Thursday, June 07, 2007

 

In Which We Lower the Flag...


My aunt Barbara died today.

After hearing the news, the folks at the post office lowered the flag to half-mast, and there it will remain for the rest of the week, which is only fitting. For more than 25 years--and for all of my youth--Barbara was the town postmaster, the center of news and indeed the center of life for her little community.

I'm feeling mighty low tonight. In less than 18 months, I've lost the last of my grandparents, my Mom and Dad, and now my favorite aunt, a woman I spent nearly every summer of my youth with. For the first half of my life, these people were the pillars, the very foundation of my world, each in their own way responsible for making me the man who writes these words. Now they're all gone. And as much as I love my family and am grateful for their unfailing sweetness and support, tonight I am as lonely as I've ever felt in my life.

I can't really muster any more than that, so I'll simply leave you with the following. It's a piece I wrote when I was 20 years old. Aunt Barbara was still running the town post office out of her living room--one of the last small-town post offices to reside in a private home--but that was going to change soon, so I decided to write a day-in-the-life piece about the place, and therefore about the town. I even got my girlfriend--a professional photographer--to come up to New Hampshire and spend a day shooting the photos that you'll see here (apologies for the poor scans).

babdave

(That's aunt Barbara and uncle David in their sitting room, which doubled as the lobby of the post office. Yeah, that's me on the right, with wearing one of my Amish serial-killer-style beards.)

After my brother called with the news, I dug out the manuscript and photos. Looking at them makes me feel just a little less empty. Much as I'd like to edit it, trim some quotes, make sure I stay in the same tense throughout, I'm presenting the story as is, warts and all. Although I had published a few articles before writing this one, the piece marks my first serious attempt at a real magazine story. I wanted to get this right and I think I mostly managed it, at least in terms of passion, if not technical proficiency.

Alas, no one else thought so. I sent it to Yankee, which hemmed and hawed a good long while before finally passing on it. New England Monthly rejected it out of hand. Country Journal came this close to publishing it (I still have a lovely letter from their managing editor about it), but they passed too. New Hampshire Profiles had me rewrite it, liked what they saw, then put it on the slate for their November issue, only to suffer budget cutbacks and change their frequency from 12 to 9 times a years, eliminating the issue the story was to run in.

Thus, this is the first time that the story will be seen by an audience wider than my immediate family. I hope you enjoy it. It's not my best, but it's as fitting a tribute as I can manage for my aunt tonight.



General Delivery, West Springfield

"We had a postal inspector come in here once and say this was the most primitive post office he'd ever seen," Barbara Reney said, then laughed. "I told him he ought to go up to Maine. Some of them don't even have a bathroom up there."

babpose

There is a bathroom here at the West Springfield, New Hampshire post office, on the "official side," behind the nine short rows of mailboxes. There is also a customer area on the other side, where the obligatory bulletin board of postal notices and wanted posters hangs, almost out of place in this room. Bounded by pine boards and paneling, a tray of potted plants at one window, two comfortable if rickety chairs nearby, here one could find practically all the comforts of home.

But then, this is Barbara's home, both the house and the village. Born and raised in West Springfield, Barbara has been a part of the 220-year-old village for nearly a quarter of its history.

babra1

And for the past 13 years in that history, almost since Barbara and her husband David moved into the house on Grantham Road, the post office has dwelt in the room below her kitchen. Of the nearly 250 post offices in New Hampshire, only eight exist in private residences. On this day, West Springfield is still one of them. Soon, that will change--soon, but not now.

Barbara marches out her front door, the flag in one hand, an orange safety cone in the other. Where the end of her yard meets the edge of Grantham Road, she drops the cone as a deterrent to any of her customers who might inadvertently try to park on her lawn. She pauses now, considering the weather. Today, she can hear the trickle of last night's rain, meandering down the shoulder of the road, cutting through the earth and, she thinks with a frown, right into her cellar.

