The Nation's Pulse

The Country Post Office

So long to an American way of life.

By 9.14.11

The United States Postal Service is broke and is going to have to do something about that. We hear that it may soon be necessary to stop Saturday mail delivery to save some money. And we also hear that some post offices will have to be closed and it's a good bet that the list of expendables will include some small town and country P.O.s. These little places have a friendly charm that you won't fine in the city; so as necessary as it may be, I will be sad to see the end of country post offices.

Here is the one I will miss most: This little post office sits in a small hamlet near the Chesapeake Bay -- let's call it Brown's Corner. This is not even a tiny town, but just a crossroad with two junk/"antique" sheds and a wooden storefront that was once a restaurant and will perhaps be something else next year. And the U.S. Post Office. The tiny brick structure is dwarfed by its name and zip code in big letters across the front and boasts two large flower planters tended by local ladies who arrive with a plastic milk jug of water when the flowers need watering. This is an area short on towns and big on farms, wildlife and woods. Since there is no mail delivery in Brown's Corner, locals rent a box at the post office to get their mail. Picking up one's mail is a daily ritual for farmers, fishermen, year-round and (like me) summer residents -- and for my neighbor Lem. In his baseball cap and work clothes, Lem rides his old bike to the post office and beyond -- rain or shine -- making an interesting contrast to the tourist bikers in their spandex and perky helmets. Getting the mail is a ritual that breeds friendliness. Someone holds the door for you; "Thanks, how are you today?" "Pretty good 'cept for this heat." "I heard it's the hottest July ever." "Well, see you, stay cool."

From the inner sanctum, the enterprise is presided over by Miss Emmy the postmistress who knows everyone in town. That means it is never necessary to wait as a stranger in a line with other strangers to deal with a clerk you don't know. If there happen to be a few waiting in line to buy stamps or mail a package or whatever, Miss Emmy never disappears into the back to do whatever postal clerks do when they vanish while people are still in line. Besides, there is no back in which to hide. Every transaction comes with conversation. "I saw your daughter this morning," "I heard the swim team won its meet Monday," If she is away from the counter you just call "Hi, Miss Emmy, looks like we have a package." "Yeah, it's addressed to your son. Feels heavy -- I think it's a battery."

Miss Emmy goes home for lunch from noon to one p.m. This does not inconvenience anyone, as nobody expects anybody to be there at lunch time anyway. Of course you can still get to your mailbox, as you can on weekends and holidays, just not into Miss Emmy's inner sanctum.

Toward the end of the summer, Miss Emmy told me that she is going to retire in a few months. Seeing my dismay, she explained that the money problems of the postal service have her worried about her pension. So she is getting while the getting is good. And with her departure I see what's coming. An end to many country post offices, to their Miss Emmys, to the daily ritual, the friendly meetings -- and who knows how far Lem will have to ride to get his mail.

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About the Author

Manon McKinnon is a writer living in Falls Church, Virginia.