The Mailbox ~ Anne Panning

I went shopping for a mailbox today.  Before I left, my husband, Mark, put in a special request.  “Can you get one big enough so that my whole hand can fit in it?” he asked.  “I’ve been using these two fingers for years.”

He made a V-shape with his index and middle fingers, then awkwardly mimed how he had to use them as pincers to retrieve the mail.  He wore Large Tall in clothes.  He was 6’4”.  His toes hung over the end of our bed.

I said I would do my best.

I went to Lowe’s. I always felt like I should be excited when I entered Lowe’s, but I wasn’t.  It was just tools and flats of withery petunias and grim sacks of cement and miles of doorknobs and men in blue vests driving forklifts around.

I stood in the center of the gigantic store and looked up.  Suddenly, a blue-vested man asked if I needed help.

“Mailboxes?” I asked.

“Aisle 15!” he shouted, and sped away.

It was a bit of a walk over there.  I decided to walk down the ceiling fan aisle, make a right by the custom order blinds, then cut through the model kitchens.

There were 8 wall-mount mailboxes to choose from, and I was disappointed with all of them.  Plus, the sample mailboxes were mounted so high up on a wall there was no way to really study them up close or touch them or open their lids.  In fact, I had to keep jumping up in the air to get a better glimpse.

“Can I help you?” another blue-vested man asked.  It was funny how all the young females worked at the checkout and all the older men wandered around the store trying to be helpful.

“No, thanks,” I said.  I didn’t like help.

“Well, have a great day!” he shouted.

“All right.”

The cheapest model was the Postmaster Townhouse for $13.99.When I picked up the sealed box, thin aluminum and loose screws rattled against each other.  Judging by its width, there was no way Mark would be able to reach his whole hand into it.

The only mailbox even close to being a contender was the First Class Park Avenue for $31.94.  According to the box, it came with three color inserts (black, brick red, silver) as well as Full Alphabet monograms, which were basically cheap glittery stickers.

“Can I help you with something?” another worker asked.  They seemed uncomfortable with my lingering in Aisle 15 so long.

“No,” I said.  And because they were all so cheap and ugly, I left.


*   *    *   *   *

            Back home, the daily mail had arrived.  I dug my hand into the rusted black mailbox which had lost its decorative trim and was sun faded.  Here was the day’s mail:

1.  Prevention magazine under Mark’s name.  Why were they sending him this old person’s magazine? He was 43 and had mysteriously started receiving it.

2.  Two offers from Delta Airlines, for our children Hudson and Lily, for free round-trip tickets if they opened up a Delta Airlines Visa (Hudson was 8, Lily 5).

3.  Capitol One Visa bill (I left it unopened).

4.  A yellow postcard from Bittersweet Gift Shop announcing their July sidewalk sale.

5.  A Netflix movie, Waltz with Bashir.

6. A bill for Weight Watchers magazine, $12.95.

7.  A postcard from Most Dependable Fountains, Inc. (I’d at one point toyed with installing a drinking fountain in my study and they’d continued to hound me).

8.  Chase bank statement (also left unopened).

9.  Urgent “Immediate Response Required” from TIAA/CREF (I was in the middle of an insurance upgrade).


Not a single piece of personal correspondence on July 2, 2009.


*    *    *    *    *

I logged onto Facebook the next day.

FACEBOOK. July 3, 2009.  8:30 a.m. Saturday

Anne Panning “has been searching for the perfect mailbox.”

Lindsay Hansen

Describe the perfect mailbox. Maybe someone can help you.

Anne Panning

1.  Mark’s hand has to fit all the way into it.

2.  Not flimsy cheap tinny

3.  Detailed but not in that mass-produced way

4.  Suitable to the aesthetic of our 1880 Victorian

5.  Not super-expensive

6.  No hand-painted farm scenes or kitties!

Sarah Hart

This is so funny! I have been plotting about dream Victorian mailboxes and frowning about annoying subdivision ones. For around the corner where our old picket fence is I would like to sink a skinny Victorian porch column in cement and put a deep, black open-from-the-front mailbox on top of it. Then grow climbing/old fashioned flowers around it. Can you picture the scene?