She peers over the top of her bifocals, looking up the road towards the general store, the other half of West Springfield's "downtown" section. Businesses have come and gone in the past two centuries, everything from mining and cattle-driving to milling and blacksmithing. Now, there is just the general store, a handful of antique shops, and a trading post of sorts, over by Lake Kolelemook, on the other side of town. In summer, the area around the lake is the most densely populated area as the "flatlanders," the other half of West Springfield's 700 residents, come up-country to the comfort and quiet of the cottages and condos that dot the woods around the lake.

Barbara grew up on that side of town, a member of one of West Springfield's founding families. Time was, the land around the lake was marshland, worthless from the agrarian viewpoint of her ancestors. Several generations, and several tons of sand later, this waterfront land yields a lot more green than the forefathers could ever have imagined. Times have changed in West Springfield.

But people have not, as Barbara would be inclined to agree at this moment. Her watch reads 7:40, and, as usual, there is still no sign of Hollis, her deliveryman.

She walks around the side of the house now to her flowerbed, the spot her prized dahlias grace in spring and summer. The white stem of a flagpole also grows out of the ground here. She hooks her flag to the rope and pulls. The banner flutters to life, officially beginning another day in West Springfield.

She goes back into the house and hangs her coat near the living room doorway. Unlocking the blue door to her right, she steps into the post office, the latest one in West Springfield's 135 years of postal service.

For nearly 20 of those years, Barbara has upheld that service, beginning her tenure a dozen yards up the street, in the town's one general store, where the post office existed for years as a fourth class office. In strict postal parlance, the fourth class or Category L post office is the smallest there is: open less than eight hours a day, serving a small community with few customers. Barbara had a different definition.

"At the time, fourth class meant whoever was postmaster also had to supply a place for the post office," she recalled. "So the store's owner, because he had room, had been postmaster for years. Then, David and I bought the store, the old owner retired as postmaster, and I took the place over."

The place in question consisted of a space the size of a modest walk-in closet, 50 mailboxes in a corner of the store. As the town grew--aided in part by David, whose construction and development business has made him one of West Springfield's most unlikely land barons--Barbara knew she needed more space. When they sold the store and moved down the street, she took the post office with her.

She sits in the customer area now, waiting for Hollis to bring the mail from Wilmot Flat, where the truck from Manchester drops it off every business day. At first, four-horse coaches carried the mail three times a week from Boston. With the advent of the railroads, trains made the delivery more frequently. And for the past 45 years, Hollis Heath has brought it to town in the trunk of his car.

He arrives now, braking just short of the orange safety cone. Barbara hurries out to help him, but the 73-year-old postal carrier needs little aid, hefting the bags with his one good arm.

"He lost the other one in a mill accident when he was a young man," she confides later. "He doesn't think he's in too good a shape. The other day he says, 'Babra, the doctor tells me I could drop dead anytime. Right here even.'" She clutches her heart at the idea. "I says, 'Don't you dare do it in here, Hollis. Can you imagine the paperwork I'd have to fill out?'"

But Hollis felt fit today, spirits high, face as ruddy as Esau's, despite his brush with mortality the night before.

"Ayuh, my mother-in-law, she finally died last night," he remarked off-handedly, as he brought the last of the bags in. Barbara offered condolences, but Hollis put up his one hand. "Well, you know, Babra, she were ninety-five and in a coma. I guess there weren't nothing to feel bad about."

Barbara listened as she up-ended one of the bags on her sorting table. She reached below and pulled down a flat board that ran the length of the table. Hinged in the middle, held fast by a chain on either end, this drawbridge-step gave Barbara an extra foot to her stature and allowed her to reach the upper-most boxes, a gift from her husband David after he realized he had built the counter too high.

babstep

Hollis remained for a while, talking about death and taxes, which reminded him that West Springfield's town meeting was today.

"You know, Babra," he said, "the most excitement they probably ever had at town meeting was when George Philbrick got up, made that speech about something, sat down, then slumped right over dead against your father." He shook his head. "How they did squawk." On that abrupt note, Hollis departed, leaving Barbara to sort the mail in peace.

