Postcards from the edge

About three days into her first term at boarding school in the United States, my daughter Velvet discovered the significance of snail mail, something which had gone unnoticed during her twelve years in Russia.

“Mommy,” she wailed down the phone to me, “send me some mail!”

I put a 44-cent stamp on a card and popped it over to her, even though I was going to see her before she would receive it. It’s important to get mail when you are away from home for the first time. I remembered my own mail boxes from school and college, and the frisson of excitement that ran through me when it was mail time.

“Send Velvet a postcard of Moscow,” I said to HRH (handsome Russian husband). “She loves getting mail.”

“Hmmm?” he responded vaguely. I accused him (correctly) of not knowing where the post office was.

“What should we send Velvet-ichka when you go back?” wailed my mother-in-law, up and down the scales in a mournful tone, as if my daughter had been enrolled in the Junior Gulag, and not a cushy, all-girls, equestrian school.

“What she would really like,” I said to her, because when it comes to her only grandchild nothing is too much trouble, “is some mail...Why don’t you send her some postcards of Russia?”

“Postcards?” my mother-in-law seemed doubtful. “I thought we’d send her some chocolate, or a book in Russian…you can take it when you go next week.” I caught the drift: Sending something with someone you know, and trust to pass on to the recipient, a “posilitchka,” is a much more time-honored tradition.

“That would be lovely too,” I assured her, “but some mail would really please her as well.”

“Mail?” said my father-in-law, who always assumes I’m just very ignorant and he’s just very patient, “I think mail is not very reliable.”

Of course, in Russia, mail was not very reliable, and so does not play the integral role it does for us. Nothing good like “The New Yorker” ever arrives through the Russian mail. For many years, I suppose sending even the most innocuous message through the mail might be early admission to the Junior Gulag: “Wish you were here,” could be misinterpreted and “Having a wonderful time,” begged the question “in comparison to what?” When I first came to Russia, “Ground Overnight” involved entrusting a letter or package to a train conductor heading to a specific city. You went to the station in the dark of night to arrange the transaction, and then you called the addressee on the telephone to advise the details.

Like so many things in Russia, during the fast-forward post-perestroika years, mail missed a beat somewhere along the way, and it wasn’t clear to me what the 21st century innovation would be. Russia went from a cash-only economy right to debit cards, by-passing the “the check is in the mail” stage entirely. No one in Russia ever had a home answering machine: The nation leaped forward from scratchy landlines to cell phones in the blink of an eye.

I purchased 35 postcards in Moscow, printed up address labels, and stood in line at the post office. While purchasing 35 stamps, I was delighted to see real efforts to beef up the “neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night” side of the operation. I presented HRH and his family with the stamped, addressed cards and encouraged them to throw caution to the wind and send Velvet a few as an experiment. My father-in-law still seemed flummoxed:

“Couldn’t we just Skype instead?”

Jennifer Eremeeva, a longtime resident of Moscow, is currently at work on her first book.

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