I suppose if we’re lucky, we all experience a Christmas miracle or two during our lifetimes. Okay, maybe not Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life caliber miracle, but a little something special that happens around this time of year. I found mine last week at the post office of all places. Yes, the post office and even that Grinch Louis DeJoy couldn’t steal it from me.
The post office I frequent most often is in the back of an Ace Hardware store. It’s conveniently located in a shopping center that includes a grocery store, a CVS, and a Starbucks. Let me digress for a moment. I am the least handy woman on earth. My toolbox is the size of a cigar box. I’m lucky that I have gifted friends who can fix things. That said, I’ve always loved hardware stores. Maybe it’s because it was one of my favorite places to visit with my dad when I was little. He was a super handy guy and took great pride in fixing things. Sidebar: This fixing almost always involved a lot of colorful cussing, which also intrigued me as a child. Anyway, he would often go to the hardware store on Saturday mornings for some part or widget he needed, and I would race to the car to ride shotgun with him. Calm down, Karen – there were no car seat laws back in the olden days. My mother had the reflexes of a panther and could catch a 40 pound kid sliding off the seat with one hand.
I had no idea (still don’t) what most of the things in the store were, but I loved all the organized bins and shelves brimming with so many mysterious parts. I can remember what that store smelled like – woody, musty, manly. Think Hardware Store, a new fragrance for men and Sam Elliot as the celebrity spokesperson. It felt like entering a secret clubhouse because there were never many women, much less little girls there. My dad would talk to a lot of the other men, and they would be nice to me. And the best part was that the store had a little pen with baby chicks under a heat lamp. I loved holding those warm little peeps and feeling their tiny racing hearts in my hands and I’m certain that early bonding partially explains my vegetarianism as an adult.
Okay, so now you see why I think the idea of a post office in a hardware store is cool – convenience and nostalgia. My post office is tiny – two stations at the counter but usually only one person is working. Oh, and they never seem to have books of stamps for purchase. Seriously? It drove me crazy for years and then I just started ordering them online. I care about stamps – probably too much. I’m old school when it comes to correspondence. I still send notes and postcards, so I use quite a few stamps each year and I want them to be a little more creative than the FOREVER flag.
But my tiny post office is great for mailing packages. Parking is a breeze and there’s rarely a line. The clerks are friendly, and you can get in and out quickly. Well, except at Christmas, of course. The good news is that I only had two packages to mail. The bad news is that both were going to California. That’s a pricey passage via Priority Mail. True story – the postage for one of my packages cost more than the contents. Alas, both boxes included homemade cookies and I wanted them to arrive intact and relatively fresh – so speed was of the essence.
Strategy is key to mailing holiday packages. I arrived at the store a few minutes after the 8 AM opening on Monday. A very young woman standing behind the register at the front of the store greeted me with a forlorn expression. She squeaked out, “Good morning” in her tiny voice and then took a deep breath. I sensed she was preparing to deliver some grim news. She said, “The post office lady is running late this morning.” I swear she winced when the words left her mouth as if she were expecting me to punch her in the nose. I smiled and said, “Okay.” The look of relief on her face made me sad. I guess she’s been abused like many dealing with the public in these thinly staffed times. I continued to the back of the store and discovered my early bird status placed me at the head of a line going nowhere.
A few minutes later a young man carrying two envelopes walked up. He had heard the disappointing news, too, and shrugged at me like “what are you going to do” – and immediately got on his phone. I couldn’t hear his conversation, but the tone was stressful – too stressful for 8 AM. Soon, another woman with a couple of boxes joined the queue. By now it was 8:20. I considered leaving and coming back later but one of my boxes was pretty big and I was over schlepping it.
My pondering was interrupted by the sound of the harried postal clerk announcing her arrival. “I’m here, I’m here! I’m sorry I’m late. My daughter has four children and had a flat tire this morning and I had to rescue her.” I’ve used punctuation here, but her explanation came out as one breathy, emotional run on sentence. I’m always amused how Southerners can just spill their guts to total strangers on a dime. Her apology was most sincere, and it would have been cruel to say anything but what we all said – “It’s fine.”
The clerk threw off her coat and turned on whatever makes the post office engine run. The stressed-out guy had stepped over to a rack of greeting cards to take another call and was pacing while he talked. He was starting to stress me out. I’ve realized during COVID II that sometimes I can feel the collective stress and angst of my fellow humans – especially in places like the grocery store and parking lots. And, yes, the post office. Even though I was clearly at the head of the line, the clerk bellowed out, “Okay, who’s first?” And then my better angels took over. I know, who knew I had them? I said to the stressed-out guy, “Go ahead. You just have those letters to mail.” He looked at me like I had offered him a kidney. He said, “No, no, I can’t.” I said, “Yes. It’s no problem.” He still seemed incredulous to my offer and asked me if I was sure – like this was a binding legal agreement. I assured him it was fine, and he said thanks and walked to the counter. And, as expected, his business with Chatty Cathy was quickly finished.
I assumed he would probably thank me again as he passed by me on the way out. What I didn’t see coming was that he stopped right in front of me and looked me directly in my eyes (the ones right above my mask line) and softly said, “Thank you. I really needed that today.” For a second, I thought he might actually hug me. And honestly, I think I would have been all in. I smiled back at him and said, “I kind of thought you did. You’re welcome.” No, an angel didn’t get his wings or anything, but in that moment, it felt like a communion of sorts. Two weary humans in a never-ending pandemic making a brief but authentic connection in the little post office in Ace Hardware. It was just what I didn’t know I needed.
I was on a high when I finally got to unload my packages to the clerk. She put the big box on the scale and groaned, “Oh, no.” I laughed out loud and told her I knew how much it cost to send something cross country. She apologized again for being late and told me earnestly that there was no way she was going to leave her daughter in distress. “I’m the only one she haves,” she said. And then I heard the sound of my own voice saying, “Well, then it sounds as if she has quite a lot.” She smiled at me sweetly and this time I’m pretty sure I heard a bell ring.
P.S. Shout out to the USPS! My packages were scheduled to arrive on Thursday and were delivered a day early. Okay, the two cookie containers in the big box were slightly crushed, but nary a cookie was crumbled Ding, ding! Another tiny miracle.