"I don't understand why people can't use box numbers when they mail something here," she grimaces, waving one letter. "'M. Waddell, West Springfield.' Now, it could be Matthew or Myrtle, or even Mister or Missus. I mean, really." But she recognizes the return address and finds a slot for the letter anyway.

babsort

"You'd be surprised the things people expect the post office to know. Why, I once had a woman call me up, wanted to know if I knew where her septic tank was. She thought it was on record with the government, hence the post office. That's not as bad as the people who come in and want to know how much it costs to send a 25-cent letter. Oh, it happens, all right."

Barbara admitted, though, that her strangest customers were not nearly as odd as some of the items she handled for them.

"You'd never find a big city handling the things a rural post office gets. We get beehives, filled with bees, of course, live chicks, things like that. One time, someone got a container of mudworms in the mail." She pauses and shudders. The worms, undoubtedly on their way to an engagement at McDaniel Marsh, a favorite fishing spot on the edge of town, were unexpectedly detoured. "I was opening this one bag and saw there was all this peat moss, and these ugly brown things on top of mail. The container had disintegrated, but the worms were okay.

"Got an urn full of ashes in here one time," she said. "Came here by mistake, so I sent it quickly on its way. I guess people do that, but when my time comes, I sure as hell wouldn't want to be shipped home in the second class bag."

By opening time at 8:00, Barbara has sorted most of the mail. By 8:05, customers came in steadily, birds homing in on individual pigeonholes. Most merely collected the mail and left; some stopped to pass the time of day. All at least bade good morning to Barbara.

Sid Howlett stops for considerably longer. A rotund man in Carters overalls, Sid strokes his big, black, unkempt beard as he casually thumbs through his mail.
"Got my hair cut and my beard trimmed yesterday," he said, to Barbara's instant amusement. "No, it's true," he insisted. "Wife was after me to do it. Course, now the kids are mad as hell, wanting to know why I got everything cut so short." He sighed hugely. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't, which is why I ain't going to town meeting."

Saying this, he stoops--his Carters almost creaking audibly with the strain--and snatches a pamphlet from a stack of bound papers on the floor--copies of the annual town report.

"Yes sir, every time I go to town meeting, I don't want to say nothing, because if I do, I'll just get into trouble. Then, I leave without opening my mouth and feel bad because I should have said something," he says, sighing hugely. As he pages through the report, he notices that crime is on the rise in West Springfield: 397 police calls this year, up from 276, a 30 percent increase. Another sigh.
"Dog complaints were the single highest number on the list," he said, slapping the report down. "Thirty-eight in all."

Barbara leans over the counter. "Before we had a regular cop around here, people used to bring stray dogs here. They'd hitch them outside and, sure enough, someone would come along and claim them by the end of the day. Course, now they get put in the kennel up the road."

"I should have done that with the dog I found in my chicken shed the other day," Sid said darkly. "I know whose it was, too." Then his face brightened and he looked at the clock. "Well, I'd best get home to lunch," he said, ambling to the door. "Give my regards to David, Babra," he called over his shoulder.

Close to noon, David Reney strides into the post office, his massive frame filling the doorway. Fresh from his latest construction job, he stands for a moment, resplendent in his baggy, sawdust-covered jeans and a tattered goose-down jacket that makes him appear to be molting. His heavy feet thunder across the floorboards as he walks to the big chair by the window. As he sits, the chair mutters curses, but holds his weight.

"Stopping for lunch?" Barbara asks.

David nods emphatically, patting a callused hand to his ample stomach. "Time for some beans. Been a hard morning up at the Plaza."

The "Plaza," David's latest bit of construction, erected on a lot in the municipal section of town, an area that has been a hotbed of community development lately. The town hall up there is undergoing some changes, its first since 1851, when 40 teams of oxen dragged the building from Cemetery Hill to the grove it now occupies. The old white clapboards have been stripped from it for the impending face-lift, its belfry removed and mended like an old hat. Further up the road, across the street from the town offices, a stretch of land has been cleared as the Springfield Recreation Facility, complete with two baseball fields.

