Today when my mother opens her big black country mailbox next to a rural route in Northern Arkansas, she might find a postcard from San Francisco, a copy of a proposal I submitted to my boss this week, a placemat from the little restaurant where I had lunch on Sunday or a packet of dog chews for her puppy, Angel. She might also get a copy of my grocery list from last week, ticket stubs from the movie I saw over the weekend or a packet of colorful sponges from the dollar store. Or, she might just get a long, newsy letter with a picture of her grandson. And, she tells me, she will smile and feel happy.
This steady stream of “mail” started in July of 2005 following my annual visit to Arkansas when I asked my mom, “What could I do to be a better daughter?”
While I would like to take credit for thinking of this great question myself, in truth, I owe the credit to Marshall Goldsmith, a well known author and executive coach. The month before my visit to Mom, I heard Marshall urge the attendees at a conference in San Diego to always be asking for feedback from the important people in their lives by asking, “What could I do to be a better ……….friend, mother, boss, employee, wife or, in this case, daughter.”
Now, I must admit that when I asked my mother this question, I more or less expected her to smile, pat my hand and tell me that I was a perfectly wonderful daughter in every way and that there was not one single thing I could do to be a better daughter. I’ve make the trek from San Francisco to rural Arkansas with my son to visit once a year for many years. I was good to call regularly, never forgot a birthday and sent cards for every possible holiday. . So what else could a mom want?
Turns out it was mail! When I asked her that lovely question, “What could I do to be a better daughter?” Without missing a beat she said, “Just send me more mail!”
I should explain that my mother is 83 years old, lives alone, and suffers from both osteoporosis and congestive heart failure. Her mailbox is a quarter of a mile from her front door. Her porch steps are steep and sometimes slippery. After the steps, there’s a rocky and uneven path to navigate. She wears an emergency alarm just in case she falls. It’s not an easy trip but she makes it every day because she needs the exercise and because it is her connection to the world.
“When I walk all the way out there and there’s nothing but junk mail in the box, it’s kind of depressing.” she told me. Even though she said it in a matter of fact way, I could really feel the sadness and disappointment she described. And, I never wanted her to feel that way again.
So, to give these daily walks a happy ending, I started what has become a delightful process for both of us. I am constantly on the lookout for things that might be fun for her to find in her mail box; things that will give her a window into my life or things that might enrich hers. She loved the sunflower petals swooped up from a balloon flying low over the Napa valley on my last birthday. The supermarket receipts I drop in an envelope tell her what food my family likes to eat. When I send her a book I’ve just finished with notes in the margins, it’s like we’re reading it together. A memo from my boss complimenting my work makes her proud. She never knows what will show up in that big back country mailbox. And, she tells me, that just adds to the fun!
I’m happy to be able to do this little thing for my mom. A bride at 18, a mother and war widow by 19, she has not had an easy life. I have always wanted to do things to make her life better and was truly happy when she told me just how to do that this time.
Recently, I was telling a friend about my “Make Mom Happy By Mail” campaign. I said it was giving us so much pleasure I wished I could tell more people so they could do it too. I thank her for suggesting that I write this article.
So what does this mean for you? Just this. If you are lucky enough to have a mother, father, aunt, uncle, cousin or friend who would love to hear from you and share little pieces of your life, you might consider sending them more mail. I promise that it will make you both happy!
If you have examples of how you’ve made someone happy by mail and would like to share them with others, please send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and you might find them in my upcoming book. Happy mailing!