Along with the regular catalogs, donation requests and bills, Heidi Patricola received a special delivery this week: A tax form sent from her Corona del Mar restaurant was returned — 21 years after it was mailed.
Pieces of the coffee-brown W-2 peeked out from the moth-nibbled edges. The crumbling envelope in a plastic slip also included an apology from the U.S. Postal Service for the late "return to sender."
"We were just amused, really," Patricola said.
The Italian restaurant, Rothschild's, has been in the Reiss family for 35 years. Patricola and her husband, Jim, bought it from her father, Helmut Reiss, in 1993, three years after the form was sent to former employee Susan Poole in February 1990.
No one at Rothschild's, including veteran servers, remembered working with Poole. Reached by phone in Georgia, Poole said she worked at the restaurant for six months but offered no other details.
So Patricola did some detective work of her own.
After studying the envelope, with a bright red cartoon hand pointing to the return address and other fresh-looking hand stamps, she believes it may have gotten lost at the post office and sat undisturbed for years before being found and returned.
Her instincts may be right.
When equipment is moved, said Don Smeraldi, manager of corporate communications with the Postal Service, pieces of mail sometimes are found wedged in unusual spots.
Even though post offices handle millions of pieces daily, letters showing up decades later is "something out of the ordinary," Smeraldi said.
"Anomalies happen from time to time," he added.
The letter, bearing a 25-cent stamp, came as a surprise to the postman, who playfully told Patricola she had an unusual delivery. "We always try to complete delivery. In this case, that's what we did," Smeraldi said. "If there's postage on it, we deliver it."
The letter will be saved for posterity as part of Rothschild's history. "We'll just put it in our scrapbook," Patricola said.