And then there is the Plaza, a long, gray building in the middle of this rural revitalization. Few people in town knew why David built it, and David wasn't about to enlighten the rest. "Hell, let them wonder," he decided.

Having caught his breath, he stands and walks behind the counter to check the mail. That done, he departs for lunch in a flurry of sawdust and feathers.

"Don't forget to let Roscoe out," Barbara calls after him. David waves his hand in assurance.

Roscoe, Barbara's small tabby cat, makes his appearance in the afternoon, leaping gracefully to the counter. He is waiting for the children to come in, a big moment for a little cat in a small town. In Barbara's youth, children went to the town school, first in the little building next to the town hall (now the Libbie Cass Memorial Library), later at the school building proper. Today, most children are exported to Kearsarge Regional in nearby Newport. Wherever they go, though, the post office is usually one of their after-school stops.

babguy

"It's as big a deal for the little kids as it is for Roscoe, you know," she said. "When their parents let them come in, it's the first real thing they get to do on their own. And usually they're well-behaved.

"One little fellow, Morris, he came in while I was waiting on someone else. 'You better hurry up and get my mail, Babra,' he says. I told him he knew better than to speak to me like that, and he should wait his turn. So, he quiets down.

"A minute later, this woman comes in--one of these people who's better than anyone else, you know--and asked if the Kearsarge Shopper came in. That's the local advertisement magazine that comes in free every week. I say yes, and she says 'Well, I'll take two.' And Morris speaks right up and says 'Right after me you can! We take turns around here.'" I couldn't say anything then, but after the woman left, I laughed and laughed."

babhand

As the sun weighs heavier in the sky, only a few customers filter in and out. One stops and leans across the counter in conspiratorial fashion. He has just come from the store, where he heard a rumor. Like most who pick up town gossip elsewhere, he has come to the post office for confirmation.

"So, what's David's building up over near the school, Babra?"

Barbara doesn't look up from stamping her letters. "Why, that's going to be the new post office."

"No! But why?"

Barbara lays her stamp down. "Well, now. We're running out of space here. I've only got a half-dozen boxes left to rent. At Christmas, it's murder. I can't hardly move back here for all the packages."

But the customer is flabbergasted. For the first time in 135 years, the post office will be in a place built especially for it. He stands there silently, letting it sink in: progress, growth, change, the end of an era.

"Well, I don't know," he said, shaking his head sadly.

Barbara suppresses a groan and turns her eyes heavenward as the customer departs.

"How they go on when they find out," she said. "But they did the same thing when I moved from the store. Probably did the same thing when someone suggested putting a post office in West Springfield in the first place."

She shrugs.

"As if moving changes anything. I'm still West Springfield's postmaster."

At the stroke of 5, she bustles about, locking doors, lowering shades, turning out lamps. Outside, in the fading light, she gathers up the flag and folds it dutifully. Then, she marches to the edge of her yard and grabs her orange safety cone. She looks up and down the street once more. From her vantage point, she can see the entire town, and the view is a good one.

Then she smiles and goes home.

babflag



Rest in peace, aunt Barbara. I love you.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
The story still shines through. I'm glad that you left it as it was. My thoughts are with you.
 
So sorry for your loss, MM. What a great story. I've never known a town like that. May you find some comfort in knowing your friends are thinking of you now.
 
The love for your family is truly admirable MM. That was a lovely story, to an international stranger I think it captures a great moment of Americana and a nice little piece of local history. Thinking of you ad your family- and trying to send you all many virtual hugs!
Aquilegia.
 
Thoughts and prayers with you and your family MM. I pray that life is gentle to you for the rest of the year at least. Your story about Aunt Barbara was wonderful! Makes me wish I was from a small town.
 
My sincerest condolences MM.

A
 
The Lord sure is testing you. Heaping all sorts of misery on your plate.

Our time to go will come. Your parents family seemed to have departure tickets dated close together. They are together though.

You have many blessings left. Including your gift for gab. That was a wonderful written piece of work. You captured a moment in time perfectly.
 
wow. the fates are really pounding on you right now, aren't they? i'm sorry for your loss.

but the story is great - i think you're very capable as the next family storyteller.
 
