BY now my secretary has learned to recognize my father's peculiar handwriting. All she has ever seen is the outside of mailing envelopes. But that's all it has taken. In the center of the envelopes appears my name and business address. No doubt it was written while he was accomplishing at least one other task. He might have been listening to Bartok on his Walkman. Or conversing with a business associate on the telephone using a headset like those switchboard operators wear. In the upper left-hand corner is his cryptic return address -- all abbreviations and numbers -- written using the fewest possible letters (all consonants). The envelopes would be addressed with whatever writing instrument was readily available. Black crayon-like packing markers were as common as blue, black, or red ball point or felt-tipped pens.
If the penmanship did not tell her the origin of the package, the packing material itself would. Large brown mailing envelopes are the most common. Some -- their previous destinations marked out and their metered postage stripped off -- already have traveled many miles courtesy of the US Postal Service. Padded book mailers finished a close second, followed by cardboard boxes. Rumpled, torn, and held together with baling twine and masking tape, these packages arrive at odd intervals.
``Look what your dad sent you today,'' my secretary said as she dumped a large pile of newspaper clippings on my desk. Dad has a three-newspaper-a-day habit. The present assortment would have been accumulated over the last two months (the time elapsed since my last shipment of clippings). In my mind's eye, I could see him sitting in his recliner in the family room, legs covered with a quilt, peering over his reading glasses and armed with his Clip-It.
This particular crop of clippings was typical. There was an article from the Wednesday food section on the nutritional value of organically-grown food. I remembered when he taught me how to select and polish our homegrown produce for the country fair. ``The key thing,'' he said, ``is to choose the vegetables which will be at their peak of ripeness in three days when the judge will inspect them.'' They were entered in my name, and that year we won three blue ribbons and one red.
I next uncovered a series of three articles on beekeeping and was reminded of cold December nights when together we delivered to schoolteachers, Sunday school teachers, and family friends the golden nectar packed in apothecary jars adorned with red ribbons. This marked the end of a labor of love that we began the summer before.
The rest of the packet was a potpourri . . . a weather map with the high temperature for that date circled in blue ink and the word ``Record'' scribbled on it; a review of a play performed by a local repertory company with the words ``took your mother last Sat. p.m.''; several clippings on the good fortunes of the local professional baseball team; an editorial cartoon dealing with the separation of church and state; a ``B.C.'' cartoon I had read in my local paper (I thought of sending it to him!); a home computer advertisement with the price circled and a ``?'' written beside it; a photocopy of a colleague's business card inscribed with the words ``for your file.''
On another occasion a hardback book arrived written by ``one of America's most respected analysts of social trends and public attitudes.'' In the upper right-hand corner of the inside cover appeared his shorthand name and address and the date when he purchased the book. Then these words: ``I wagged this book all over Europe in May/June and never did get all the way through it.'' He had signed it ``Dad!'' Last there appeared two dates nearly six weeks apart. The most recent one coincided with the postage cancellation date on the package. The earlier one marked the time when he first intended to mail me the book. I completely understood. Like him, I have carted that book on business travel over the United States and have yet to finish it. THE most unusual package arrived in a heavily padded book bag. The postal service had hand cancelled this one, seeing that its size and shape prevented it from passing through a canceling machine. On ripping it open, the light gray padding blanketed my desk like volcanic ash. Inside were $8.73 worth (parcel-post rate) of rocks. No note accompanied them. On closer inspection, however, I noticed that they were imbedded with scores of fossils. My daughter (his first grandchild) just happened to be studying fossils at the time.
When I arrived home from work that evening, I said to her, ``Guess what Grandfather sent you today? A bunch of fossilized rocks!'' ``Oh, goodie,'' she exclaimed, immediately knowing which grandfather I was talking about. The most recent package arrived two weeks ago. It contained my grandfather's Bible (his father's). Worn more from use than age, its tattered pages reminded me of the smell of country bacon and biscuits made from scratch by my grandmother. Often I would have breakfast in their home. Every morning he would begin the day be reading from that Bible a passage for the day. Then he would name the missionaries who had birthdays on that date. Next, he would pray. Only then could we eat.
I immediately looked for the inside front cover where I knew he had recorded the references of his favorite verses and noted other Christian sayings. It was missing along with the first 14 chapters of Genesis. But stamped in the leather cover were the gold-leafed words ``Morocco -- Leather Lined -- Silk Sewed'' and I immediately remembered my favorite of his sayings: ``The best binding for God's Word is not morocco or fine leather, but human skin.'' Marginal notes and clippings from church bulletins provided the grist for several hours of fond reflection.
Having been sent by parcel post or special fourth-class book rate, none of these packages ever contained what the postal service (or anyone else) would consider to be a letter . . . or even a note. But each embodied a very clear and unmistakable message: ``Hey, son, I'm thinking about you.''