Sunday, December 19, 2010

Going to the Post Office without a Parachute

Eldon Postmaster, the ever-smiling and compassionate Kathy
I made it to the post office with Marcus’ coat and bike jacket. Barely. The packages had sat on my desk for several days but I hadn’t sealed them. So before I strapped the tape on the Priority Mail packaging that held the coat and bike jacket I stuck my nose inside each. Big mistake. Because the items had been sitting inside the packages for a few days, they contained a concentrated scent – Marcus’ scent – causing my senses to go haywire. I sat down and sobbed (so what else is new!), cradling one of the envelopes, and wondered, What is it about these clothes??!!

“Get it together!” I warned myself. “Just get these in the mail. NOW!”

I was already two days behind my planned post office outing, an easy six-minute walk from the American Gothic House. It should have been no problem to get there but I managed to find more pressing matters to fill my day – like ironing my pie party aprons that won’t get used again until at least January – and thus pushed time to the limit. I ended up having to drive and even then only made it in the door five minutes before the post office closed. (One advantage of small town living is that there’s never a line at the window, no matter how close to closing time you arrive.)

When I opened the car passenger door to collect my packages, the one with the bike jacket fell into the slush-filled gutter. The snow had melted a little and when I picked up the envelope it was covered in dirty wet snow. What is it about this bike jacket?? I wondered again. Am I not supposed to send it? I shrugged off the thought and mumbled my daily mantra: “Keep moving forward.”

I watched as Kathy, the postmaster, weighed and stamped my packages, and as a kind of after-thought asked her if she would mind me taking her picture. “I just want proof,” I said, “that I mailed these." I didn’t tell her what was in the packages. When she raised an eyebrow I said, “You don’t want to know. It’s a long story.”

“What are you doing for Christmas?” she asked, changing the subject.

Here we go. This, too, could also turn into a long story, about how I had planned to drive to Los Angeles and spend a month or two, but then how last weekend’s icy trip to Davenport (Iowa), only two and a half hours each way but a white knuckle 2-1/2 hours on the way back, made me come to my senses. Eldon to the Quad Cities was hard enough, but a 30-plus-hour-drive to the West coast in winter driving conditions? What was I thinking?! Besides, once I got there I would only spend my time in LA running around to visit as many friends and family as possible, which could be considered productive in some ways, but probably not the best for keeping my stress level in check. And noting the backlog on my To Do List (like organizing logistics for National Pie Day, 23 January), probably not the best use of my time either. Once I got over the fact that I wouldn’t be running around in a t-shirt and flip flops on the beach (sniff, sniff), the idea of spending a quiet Christmas alone in the American Gothic House in snowy Southeastern Iowa didn’t seem so bad. Given that I have a long list of books I want to read, and there’s that pie memoir I keep saying I’m going to write, as well as nice, new friends here and a warm, cozy, adorable home, I’m actually looking forward to the weeks ahead.
It may look dreary outside, but inside it's warm, cozy and colorful. And smells like apple pie!

But in my typical need to include Marcus in every conversation, and as if to justify my choice to spend a traditional family holiday home...alone (oh, the stigma!), this is how I answered her: “Last Christmas was hard. It was only a few months after my husband died. This year, I just want to have a quiet holiday. I plan to take it very easy. You know, just get through the holidays.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of impression Kathy has of me. Eldon may be a small town (pop. 998) but we only see each other on the few occasions I have something to send from her post office window. And in those cases I’m usually in a breathless rush on my way to run errands in Ottumwa, but always with enough spare time to grumble to her about the high cost of postage or complain about how the pecan pie I paid $42 to send via 2-day Express Mail to my in-laws in Germany for Thanksgiving took two and a half weeks to get there. (“Once it leaves the U.S. it’s out of our control,” she explained.) Regardless of what whirlwind of impatient energy I bring with me, she is always friendly and calm, even compassionate.

“Yes, that’s tough. I understand. Holidays are hard,” she said as she carried my packages over to her outgoing mail bin.

“That’s why these packages are so significant,” I started to say, watching Marcus’ belongings move out of my possession. And then I had to stop myself from saying anything more because tears welled up in my eyes. Big. Crocodile. Tears. I waved her off, ran to my car, and sobbed until long after I got home.

Actually, I only cried until it was cocktail hour. Molly, the administrator of the American Gothic House Center, who is an ace friend and all-star listener, came by after work. She let me relay the story of my day, and in return I poured each of us a glass of Tempranillo. Cheers to the bike jacket. Cheers to the cashmere coat. Cheers to friends like Molly. Cheers to better days to come.

Sending those packages was harder than skydiving. I know. I did a tandem jump once. I cried the whole flight up to 10,000 feet. What? Me, cry?! These tears were caused by my fiancĂ© breaking off our engagement the day before. (This was five years before meeting Marcus.) Not great timing for my first sky dive, but I was on assignment for a magazine and couldn’t change the date. Leaping out the door was one of the most liberating feelings I’ve ever experienced. Never mind that I got PUSHED out the door; once I was airborne I learned what it feels like to really surrender.

Surrender is when there is no turning back, no going back inside the security of the plane.
Once out the door there is zero chance of even considering any other options. There is one choice and one choice only: Enjoy the freefall and hope for a soft landing.

Even on that day, in the face of a different kind of loss and letting go (the fiancĂ© hadn’t died, he had merely broken a promise along with my heart), I found peace in the 10,000 feet of empty space, where I floated untethered between the airplane and the Earth’s surface. With the wind rushing past my ears and the freedom of flying filling me with giddiness, my tears immediately turned to laughter.

Marcus’ cashmere coat and bicycle jacket were on their way to Seattle and Park City, Utah, respectively. As if I had scattered his ashes to the wind, they were in a free fall of their own. But they weren’t his body and this wasn’t skydiving. I hadn’t thrown them (or him) out of a plane. I could get the clothes back if I wanted. I could go back inside the post office and tell Kathy I changed my mind. Or I could call my brother in Seattle and John in Park City and explain why I needed these things back.

Instead, I am opting for surrender. No, I don’t need to go sky diving again to recreate the experience. The knowledge is there. “Move forward,” I keep whispering to myself. “Let go.”

The tears haven’t immediately turned to laughter, but in that metaphorical empty space I’ve started thinking about what else is in Marcus’ bins in the basement. Several leather jackets, hand-crafted French leather boots (John’s size), German hunting boots, Austrian boiled wool sweaters, and, the hard one, the Banana Republic suede jacket that Marcus wore on his one-way flight to Portland 16 months ago. (Well, it wasn’t a one-way trip exactly. He did fly back to Germany. In a metal box.) In the pocket of the jacket there is still a Lufthansa boarding pass stub from his Frankfurt to Portland flight, dated 31 July 2009. Ah, the brutal reality that rests in this little three-square-inch piece of paper. I’ll work my way up to sending that suede coat and his other gorgeous clothing to friends, family, and others who can use them. But for that next feat I’ll definitely wait until after the holidays.

Until then, the only packages I’ll be taking to the post office are the Christmas presents I’m sending to my family in California – souvenirs from the gift shop at the American Gothic House Center – gifts that, it’s pretty safe to say, may still cause me to gripe to Kathy about postage prices, but not send me home in tears. Meanwhile, I look forward to news from my brother and John that their packages arrived. The best Christmas present I could ask for is to know they like their gifts. From Marcus. From me.

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