Lynn Wehnert

Get a cow mailbox. JK. Reminds me of a thing that happened to Randy and me many years ago. I rented a motel room in a country theme thinking it would be cozy. When we got there the entire room was cows, cows and more cows. Even the bedposts had hoofs on them. The entire wall facing us was one huge painting of a cow. When we went to bed this … Read More Holstein was staring right at us and finally Randy said “enough of this”. He went to the desk and asked for a different room which we got. We still laugh about that.

Steve Brauer

The perfect mailbox for us has been cutting a slot into the front door so that our carrier leaves our mail inside our house. This certainly makes it easier to travel – we don’t have to put a hold on our mail nor ask someone to pick it up every few days.

David DeBlieck

Wow! I am amazed at all the mailbox advice you’ve received in such a short span. We had a devil of a time finding one for Jeffrey’s parents at Christmastime. Are there any pig mailboxes out there? I know how much you love your pigs . . . :))


By the end of the day, I had received 14 responses.


*    *    *    *    *

I went to Ollie’s Outlet the next week and looked for a mailbox.  Instead, I ended up buying a Country Cottage cookie jar, some cotton floral sheets for Lily and some Wolfgang Puck cream of crab soups, dented.

*    *    *   *   *

            In my hometown of Arlington, Minnesota, there is, for some unknown reason, no mail delivery service.  You have to drive downtown, park in one of the diagonal slots on Main Street, walk in, twirl in your combination, and get your mail. It’s the social hub of the entire town; there’s often frantic little traffic jams on the corner of Second and Main; you have to circle the block several times or else end up parking in front of Dueber’s Dry Goods across the street; in winter, everyone leaves their big diesel pickups running: gray clouds of exhaust freeze, suspended, in the arctic air.  My Grandpa Griep, when he was still alive, used to schedule his entire day around the 10:00 a.m. mail pick-up.  He used to keep their outgoing mail clothes-pinned together on the kitchen windowsill.  My father, ever since my mom died, has to get the mail now.   I realize how nice it would be if I wrote him a letter someday and he’d find it there in his little metal mailbox.  He has never written me a letter in my entire life.  I realize I haven’t written my father a letter, exclusively just my father, ever. What would I write?

Dear Dad,

            How are you?  I hope you’re managing to eat better lately. Remember that you can’t just drink pot after pot of coffee and then chew Copenhagen on an empty stomach without feeling like crap.  How did your visit with the new psychiatrist go?  Remember that you have to take the Zoloft only once in the morning and then try not to take so many Ativan or you’re gonna end up in the psych ward again.  Really.  You have to try and take better care of yourself. I called the butcher shop and so now you have a $50 credit up there so make sure you go and get yourself something good—not just hot dogs.

           Okay?  You have to try and leave the house more than you do.  It’s not good for you to be so alone.

           So, did I tell you I won The Professor of the Year award? I was totally shocked and so Mark and I will be flying to Washington, D.C. for the awards ceremony.  Who knows what we’ll do with the kids, but we’ll figure something out.

           I finished the Vietnam book and sent it off to my agent so now I’m just waiting for her response.  The kids are good.  Lily was home sick yesterday only she wasn’t really sick and kept trailing after me all day wanting to play Zingo.  Hudson joined Brockport Kids Rock, which is like this chorus group and SO unlike him but we’re excited that he’s branching out. 

          Not much else new around here.  Remember about the meds. Only one Zoloft and really, actually, I’d like to see you get completely off the Ativan because they really make you into such a zombie. Don’t you think? I mean, I know you say you get so anxious but there’s got to be a better way of dealing with things. 