I am so sorry for your loss. You have been through too much for one person to manage in the past few months. The story was great. Good luck trying to muddle through your tremendous grief. I'm not sure how you are doing it.
 
Wonderful tribute. We're so sorry for all your recent losses.
 
I'm so, so sorry, MM. So very sorry. I love the piece you wrote - what a lovely tribute to be able to share it now.

June 6 is always a tough day for me - it's the day my father died when I was 20, half a lifetime ago. I started crying when I read the first lines of your post. But, if it is any consolation, I stopped crying and began to laugh at your Aunt Barbara's reaction to the ashes that showed up by mistake: "...when my time comes, I sure as hell wouldn't want to be shipped home in the second class bag."

(I sent my mom's ashes UPS...)

Be well, and I pray that, in your grief, your family also finds joy in celebrating a life well lived.
 
I was so not ready for this today...I'm crying all over my desk. MM, you are stronger than I could ever hope to be to still take the time to post these stories and blogs even in your most lonely and sad time. Thank you...you remind me why we do this. I'm thinking about you and your family and praying for you.

Love,
Sassy
 
God bless you, MM, and God bless your Aunt Barbara.

Times will get better, my friend - count on it.

My prayers for you and yours continue.
 
I'm so sorry for your loses. It has been a terribly hard time for you and your family.

I truly enjoyed the post office piece. The home I am now living in was also a post office. It was built by the first postmaster general in our town and served the area until it grew large enough to warrant a stand alone post office. To go along with the postal theme, my husband has a (greatish) uncle who served in the Pony Express. You would think I would know more about the postal service with all this history, but I am just beginning to learn.

I was wondering if you have any pictures of your aunt's postal area that you would be willing to send me a copy of...I am starting to decorate the entry way of our home with post office memorabilia and it would be very fitting to have a picture of another 'home' post office. I don't want to download anything from here without permission.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you and yours. May peace find you all.
 
What a wonderful story, you have a gift.

I'm so sorry for your loss.
 
Oh, MM, I am so sorry. Hang in there.
 
I'm so sorry. It just keeps going.


I can't think of a better tribute. It was a pleasure to read, seeing you as you wrote then, the origains of your best writing talents, and the improvements you've made since then.

My grandmother's stepfather was a postmaster too. My great-grandfather's brother delivered the US mail through the southern California desert in his Model A, three days a week.

Thanks for reminding me of them. I never met either of them and only have the stories. God bless my great-uncle Jim for wirting down so much of it.
 
My condolences to you and your family. The story was a lovely tribute.
 
Beautiful story, MM. Still keeping you in my prayers.
 
That's more sadness than one person should bear in such a short time. Thinking of you and yours. What a great way to honor your aunt's life.
 
I think the gift of story telling is now with you, MM. So sorry for another loss...God bless.
 
May she inspire you to reveal more stories of "Aunt Poo Poo" and other nonsensical characters. I’ve found that laughter and shared memories help a broken heart to heal. Aunt Barbara will now live long in both of our memories.

Condolences and blessings to you and those you hold dear.
 
So very sorry for your loss, MM. It is indeed a sad time for your family.

Loved the story about your Aunt. She sounds like she was a delightful woman.
 
I'm so sorry. God bless you and your family.
 
I think you nailed the feeling right on the head. I grew up in a little town like that, and we all knew that if we every needed ANYTHING we could go to our postie.(and she gave us lollipops when we visited) The mail service has changed now, but the little post office where i grew up is still being used as such.
Our postie sounds a lot like your Aunt Barbara.....

My prayers are with you and your family MM.

Sometimes words don't seem like enough. But sometimes, when presented the way you did..they are just right.
 
So, so sorry MM. It is just wrong to lose so many in such a short time. Thank you for sharing your article about your aunt; it honors her well.
 
My heart and prayers are with you and your family, MM. Thank you for sharing this story, too. It's a lovely tribute to your aunt.
 
