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Mail by any other name

I can recall a time when the daily arrival of mail created excitement. During my early elementary school days, my family lived on a “rural free delivery” (RFD) route. I have forgotten the street name, which wasn’t part of our address. But I do remember the RFD box number, #173. After the carrier came, my brother and I would race out to the roadside mailbox to see what had been deposited.

In those days, the mail—when there was any—often included items of interest. Our family moved frequently, and letters would arrive from the friends we’d left behind. Our grandmothers seemed to know when those notes would slack off, and they sent missives of their own. And there were birthday cards, Christmas cards, and cards commemorating progress in school. And magazines. Each month I eagerly awaited the arrival of new issues of Highlights for Children and Jack and Jill. When high school arrived, my family lived in a small community where fetching the mail involved hiking nearly a mile to the post office. Personal letters were longer, my favorite magazines had different names, and the walk was worth it.

As I entered adulthood, the nature of the daily mail changed. There were the types of bills that my younger self hadn’t needed to heed. There were advertisements for marvelous-looking gadgets. After some disappointments, I learned to toss those in the trash. Other things I identified as garbage included work-at-home plans, travel opportunities, and offers to “invest” in collectables.

By the time my own children reached their elementary years, mail was no longer a big deal. It arrived regularly, every day, in massive quantities. Most went straight into the wastebasket.

The thing that did create excitement was the telephone. At its first ring, my children would run, each eager to pick up the receiver. The question of who was calling and for whom remained an intriguing mystery until after the “hello” was spoken. During their younger years, in a pattern that mirrored my own experience, most communication came from friends and grandmothers.

As my children entered their high school years, phone calls became noticeably less exciting. They came from people who were marketing insurance plans, selling cemetery plots, and promoting political candidates. Genuine individual communication migrated to email and nascent social forums.

Those forms of communication evolved, and today they also have been taken over by salespeople and fraudsters. The world may be more interconnected than at any previous time in history, but making legitimate personal connections seems more challenging.

The overwhelming presence of scams and advertisements has trained me to ignore most contact attempts. I routinely receive email messages pleading with me to click on links to verify my bank information so that some mysterious refund can be processed (in other words, so some nefarious character can attempt to plunder my balance) or asking me to update billing information for some enigmatic account (I presume this is so my identity can be stolen more easily). When email messages arrive that I can’t immediately identify with a legitimate purpose, I just delete them, unopened.

The same goes for phone calls. If I don’t recognize a caller, I don’t answer the phone. I still find the temptation to review voicemail messages hard to resist, but recent episodes are training me otherwise. For example, a message last week asked me to return a call to a medical provider to clarify a question regarding a statement. It wasn’t a provider I had ever visited, so I was concerned that perhaps someone had fraudulently accessed my insurance information. An internet search led me to the provider’s website. It listed a different customer service phone number. When I called that number, a representative confirmed that the number the message had asked me to call was not associated with the provider. Apparently, I only narrowly avoided being duped.

All hope for personal communication and interaction is not lost, however. Just the other day, I received a letter in the mail from a family friend. A real letter, hand-written, enclosed in a personally addressed envelope with an actual stamp. It seems we’ve come full circle, and the delight remains.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.