CARLSBAD — Sometimes there is no difference between a mailbox and a safety deposit box. Either one could hold a person's most valued possession.
One day I was working at a senior citizens' complex in Oceanside. We were putting the finishing touches on the newly built units. I was installing a free-standing fireplace in the recreation room. The place was lower-middle-class California, light on design, heavy on stucco. It was a practical place, nothing fancy. It was just there.
The complex was about three-quarters filled, and the people paid close attention to what I was doing. It seemed anything out of the ordinary was a welcome sight.
We were unloading the truck, and I noticed a woman staring out her window. I thought she was watching us so I smiled at her. She didn't acknowledge me; she just gazed straight ahead.
A man came over to the truck to see what we were doing. When I told him we were putting a fireplace in the recreation room, he began telling me about the fireplace he had had in his home. "It was a real good one," he said. "Burned the thing night and day all winter. My wife used to tell me that I could build a better fire than anyone. Maybe I'll get to make the fires in this one."
"This one is going to burn gas logs," I said.
"Oh? We used to burn real wood." He walked away. As he passed by the apartment where the woman was gazing out, he said, "Some kind of fireplace." Her expression didn't change.
I leaned the ladder against the building and began hauling material onto the roof. I noticed a man with a walker inching his way toward the mailboxes, stopping every few feet to rest. When he got nearer, he stopped and watched me climbing up and down the ladder carrying 40-pound boxes of flue. The look in his eyes was first of awe and then remembrance.
I finished cutting a hole in the roof and was waiting for my partner to complete his job before I could go on. As I was standing on the roof, I noticed the mailman making his delivery in the mailboxes below me. No sooner had he shut the final box than the residents started to gather.
What I was witnessing seemed to be a ritual. These people approached their mailboxes as solemnly as if they were going to a shrine. It was apparent that they were going for more than the mail, they were going for reassurance--that they were not forgotten, that someone cared enough to write.
As one man pulled a stack of mail from his box and began looking through it, a small woman next to him eyed the stack with envy and said, "Looks like someone sure loves you." "No," the man said, "it's just junk mail." He turned and headed back to his apartment.
Looking at those people, I could see that they had planned their retirement. They had thought things out so they could live out their years in comfort. They had sacrificed and saved to make sure that they would be able to take care of themselves. What they could not plan for was that someone would still care enough to write. How do you prepare yourself for going to an empty mailbox? How do you plan that someone will still care?
I finished with the chimney and got down from the roof. As I put the ladder in the back of the truck I heard one of the residents say to another, "Well, nothing today. Maybe tomorrow."