         Anyway, I love you.  Hang in there.

         xo,  Annie

I can imagine him getting the letter in his mailbox.  Maybe he’d tuck it carefully into his coat pocket.  Or maybe he’d let it ride next to him in the Buick’s passenger seat (where my mom should be sitting) on the short four-block ride home.  Maybe he’d wait all day to open it, savoring every word over a steak he’d cook for himself in a frying pan. Or, more likely, it would get shoved inside his stack of overdue electricty bills and The Glencoe Shopper and the Quilts & More magazines that continue to arrive for my mother and accumulate in sad, colorful piles.

I still remember our mailbox number: 773.   I still remember spinning that little brass dial: 14-31-27.


*   *   *   *   *

            I decide ebay is the best route to an eclectic mailbox. I type in “Vintage mailbox” and up pops an old mint green mailbox.  It says, in creamy white letters:

                                                            Wirtz’s Store

                                                Groceries  ~  Fruits  ~ Vegetables

                                                            Dry Goods

                                                          Cologne, MN


Cologne, Minnesota?  This is just minutes from where I grew up.  This is where my Aunt Lynnette and Uncle Randy live.  This is where my Uncle Bert and Aunt Harriet live.  The seller lives in Betholl, Washington. How did he come across this odd Minnesota relic? It’s an antique—funky, vintage—with a little bit of paint chipping at the edges.  Its cozy charm appeals deeply to me.  But, no.  I live in New York state now.  I have traded in my old Midwestern self for an East Coast one.  The quaintness of the Minnesota connection would be lost here. It simply wouldn’t translate.

*   *   *   *   *

            I don’t want to, but I sneak out to Wal-Mart.  Actually, it’s a Super Wal-Mart that they built after abandoning an already hugeass Wal-Mart, which is now vacant with a weed-filled parking lot.  I bring my son along, who loves running errands and is unusually detail-oriented for an eight year old.  I want to teach him that Wal-Marts are awful but here we are.

The mailboxes are back by the paint; it actually smells like someone is spray painting all over the store so I breathe with my mouth open.  It’s hard to find the mailboxes, and unlike at Lowe’s, there are no employees anywhere to help you.  We walk through aisles of plastic storage tubs, through aisles of garbage cans, through aisles of tarps, and finally, at the very end of the tarp aisle, are the mailboxes.  There are two: the very same ones I rejected at Lowe’s.

“Let’s go,” I say to Hudson.  “These are crap.”

“But Mommy?” he says. I can sense he’s angling for something. “Can I look at the toys?”

“For two minutes.”  The toxic scent is giving me a headache, but I follow him back to the Legos aisle.  There is so much he wants! One Treasure Island Legos set is $79.99.

We settle on a can of black Play-Doh.  Utilitarian but unusual.


*   *   *   *   *

            My Grandma Griep was my last faithful correspondent until her death in 2000.  Her feathery Bic fine point cursive and classic Mead lined letter paper remained a constant in my ever-changing life.  When I moved from Hawaii to New York to begin my career as a college professor, she was the only person who continued to write me letters (my mother refused, convinced that her grammar and spelling would now be deemed “incorrect” by her professor daughter).  But Grandma Griep stayed loyal with the small white envelopes, the Libertry bell stamps.

Dear Annie,                                                                                                            Nov. 18, 1999

                Thanks so much for your telephone call.  What a nice visit we had!  Thanks, too, for the letters.  Most of my mail is either junk mail or bills, so when I get a personal letter it makes my day.  People just don’t write as often as they used to. Guess everybody is just too busy.  I do hear from old friends once in a while. Our nurse’s class celebrated their 60th anniversary in May.  Of course, I couldn’t be there, but I got pictures & the program from my classmates.  I think there were 7 left that could attend and we had a big class.  Lots of sick & ailing ones.  And dead ones.