MM, very sorry to hear about your Aunt. You've endured a great deal this year and you and your family are in my thoughts. Thanks very much for sharing the article and the pictures. After reading of your summers working with your uncle, I always had kind of wondered what he looked like.
 
It hasn't been the best couple of years for either of us, has it?

I wish I had the words and power to ease your pain. All I can offer is the understanding of what you are going through, and how much it sucks.

You honor their memory and keep them alive with your words and tradition of sharing stories.

They are proud of you.

And....Just to let you know how small a world it is: My Nana (Dad's Mom) had a place in Wilmot Flats. It was nothing more than a shack in the woods. You had to walk a half mile in the forest, just to get to the spicket to get buckets of water to flush the toilet. It was a half mile through the woods across the street to get to the river. The "grandkids" slept in a room with 3 double beds.

Every year we would have a family gathering there. It was tradition to climb Mount Kearsarge during the picnic and sit around the campfire discussing flatulence at some point.

"Rural" doesn't do the area justice.

You're not alone big guy, and, you never will be.
 
Oh, MM, I'm so sorry to hear this. I hope our hugs, prayers and thoughts can bring you some small amount of solace.

Your story about Aunt "Babra's" post office was marvelous. You gave us a true sense of who she was and how she lived. It's a very fitting tribute.

You and your family continue to be in our thoughts and prayers and on our hearts, through all your trials and losses.
 
My condolences to you and your family. I'm so glad you have your stories and memories of your beloved aunt.
 
Oh kiddo...

I am *so* very sorry; for the loss of your Aunt, and for the fact that you feel so alone... even when surrounded by your wonderful family.

Don't ever change a word of that piece - it was a wonderful, extraordinary, warm, personal look at (what must have seemed like back then) an ordinary day in her life. I felt like I had been right there all day when I finished reading it, and I found myself wishing that I could go back to find out how the town meeting went. It is an excellent tribute to your Aunt, and her chosen profession of Postmaster.

We continue to keep you, and your entire family in our prayers and our thoughts. I know how hard it is right now, but it will get better. I promise.

All our love to all at The Manse...

Thim
 
I'm so sorry to hear about yet another loss for you- so very sorry. Big ((HUGS)) to you and your family.
 
All I can say is that I am so so sorry, MM, for the heck of an 18 month span you've had.

They were all some really wildly wonderful people. People who won't ever be forgotten. By you. By us. By those they touched.

Thoughts and hugs are all I got.
They are yours.
 
so sorry, MM. you have too much on you right now..

as a sidenote-- what a fascinating story about your aunt!!
 
Be strong. We're all thinking of you and yours.
 
I'm so sorry MM. You and your family continue to be in my prayers.
 
What a wonderful tribute to your aunt. Your story brought back memories of my mom and how flabbergasted she was when the Post Offfice in our farming community closed. Going to get the mail at Ivy's house was something to look forward to. Customers could call Ivy to see if they had mail but some days my mom would decide not to call first, saying "there might not be any mail." I'd forgotten that little thing about my mom. So I'm crying for my mom and your aunt and your way of telling a story. Anyway. Thank you.
 
She looks and sounds like an absolute treasure. Best to you and your family.
 
Thank you. May Aunt Barbara live on through our stories. I REALLY wish YOU would write a book on our town and family

Your cousin
Diane of the dogs
 
What a wonderful story. This piece will hold her in the history books for generations to come.
So sorry for your loss and for the fact that it comes so soon after loosing your parents.
Hugs.
 
That was a lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing it.
 
MM,

I'm at a loss for what to say. You have endured more than most, in an extremely short amount of time, and yet you still find the time to allow us to be a part of the grieving, your love of your family, and your amazing ability to keep going. We all saw the physical endurance within you last summer when you went on the quest to save Blaze, and now we are seeing the companion mental and emotional endurance. May the Lord (and any other deities out there) grant you and the Mag Family peace and comfort. After all you've been thru, you've f**king well earned it. And the story about your aunt was priceless. As always, I remain in awe of your abilities.
 
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