Domestic Bliss 

News of anthrax spores disseminated through the U.S. mail was disturbing because it was deadly, but also because it was an assault on a familiar and beloved daily institution -- the mail.

Who hasn't experienced the uplift, the faint surge that comes with the arrival of the day's mail? As children, we raced to the mailbox when we saw the little white mail truck roll down the street, the driver's arm propped out the window on the wrong side. The mail brought surprises, sometimes trinkets purchased with hoarded cereal box coupons. On the best days, it brought a letter.

On any given day, most mail, admittedly, is junk and that's a shame. But I am still drawn to the mailbox every afternoon, as soon as my car is turned off, before I enter the house, by the lure of the day's mail, lying quiet and undiscovered in its dark cave.

I've heard suggestions since the post--Sept. 11 anthrax attacks that some businesses will forego mail and use e-mail exclusively for correspondence, a sad prospect. Fine for quick messaging, e-mail lacks every quality that makes mail substantial -- color, texture, heft, composition.

Mail, on the other hand, real mail can be folded and smoothed, wadded in a fit of anger. It can be saved and recovered. Some of it is as fine a work of art as many of us will ever possess. Moving households recently, I came across hundreds of letters I've saved over the years. Love letters from my boyfriend Pat of 30 years ago, meticulously scripted in black across pastel drawings. Long tales of exotic adventure from my daughter, saved in thin, onion skin envelopes with postmarks from Nepal, India. My old best friend David's long, comical letters written in his off-balance, irregular penmanship -- the letters as quirky as the writer. Letters of sorrow and regret. Letters trumpeting joyous announcements.

Entire songs and plays have been written about mail. Artists' letters are collected and published posthumously, testimony to the sometimes banal, sometimes thrilling secrets of a daily life. Can you imagine the collected e-mails of anyone having that kind of staying power?

Thinking about the anthrax scare and the potential demise of mail, I realized that mail is something we've grown callous about in the age of better and better technology, long distance living and general haste. My children, with the exception of my daughter, have rarely written or received letters. Their drawers are not stuffed with treasured letters as mine were as a teenager. I can still recall the exquisite comfort of receiving a letter from my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Hartman, who became a pen pal when I moved to a new town. And more than 30 years later, I can feel again the thrill of finding a letter addressed to me in the mailbox in late August, 1968, when I was 14 and beautiful Harry Miller was bored and dejected at his summer camp, confessing in his knife--sharp handwriting that he missed me. I saved Harry's letters in my stationery box from that year, heavy bond paper imprinted with a horse's head.

When we were seniors in high school, David and I exchanged a series of gifts, each meant to top the other in originality and significance. I thought I had capped the game when I gave him, on his 18th birthday, a 6-foot-tall silver maple tree, its root ball wrapped in a burlap bag, ready to be planted in his parents' back yard. But David surprised me three months later on my birthday with a gift that defied comparison. He gave me a mailbox. A classic, aluminum box with a red flag, the kind you might see sitting atop a post at the end of a farmhouse's gravel driveway.

At first I was puzzled; then it was as if my entire future spread out before me. I imagined myself grown up, with a home of my own. I told David I would mount the mailbox in front of my house when I grew up and married, but I never did. I kept it instead as a depository for his letters. He wrote me from Princeton, from St. Petersburg, from Japan. He still occasionally writes me from Rochester, New York, and his handwriting is still uneven and wacky. My heart still surges when I see his handwriting on the envelope, and I file his letters away in the silver mailbox he gave me on my 18th birthday, now stuffed to the top with letters.

The truth is, I've gotten busy and have taken mail for granted until the wakeup call of the anthrax scare. Yesterday, I walked into the glorious old downtown post office and bought a roll of stamps as a demonstration of faith. I've promised myself to write a letter to everyone I love before the end of 2001. And maybe, just maybe, I'll drag David's mailbox out of the closet and mount it in front of my new house.


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