He quietly stood in the window of the large serving window ladling beef stew into Styrofoam bowls and asking folks if they wanted an extra piece of carrot. “I grew them in my root garden along with the potatoes, and onions.” He never seemed to ever smile. He just went about whatever he was doing with a quiet manner and a solemn look on his face. Little did I know the miracle I would discover in this short, plump, melancholy man I would attend group with on Thursday nights.
His face came to me often as the holidays approached and I neglected to give it much credence. I went about my life and thought less and less as time passed. One night I found myself driving the country road leading to the church where the group was held. It was about 9:30 and I was on my way home when I came upon this gentleman walking on the side of the road. I stopped and inquired about his well-being. He told me that his truck would not start and he was just walking to his house. I convinced him to get in and took him home. I offered to help him with his broken vehicle the next day and he smiled at me without committing to anything. At his house he asked if I would come in for a cup of coffee on the pretense of giving me some money for helping him. After a near heated conversation about the idea that Christian charity requires no remuneration, I finally got the offered cup of Joe and sat in his living room enjoying the company and conversation.
His house was a massive clutter of canvas bags with envelopes bulging out the end. Not wishing to be nosy, I kept my own counsel, and he never offered an explanation. The coffee cup emptied and I found cause to leave. He told me that I could come help him with his truck if I would allow him to take me to lunch for my efforts. Easily agreed on, we made time plans for the next day.
I showed up the next day and found him at his kitchen table slumped over a pile of letters. He looked to be in distress and I called an ambulance. He had had a heart attack and a stroke. He spent several days in ICU before transitioning into a private room. He had no feeling on one side of his body, and was going to have to endure a rather extensive series of physical therapy sessions to attempt to get him able to take care of himself. He was beside himself with worry and kept asking me what the date was. He made me promise not to tell the folks at the church about his problem. He refused the in-home nurse and therapy opting to attend physical therapy sessions at the hospital. How he was going to accomplish this without the use of half of his body did not seem to faze him. He was adamant that nobody come to his house. I tried to talk reason to him and finally convinced him that he did, indeed, need assistance. He told me that he would pay me to drive him every day. He told me that people who would come to his house would instantly wish to clean and arrange it to make it more livable and he would not have it.
I talked him into giving me nothing more than gas money and to find someone to help him in his house that would not disturb anything he did not want disturbed. I knew a young lady who was in need of work who had worked in a nursing home for several years and would work cheap. She was a Certified Nursing Assistant so he could pay her wages with his health insurance as long as a doctor prescribed the need.
Once set up with what he needed he seemed happy enough until, that is, he got home and found out he could not sit at the kitchen table and deal with the envelopes. He sat at the table and wept over his dilemma. I could do nothing but offer to help. He became agitated and almost had another stroke when I reached for one of the envelopes. I withdrew from the pile and sat down to have a serious talk. I told him that he needed to start trusting me. I had earned that consideration for the things I had done for him, and the secrets he wanted me to keep. I had grown frustrated and angry at the situation. It must have shown in my tone of voice. He made me, once more, swear to silence before he told me his secret.
He was retired from the Post Office. He put 40 years in starting as a handler in a transfer station and worked his way through the ranks of postman, to selling stamps at the counter and on to being the Postmaster. His father had done the same before him, as well as his grandfather and a few more “Great” in his lineage. It was all he knew. Retiring left a hole in his life that he tried to fill with church, and activities in service to the country house of worship…to no avail.
He remembered from his days as a handler that every year the post offices around the country had been swamped with envelopes, mostly in crayon, addressed “Santa Claus, North Pole.” He always found himself smiling at the phenomenon. He never seemed to figure out how they deluge of mail bags would mysteriously disappear every year. He just accepted it and was thankful that a few less bags had to be handled in the midst of the holiday onslaught. When he moved out of being a handler and on to better things, he forgot about it.
His grandfather passed away, and he wondered what would happen to his house (the same house in the country where we sat). His father told him not to worry and moved into the house himself. His mother had passed away a year before and it seemed a good step for his Pop. Then the time came when it was his turn to move out in the country. What he found was that the house was really just an extension of the handling facility where he worked in younger days.
Apparently, years ago when the North Pole letters had begun to appear, one of his Great Grandfathers had diverted the letters to the house in the country and began reading and answering letters. Not all of them, but as many as possible. There had been a fund set up, in treasury bonds, to sustain this activity after retirement. The service had been passed down to the next generation and it was his turn. Only he had no children to pass it on to. His wife and one child had died in childbirth. His grief never allowed him to marry again causing the dilemma where there was no one to inherit the letters.
He would answer as many letters a possible before burning the rest on New Year’s Day so as to start fresh the next year. It kept him busy and seemed to give him purpose when his family died. He wept because the only thing that gave him comfort had been taken away by the stroke.
The girl and I listened and felt like weeping ourselves. We volunteered to inherit the job. I was unemployed myself, and the girl had a few kids that she could pass it on to.
He looked at us and sat speechless. When he regained his voice, he told me that it was a big job. I told him I was looking for a job. He wondered how I would get the letters. I told him to dictate a letter of reference and I would take the exam to get hired at the Post Office. The girl shrugged her shoulder and said that her six year old liked to write letters. He told me to start reading letters. He asked to be helped to his easy chair, and we brought him letters. When he was ready to answer, he would dictate his response to the girl it and then would sign it…
I walked out to my shop that morning remembering my somber friend. I walked in the door and discovered the first of the year’s mail bags being off loaded. I glanced at the picture of my friend along with the girl (now my wife) sitting in the living room of the house, surrounded by mail bags and smiling as if we had good sense.
With both the Misses and I working full time we were able to use the fund money to purchase enough land surrounding the house in the country to qualify for incorporation as a town. Once that is, we built several more homes for the kids to move in when they got married. As expected, I had progressed in the Postal Service to a position where I was able to work the system to assign a zip code for “North Pole Township.” The shop was really a huge warehouse/handling facility with an office that served to house a few post office boxes and a counter for selling stamps. It did not take long for other areas of the country began sending the crayon addressed letters to us.
The kids, her two and the five we had after marrying, all worked at the small rural post office at some time while growing up. Three of them became postal employees while the rest went on to college, careers, and families. Everyone in the family spent time everyday answering letters. Even those with no return address. New Year’s Day became a family celebration with the burning of the leftover letters.
I grew a long beard and ponytail when my hair went gray and ultimately white. I got a set of wire frame reading glasses for Christmas that year and suffered gratefully through the loving ridicule from the kids. My lovely wife has always made sure there were sugar cookies for all who walked in to buy a stamp or mail a package.
Standing there, soaking in the joy in my life, I found myself smiling and remembered stopping on a dark country road to help….a jolly old man who was having trouble with the reindeer's.