In her last year of independent living, my mother gave away half of her annual income. Longing to feel connected, she sat in her favorite armchair, opening mail from various organizations, and writing checks to support them. She wrote a lot of checks, so she received a lot of letters.
Several neighbors in her apartment building noticed the volume of mail Mom was getting—she wheeled a shopping cart down to the mail room and back each day—and advised her she was overdoing it. Mom brushed off their concerns and continued, spending each afternoon deciding which causes deserved her $25, $30, or $35 check. She believed she was helping right the world’s wrongs.
At 91, Mom had a stroke that was debilitating enough to precipitate the sale of her apartment and a move to a nursing home. When I realized she wouldn’t be returning to her old life, I forwarded her mail to my address. Soon I started getting her Medicare and Verizon bills, and her Good Housekeeping and HGTV magazines. I wondered about the flood of letters she had been receiving, but conventional wisdom is that junk mail isn’t forwarded, so I didn’t worry.
After a few weeks, however, my mailbox began to fill up. I started getting 30 or 40 letters each day, a thick pile of envelopes held together with a fat rubber band. And instead of bearing a yellow forwarding sticker, the envelopes were addressed to my mother at my address.
I wondered how this had occurred. A bit of online searching revealed that the post office routinely sells change of address forms to private organizations. According to a 2013 online Forbes article, revenues from these sales made up over $8 million of its annual revenue. The U.S. Postal Service had moved my mother’s causes into my house.
Six days each week, I opened a mailbox jammed with letters. I had to yank hard to pull them all out, and some fell into the bushes below. “What are we going to do when we go away for a week?” my husband lamented.
It was impossible to ignore return addresses as I winnowed my own few bills and magazines from the pile. They were eye-opening to this progressive. Citizens United. The Roger Stone Defense Fund. The Cliven Bundy Defense Fund. I was disappointed that my mother had contributed to those causes.
Mom and I had disagreed about politics for years. Convinced public schools waste money, she’d voted against a bond issue for my kids’ school district. She’d supported “tough on spending” George W. Bush, cheered the Iraq War, and hurried to the polls to vote for Donald Trump.
We’d had many arguments, including one in which we both raised our voices in front of my gentle stepfather, who never, ever felt the need to broadcast his opinions. In recent years, we’d patched things up, but now this daily barrage:
“STOP THE STEALTH INFILTRATION OF SHARIAH LAW IN AMERICA!”
“Expose Obama’s Crimes!”
“Congressional liberals want to ban Jesus from military prayers. . . You and I must get to work!”
I needed to find a way to stop it.
I recalled a trick a friend used decades ago to stop unwanted mail. She had joined a record club without fully realizing what she was getting into (we of a certain age remember record clubs. You paid 99 cents for five vinyl albums and agreed to buy additional ones every month at full price). My friend didn’t want to pay for the subsequent albums, but there seemed to be no recourse. So, she wrote “deceased” on one of the bills, and the albums stopped coming.
That sounded like a good, if somewhat creepy, idea. I could use the return cards inside each letter to inform organizations that my mother had passed away.
My brother and I were overwhelmed finding a care center for Mom, taking over her finances, cleaning out her apartment, and deciding what to do with decades of possessions. This mail task was new and unexpected, and I wasn’t pleased. To get to the return cards, I’d have to dig my hands into dozens of disagreeable sales pitches. I knew both sides of the political spectrum make ridiculous appeals, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid words and phrases that would provoke me.
I began opening envelopes. Most letters addressed my mother by name and went on for several triple-spaced pages. Some were “Petitions to Congress.” A few, buff-colored, with small holes up the sides, were apparently designed to resemble telegrams. I opened “official ballots” that had oval bubbles to fill in, and a “prayer card” with Melania Trump’s picture on it.
There was always an additional card with Mom’s name and address on it, and a box to indicate the amount she was enclosing. Next to those boxes was even more emotional content, for example, “I will defend Fox News from the radical Left’s lies. Only together can we ensure the new leadership stands tall against their attacks.”
Looking back, I think my arguments with Mom represented a longing for connection. I wanted to be able to talk with her about topics that concerned me. She missed the obedient young daughter to whom she had transferred her college dreams—but who had then developed her own opinions. We were on the opposite side of most issues, the wall between us firmer and less scale-able than anything President Trump was planning to build.
After penning “deceased,” I stuffed response cards into reply envelopes so that my messages would be noticed by whoever pulled them out. As most of the envelopes needed postage, I affixed stamps. Then I went to work sealing envelopes. Finally, I grabbed the outgoing envelopes and tapped them into a neat pile. Doing that was like putting all my negative feelings into a manageable place, and it felt soothing.
I once heard a pastor advise, “be tough on issues, but easy on people.” Meaning that I shouldn’t dislike a person even if I dislike their beliefs. I had a hard time following this advice. I took Mom’s political choices personally. And my efforts to change her mind only hardened her position.
Do we bear any responsibility for what others believe? Sometimes I think my vociferous disagreements with Mom had a role in prompting her to write all those checks. It was like she was trying to assert herself against me.
One month and close to $100 in postage later, I was still receiving 15 to 20 appeals most days, and sometimes several dozen. Perhaps, I thought, the folks on the receiving end were simply scanning each envelope for a check, not a handwritten message. “Maybe they don’t understand the word, deceased,” I snarked to a like-minded friend.
After about six months, I found I was starting to get inured to the bold, screeching messages, even bored by them. As I rifled through my mother’s mail each day, I realized they had lost their power to offend me. They sounded tired, even desperate.
Yes, desperate. The letters are remnants of my mother’s old, healthy life. The people who wrote them want her back, want her sitting in her favorite chair, writing checks. She was their friend.
Could it be that the letter writers and I are on the same side? I also want my mother back. I would love to think of her back in her apartment, happy, if fragile, surrounded by long-time friends. But during the isolation of the pandemic year, her mind slipped into dementia. Not even the most shocking political claim can bring her back.
Born before the Depression, Mom graduated from high school during World War II. She was married for 35 years and was so active in her three kids’ elementary school that a tree was planted in her honor. She was the first mother in our suburban St. Paul neighborhood to go back to work. After being widowed at 50, she had a second happy marriage.
I was beginning to see those letters as reminders of my mother’s activism. Tokens of a passionate life. I am glad she felt something was worth fighting for. Isn’t that what being human is about?
Mom and I sit together each week, chatting about family members, friends, and upcoming holidays. We focus mostly on the present, but we occasionally reminisce. Our visits are pleasant. We don’t spend a moment on the antics of those in power. Our past becomes more distant every day.
Susan Narayan is a Minneapolis writer and ESL teacher who has lived in three foreign countries: Yemen, Costa Rica, and Turkey. Her essays have appeared in Colere; Bayou Magazine; The Timberline Review; Barzakh; The Levantine Review; REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters; Minnesota Medicine; The Star Tribune; and other publications. One of her essays was a finalist in New Millennium’s 2015 Nonfiction Contest. Visit her website at susanblacknarayan.com.