 I’m listening to my new Guy Lombardo cassette.  Don’t laugh.  They are oldies but goodies.  Brings back many good memories for me.  Grandpa and I used to dance to those old waltzes.  They are great!  Guy used to be on TV every New Year’s Eve.  Annie, I’ll never get over missing Grandpa.  I miss him so much.  He was such a sweetie.  How lucky I was to have him.  But life goes on.

 Happy Thanksgiving.  I know you will spend it with Mark’s family.



Holding the letter, I am catapulted to her tiny kitchen with the white metal cabinets and dark paneled walls. Snow falls feathery outside the tiny window and the radio plays polka with a peppy 4/4 beat. A dishtowel wrapped around me tight, I’m standing on a kitchen chair, rolling out pie crust with floury hands.  My grandma scooches around me, squeezing my little shoulders every time she comes near.  In the living room, my grandpa reads National Geographic with a magnifying glass.  All about the house there is peace and solidity and warmth.  My parents work long hours at shitty jobs; my father pisses away all our money at the bar.  They can’t afford babysitters so I am practically raised by my grandparents.  This is probably the reason, I think now, that I have come to appreciate homegrown tomatoes and roses, that I have developed a fascination with maps, that my heart did not grow bitter but stayed soft and open to love.


Dear Grandma Griep,

                Thank you.  Every day I rub Oil of Olay onto my face and think of you.

                The roses are still blooming.




*   *   *   *   *

            Mark thinks I’m going off the deep end, but I spend hours hunched over the computer.  I switch my ebay search from “vintage” mailbox to “retro” mailbox and hit the jackpot.  Finally, after scrolling madly, there’s an old cast iron mailbox from England, a “vintage Griswold 105/106” that looks sturdy and full of charm, but the shipping alone is $55.00 and the bidding is already up to $45.00.  I will not, on principle, spend $90 on a mailbox.

It’s Friday afternoon. I go stand on our front stoop and study where the new mailbox would fit.  I run in for a tape measure and begin measuring height, width, depth.  Our neighbor, Leon, is drinking a beer on his front porch and calls over to me.  I explain what I’m doing and he invites me to see their new mailbox.  His wife, Stacy, he tells me, was similarly obsessed.  “She bought this one here,” he says, pointing to their faux antique bronzed mailbox, “and then handpainted these vines and flowers on it to match the house.”

I nod.  Stacy has big wavy Crystal Gale hair all the way down past her butt.  They have a Jack Daniels-themed bathroom with black hand towels and Confederate flag curtains.

“Maybe you could do something like that,” Leon says.

“Yeah,” I say.  “I don’t know.  I just want something…”

“…that doesn’t exist!” Leon says, and laughs.

When we had our house painted last year, I grew so invested in paint colors I ended up mixing two different greens for the window trim because I couldn’t find the right one.  Our house is Plum Raisin with Celery Salt trim with a mixture of Weekend Getaway and Baby Turtle for fine details.  We have a white picket fence surrounding the front yard, and a small needlepoint WELCOME sampler hanging on the front door.  47 Park Avenue. How perfect I want everything to look, how wholesome and welcoming and solid.

But of course.  I grew up in a trailer court down at the edge of town.  Our front stairs were portable, unattached to the “house.” No mailbox, no sidewalk, not even a front door.


*   *   *   *   *

            One dark and dreary Sunday, missing my mother, I start digging through my file cabinet.  I need some physical evidence of her. I need a way out of this lonely day.  I find a little bundle labeled “Mom” and grab it.  The few remaining letters I have from her are crinkly and without envelopes since they were always tucked hastily inside packages full of handmade treasures.


Dear Anne and Mark,                                                                         Dec. 3, 1999

                Here are your Christmas stockings, as requested.  I hope you like them.  If they are creased from packing, just hold them over a steaming pot of water, don’t press with an iron.  Also, enclosed are some old linens.  I’m sure you can find a use for most of them.

                 The snowman ball is one I painted from a class at the high school – the Angel I just thought was pretty.  The cluster of snowmen & women is something I made last year. If it’s too “cutesy” for you, send it back and I’ll give it to Amy.  I really did put a lot of time into it.

