story prompt – the toasters

Thinking about that episode at the post office reminded me of a story told by a friend some time ago. Her adult daughter and son-in-law (I’ll call them Janie and Herb) had taken on the job of sorting through the household of his great aunt Mary after her death.

She had been widowed in WWII and never remarried. One of those aunts who never forgets your birthday, remembers that you don’t like strawberry jam with your peanut butter, always comes to weddings, and to help out at funerals. She knows all the family history and is happy to share it with you, if you are interested. She was Herb’s favorite relative, his own maternal grandmother’s sister.

So it was a sad thing for them to be doing. The house was small and neat, but they decided to start by taking inventory, floor by floor. It all went smoothly, boxing up dishes and silverware, books and framed pictures. On the second day they got to the second floor, and that took less time. There was just Aunt Mary’s bedroom and two empty guestbedrooms. They folded all her clothes and bed linens, boxed them up, and then decided to inventory the attic. (This was in Illinois, where most older houses do have attics.)

So they go up the short flight of stairs to the attic, and stop in their tracks.

The whole attic floor, as far as they could see, was covered in shopping bags standing upright. Shopping bags from Sears, Goldblatt’s, Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott were the ones they recognized. Many from stores long gone. A sales receipt was stapled to every one of the bags, and inside the every bag was a toaster. A brand new, never removed from its box, toaster. The oldest toasters, the ones in the shopping bags along the back wall, were inches deep in dust — clearly never disturbed since first put there.

When they had finished taking inventory they had close to five hundred toasters, the earliest bought in 1939, the most recent bought a week before Aunt Mary died.

I happen to know what they did with the toasters, but that’s not important. Instead I’d like to suggest that there’s a big story to be told here, and maybe more than one. Aunt Mary turned suddenly from a much loved and well known great aunt to a figure of some mystery. Why toasters? Why so many toasters? Why the sales receipts? Did she give toasters as presents at weddings? Did she profess a love for toast? Was there a connection to the husband who died in WWII? Is there some kind of toaster fetish they had never heard of?

Or maybe the story is about Herb, and some old problem that flares up again. Some resentment toward his own grandmother, or unhappiness in his own family at breakfast time. Maybe the story starts just where I ended it, with Herb and Janie trying to figure out what’s up with the toasters. Maybe each chapter is a telephone call to another relative to try to find some kind of hint about what was going on. Great Uncle Max, Aunt Bev, Grandmother Hodgkins — did NOBODY know about this? You’d get six or eight or twelve different stories of Mary’s life and that many suggestions about what the toasters meant to Mary.

Maybe the press would get involved. Maybe some talk show host would try to sensationalize the whole thing, and ask Herb and Janie to come on the show with a selection of the toasters.

Or, maybe Janie would go down to the police station and see if there were any reports that coincided with the dates on the receipts. The connection? I don’t know. That’s for the person who is telling the story to find out.

overheard at the post office

Last week at the post office there was a small drama that involved an affable forty-something clerk and an elegant lady of about eighty. She was wearing a dress and hose and heels and hat, all matching. Her hair was perfectly done, and so were her nails and her makeup. She had a gucci-type bag over one arm, and a cane hooked over the other.

So it’s her turn and she goes to the counter and asks for a first class stamp. While she’s asking, she puts down an letter and coins on the counter. The clerk yawns, takes the letter and runs it through the machine that stamps on the postage, lickety split.

Lady: But I asked you for a first class stamp. This is not a stamp.
Clerk: Oh? Sorry. It’ll get where it’s going, no worries.
Lady: But it looks like that trash mail that’s always clogging up the mail box.
Clerk: I promise you, this is as good as a stamp. That’ll be forty-one cents.
Lady: Young man, surely I don’t need to remind you that a first class stamp costs thirty-seven cents.
Clerk: (Pause) No ma’am. The rate is forty-one cents.
Lady: It most certainly is not. I’ve been sending my letters with thirty-seven cent stamps for years.
Clerk: Well then, you were underfranking.
Lady: Underfranking!
Clerk: The rate hasn’t been thirty-seven cents since winter of last year. Then it was thirty-nine cents, and now it’s forty-one cents.
Lady: Where is your manager? I’d like to speak to the manager right away.

(pause while we all stare at our shoes)

Manager: how can I help you?
Lady: This young man is charging me forty-one cents for a thirty-seven cent stamp. Or I should say, not even a stamp. A bit of ink. And he’s rude. He accused me of cheating.
Manager: If you wanted to send your letter first class, the rate is forty-one cents. It has been since May.
Lady: (outraged) And why wasn’t I informed of this?
Manager: Um,… I believe there was an ad campaign to announce the increase. And an article in the paper. And on the news.
Lady: I think you’re trying to play a trick on me. There are laws against trying to trick the elderly out of money, you know.
Manager: I assure you, the rate really is forty-one cents.
Lady: If that’s true, what has become of all the mail I sent out since last winter?
Manager: I can’t really say.
Lady: Young lady, you should get your story straight before you try to cheat people. Not every old person is gullible. You may have this 37 cents, but I’m not giving you a penny more. I am going to report you to the police and post master general, both of you.

And off she went. She was so very sure of herself, so outraged and so dignified that nobody dared laugh, even minutes later.

more dead letters

Now I ask you: can you come up with a better name for a
character
who works in the
dead letter office
than Patti Lyle Collins?

to feed your curious minds, information:

No return address Smithsonian magazine, July 2000

Point of No Return: Saving Dead Letters at the Mail Recovery Center Failure magazine

What Happens to Dead Letters at the Post Office?Women were hired by the Post Office Department to work in the Dead Letter Office for a different reason. Postal officials felt that women had better analytical powers than men, and could therefore decipher complicated and confusing addresses far easier. There have been many exceptional letter detectives in the Dead Letter Office. The best of them was Mrs. Patti Lyle Collins, who worked for the Post Office Department at the turn of the century.

This quote from Remembering the Dead an article by James H. Bruns at the National Postal Museum website, Volume 1, Issue 3
July–September 1992.

writing prompt

I have always been intrigued by the idea of the dead letter office. All those stories that went missing. Before you remind me that some large proportion of those letters are bills and advertisements, let me say: I don’t care.
Dead Letter Office
You can see by this photo that the post office has been dealing with undeliverable mail for a long time. There’s no date on the photo, but based on the rest of the series taken in the same setting and the clothing, it looks to be turn of the 20th century. If you really study the photo all kinds of interesting details pop out. For example: a fence separating the female office workers from… what? The supervisor (male, of course) looks very young, compared to some of the women. And the woman in the foreground who is looking at the camera. She’s slightly out of focus.

My urge is to find out all I can about the way the dead letter office functioned. How were these women trained? How much money did they earn, and what were their hours? Were some of them bilingual? Because it’s likely that a large proportion of the mail was not in English.

Imagine reading letter after letter that never found the person it was written for. Someone in Poland writing to a new immigrant in Manhattan, asking when the promised boat ticket is coming. A woman in New Mexico writing to a brother in Brooklyn to say that their mother is dying, and she’s asking for him. The possibilities are endless, and so are the way these stories are perceived by the women who open and read them.

This would be a fantastic setting for a mystery.