in a town close enough to allow him to return home on weekends; then he moved to another school so far away that he could only return at Christmas and Easter. My mother and I missed him terribly, and although my mother was always happy to get his letters, they also brought a tear to her eye. We both wrote to him every single week, and he wrote to each of us. I don’t know how he managed to find anything worth reporting to me week after week, but he did, and he always included a dime taped to the top of the page. I liked the money, but much more I liked knowing he’d taken the time to write especially to me.

***

For a year or so, I was also on the lookout for letters from my two Pen Pals, a girl in Manila whose name and address I found in the Pen Pal Wanted section at the back of a comic book, and a young man in Antwerp, my War Bride aunt’s nephew. I can’t even remember their names. At first, I thought a Pen Pal held great promise: the cachet of having friends in faraway places; the fancy airmail envelopes with red and blue borders and beautiful stamps, and the aerograms on whisper-thin paper with gummed flaps that had to be slit open just right. However, it wasn’t long before the whole thing became tedious. Their letters were not interesting, and I’m sure mine were no better. I’d put off writing back until my guilt got to me, and then I’d manage a short page of I am in Grade 5. I go to school every day. I like my teacher. The most memorable thing about the whole endeavour was how funny my parents and I thought it was that this young Belgian man signed his letters, “Lots of greets.”

The best thing about getting letters from my Pen Pals was the stamps as I had just begun my manic, though brief, stamp-collecting phase. At that time, philately was thought to be a worthwhile educational hobby, so my friends’ parents and mine willingly bought us albums and hinges, tweezers and magnifying glasses and perforation gauges, as well as stamps. I was allowed to clip off any stamps that arrived in our mail, and my mother also found a few old envelopes with stamps on them, most of them showing either the stern King George V with his bushy mustache and beard or King George VI who looked much too ordinary to be a king. I would carefully cut off the corners of the envelopes, soak them, peel off the stamps, and then dry them between pieces of blotting paper with the dictionary on top to press them flat. We also bought stamps from mail-order stamp companies, assortments in little packages, sometimes 500 at a time. The ads for these packages led us to believe that in those cellophane envelopes we might find a rare stamp worth a king’s ransom, like the One Penny Black or the Threepenny Beaver, so my friends and I would pore over our stamps for ages. We organized them, sorted them, traded them, checked them against a stamp catalogue for their perforations and watermarks, but we never found one worth more than three regular Canadian pennies.

Probably the only thing about stamps that stirred my blood was the thrilling warning that a person could lose their head for pasting a stamp showing the Queen’s head upside down; this, we were told, constituted an act of treason! I remember wondering if this also applied to how I stored my extras in my cardboard stockbook. Otherwise, the educational part of stamp collecting was highly overrated. It didn’t teach me about the big wide world as it was supposed to. I never wondered about the lives of girls collecting stamps in Ireland or Italy or India. I could barely have found those places on a map, let alone did I learn a single thing about their histories or cultures. Moreover, I didn’t grasp the essential function of these stamps I was so keen to amass: I never thought once about their role in keeping people connected. Stamp collecting for me was just another way I was learning to be a consumer who always wanted just one more.

***

I trust the statute of limitations regarding tampering with Royal Mail Canada applies, as the post office was the site of my only acts of public mischief. (Perhaps they should have had a WANTED poster for me.) People had access to the mailboxes in the evenings, and, on one warm evening, my parents sent me down to collect the mail. There was no one else there. The wicket was closed; there wasn’t a sound from in behind, and the lights front and back were dim. After I removed our letters, I bent down to take a peek through at the now-not-busy place beyond. All I could see were bits of mail projecting out of the boxes adjacent to ours, and beyond them, the edge of a bare wooden table. Then I realized that I could touch this mail that belonged to other people, so, without any further thought, I reached in, pulled out anything I could—letters, magazines, and brown envelopes—and let them fall inside, out of sight. I didn’t take anything or even look at it. I just pulled them out and dropped them. I thought I was so clever, imagining the clerks flummoxed the next day, unable to explain why all this mail had fallen out, and having to conclude that the post office had a ghost, though just a harmless Casper-The-Friendly kind of ghost. It didn’t occur to me that someone might notice that all the fallen mail was from boxes above, below, and beside Box 125.

The whole endeavour was both harmless and unrewarding because nothing came of it. I was never there in the morning to hear their reactions when the fallen mail was discovered, or the conversations about what could have caused it. No one must have suspected me or they’d surely have had a word with my parents who surely would have had a word with me. And so, I only played my little prank two or three times before summer came and I moved on to other things.

***

As I said, I saw the post office as simply a place where I got stuff. I didn’t understand that village post offices were meeting places where people could catch up on each other’s news. I didn’t understand that postmasters and postmistresses could and would, without ever steaming open letters, have news to convey—things like whether or not Mrs. Schneider’s wayward son had written home yet, or which young woman was getting a letter from an address in Hamilton every single day, or which young woman was no longer getting a letter from an address in Hamilton every single day—the kind of tantalizing and possibly scandalous things that Agatha Christie could have based a motive for murder on. I didn’t comprehend that the letters that came through the post office, both those carrying mundane news as well as those with monumental news, were treasures simply because humans need to be in touch with each other. To survive, we need to be connected—friends to friends, mothers to daughters, brothers to brothers—and post offices were a crucial means of doing so. For the price of one four-cent stamp, the blue one with the queen wearing her little pointy crown, people could send a letter anywhere in Canada and the US. This was a time when many people didn’t even have a telephone, and long-distance calls were extremely expensive. Telegrams were only for urgent messages, but the mail allowed contact with people beyond their village, town, or city, either a few miles down the road or across the continent. Newspapers and magazines brought in the outside world; letters brought news of family and friends, good and bad, many in handwritten notes, some typed, some written by a modern version of a scribe for those who couldn’t write or couldn’t see to write. The post office was a place where records of the real and urgent drama of people’s lives passed through.

Some people must have approached the doors of our post office with great hope, and others with fear, and others still with despair as they waited week by week, month by month, for replies that never came. Some letters were torn open right there so the contents—photos, news, money—could be gobbled like food to the hungry, but some letters—both welcome and dreaded—were taken home to be read in private: love letters, “Dear John” letters, and in wartime, terrible letters from men and women who, it was known for certain, were already dead.

I was long past my childish thoughts of friendly ghosts when I came to realize that the post office would in fact have been full of ghosts. All the adults in the village went there at one time or another, and they left behind remnants of stories of births, marriages, and deaths, of joys and disappointments, of terrible losses and wonderful celebrations, of loves found and lost, and dreams fulfilled and broken. Thousands of people must have walked out of those brown post office doors carrying news that would change their lives forever.

***

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Mary J. Breen’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary magazines, national newspapers, essay collections, and travel magazines. She lives in Peterborough, Canada where, among other things, she teaches memoir writing with seniors.

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