               The silver cup and silverware was given to you, Annie, from Grandma & Grandpa Griep for your baptism (dated your baptism day). I thought you might like to have them.

                I’m  home today, and want to get some sewing done –  After I run this up to the post office, do bills, set Grandma’s hair, etc. etc. etc. etc.

               Hope you enjoy digging through the box. Will send biscuit quilt next.

                                                                                 Love to you both,



Some of the letters, written on cheap spiral notebook paper, actually have swatches of fabric safety-pinned to them.  Next to a red and blue calico strip, her handwriting:  “this is only enough for 2 valances.  You two will talk this over well I’m sure.” This was always her tease: that Mark and I overanalyzed everything.

She was always making something for us:  kitchen curtains, flannel pajamas for the kids, a table runner for the dining room table (“thought it would like nice for your holiday party”), hand-knit slippers for the four of us.  Her letters are like artifacts with bright fabrics, wool yarn and pencil sketches dangling off the page.

Then, in a stack of crumpled papers, I find a small cream-colored envelope.  Inside, a yellowed card with an Indian teepee on the cover.



 “whenever I remember you my heart is happy”    love,  Mom

Then, in her classic Palmer cursive, inside:

Dear Anne,

                I am writing to “thank you” for sharing your trip to Kansas City with me. You have a way that makes me feel special about myself, a trait that doesn’t emerge very often.  I’m a real person, my thoughts and wishes are as important as anyone else’s.  It feels good to feel good

You are a truly, wonderful daughter and friend, and I love you so very much.

                                                                                Much love,



I remember I’d had to convince her for months to fly from Minneapolis, by herself, and meet me in Kansas City where I’d be attending a conference. I told her if she could just get there, I’d take care of everything else, including a nice room for us at the Hilton.  But it wasn’t always easy with her.  My pace was about twenty times hers; I was a jaded traveler and didn’t have patience for the boring guided trolley tours she loved.  In stores or museum, she’d want to look at every single little item.  No matter where we went, she made sure to let the clerk/waitress/bus driver know that she wasn’t from there.  “Well, now, what is the tax here anyway?  We don’t even have sales tax on clothing where I’m from,” she’d say, then wait with a little smile on her face for someone to ask where she was from.  And to my surprise, people often did.  Even the hipster Buddy Holly clerk in the vintage shop seemed to enjoy chatting with her.  “You’re from Minnesota?  Cool!”  Still, it made me groan a little inside every time she did it.

At the Toy & Miniature Museum, however, we both hit our stride.  We stood for hours in front of perfect little rooms with tiny china plates the size of nickels.  “Don’t you just love mini?” she said.  “I could live in there. I really could.”   I did not argue; this time, I was in no rush to leave.  I, too, wanted to shrink myself and hide inside the carefully appointed tiny luxurious rooms.

Hours passed.

“Ooo,” she said. “Let’s buy postcards!”  She purchased several and sat that night on the bed in our hotel room, her bare feet wiggling in contentment.  She wrote out cards to my father, my sister Amy, my Grandma Griep, her sister Beth.  A couple times she’d look up, thinking what to write, and catch me watching her.  “Oh you,” she’d say, and pretend to toss her pen at me.


*   *   *   *   *

            Finally, I find it.  It’s Swedish.  It’s dark green enamel with white letters that say: POST.  It is cheerful and functional and minimalist in a classic Scandinavian way.  It is deep and roomy, and Mark confirms that yes, he can scoop his whole hand inside freely to retrieve the mail.  What’s odd is how once the search is over, the mailbox installed, I feel sad.

Every time I pull up to our house, I think: that mailbox looks really great, especially with that antique little bench I found and that cute little yellow boot planter and the red welcome sign I swiped from my dad’s kitchen door.  But so often our big deep mailbox is nearly empty.  After I fish out the white wisps of bills, the lid closes loudly on all the darkness inside.