The Village Postmistress

The other day I met up with Evelyn in one of the village shops. Tiny, with dark brown eyes and a cap of white hair, our former village Postmistress peers at the world over her spectacles in a way that would be endearing if I didn’t know it was because she started losing her sight to macular degeneration a few years ago. She relies on voices more than faces now, and since I have the lone American accent in these parts Evelyn always knows it’s me when I greet her. I gave her a ride back to her house, and after we put the world to rights outside her front door, I went on my way with a smile because she is a big personality in a teeny package.

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In small villages like ours a Post Office is central to life, where people do business but also swap stories and information, a busy place over which the highly-regarded Postmasters and Postmistresses preside. Evelyn is a formidable woman in spite of her wee stature, and she is well respected. After my husband had been here for a few years, she put his name forward to be a Justice of the Peace. His nomination was accepted without question, solely on Evelyn’s say-so because around these parts her word and her support are gold. He spent some of his happiest years here on the bench, all because of a quiet word at the right moment, thanks to Evelyn.

When I arrived seemingly out of nowhere she took in my sudden appearance without comment. Biding her time she asked me a few months into my life here, “Are you settling in well?” Up until then most people looked at me curiously but didn’t pry, which had the strange effect of making me feel somewhat invisible. Evelyn’s studiously casual question took me by surprise but I was grateful to be spoken to directly beyond an arms’-length “hello”. We became very friendly from that point forward, and often had a nice “blether” if no one else happened to be in. She was one of the first to notice that my Sem no longer came down to the village with me when he became ill, and in her quiet way she assessed the situation and advised me that I could get a proxy bank card so that I could more easily do Sem’s banking for him. (The Post Office does much more than just mail letters and packages, here; it also acts as a bank.)

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At this time of year I often find myself thinking of Evelyn. Christmastime is hard on postal workers, and none moreso than our feisty Postmistress when she still ruled the Royal Mail locally. The closer we came to holiday delivery deadlines, the grumpier and snappier Evelyn became, grumbling about how this was it, this was the year she was going to retire, it was all too much, mutter grumble… Each year it got to the point where people would creep in, hand over their cards and packages with all of their pleases-and-thank-yous firmly in place, and hurry out of there like their hair was burning tinsel. As for myself and some other local internet business proprietors, well, we would time our mailings carefully, aiming for quieter times throughout the day to arrive with bags full of packages to be sent worldwide. Evelyn stood behind the counter, her position in the building slightly elevated from where we stood below, and she would glower at us through the partition as if daring us to come to her with incomplete paperwork.

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I learned very quickly that sympathy and politeness got me a long way in Evelyn’s good books, and to be honest my gratitude and appreciation were sincere because I could see what a big job she had to do, all on her own. I think she liked doing it all herself, as she never had an assistant and she rarely took a day off. Instead she was there six days a week from 8:00am to 5:00pm, with half-days on Wednesdays and Saturdays. As the Postmistress she handled mail of course, but also exchanged currency, dealt with “car tax” (which is like car registration fees in the U.S.), completed banking transactions, and took care of anything from bill payments to passport applications to keeping her “posties” in line as they went about their rounds. Part of her lair was also a shop with stationery, postcards and puzzles, and if there was a village raffle the collection point was usually on one of her counters as well. I don’t know how she kept it all straight but she did, and when computers took over the world she learned how to navigate Royal Mail’s complicated intranet system as well, taking it all in her stride.

When I moved here she was well into her seventies, long-widowed and without children, and she showed no signs of retiring. The Post Office and the village were her life. She knew everyone and everything, but she could be trusted not to talk about people’s business and she was well-liked in spite of her seasonal gruffness. Over time, though, I noticed that increasingly she had trouble keying in addresses, hunting and pecking her way over the keyboard and the computer touch-screen, muttering to herself and becoming less unflappable as the years went by. None of us knew back then that her sight was failing, and I just thought that her years were finally catching up to her. But during what was to be her last Christmas as our Postmistress, her irritability grew to the point where shop-owners would ask me somewhat fearfully about Evelyn’s mood if they saw me come out of the Post Office. “We need change,” one of the shop-keepers said, “but someone said that Evelyn is in a rage today and I don’t think I’d better disturb her!” As an aside, that’s another part of village life which has come to mind as I write this: it would not have occurred to anyone to submit a complaint about Evelyn to the head office. Firstly, folks like her, secondly, they knew she would soon regain her composure after the Christmas rush, and most importantly, around here people don’t “clype” on one of their own!

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Then one day there was a friendly, sanguine gentleman behind the Post Office counter who said, “I’m just filling in for Evelyn for a while.” He was close to retirement himself, and he came from quite some distance away but he held faithfully to Evelyn’s schedule even in bad weather. When asked he would only say that he would be there for a month or two, but then four months went by, and then two more. Evelyn disappeared almost completely from village life, and someone told me that she only left her house in the very early mornings to go down and do her shopping before hurrying back home again. “She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to speak to anyone,” a village acquaintance told me. They went on to say they’d heard that her eyesight had failed to the point where she could no longer handle the computer work that went with every Post Office transaction. Far from going out on her own terms, she had been forced into retirement and it cut her deeply.

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I didn’t see Evelyn for months. It would have been presumptuous to knock on her door when she was still in hiding but I missed her. One day our paths finally crossed. Her steps slowed as I called out to her and I could almost read her thoughts. Would I question her about her retirement, bringing up an uncomfortable topic? Her hesitation and discomfort were evident and I was determined to put her at ease. Greeting her warmly, I never said a word about the Post Office. We talked about her roses – she is an avid gardener – and we had a nice long chat in the sunshine. As we wound up our conversation I told her that I was happy I’d seen her, and how good it was to have had a catch-up. We parted ways and her bright, “Cheerio, cheerio!” was almost back to her normal, well, cheeriness.

The force of nature that she’d been was somewhat diminished but the more she emerged in the following months, the more comfortable she became in her new role as the village’s former Postmistress. Nowadays she is back to her old engaging and friendly self. I don’t say this about many people, but I do adore Evelyn, and she is one of the many women I aspire to be like in many ways. She must be just over eighty years old now, but she is unstoppable.

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As it turns out, she got out of the Post Office gig just in time. Sadly, the government is shutting down as many small Post Offices as it possibly can, and they are either being closed completely or integrated into shops if there’s a shop willing to take on the enormous amount of work (without any increase in pay). Our Post Office was first taken over by a local woman who ran it beautifully with the help of two assistants (I wonder what Evelyn thought of that!), but it was lost to them in a mass of bureaucratic nonsense and bad-faith dealing by the powers that be. We fought for our Post Office, but to no avail. We are fortunate to still have a Post Office of sorts through a local shop but the services are much-reduced, and I have to watch every move they make, as – through no fault of their own – the shop staff are wont to make mistakes that could be detrimental to my business. Their training is minimal and shop turnover is high, so there’s always someone new being trained by someone only slightly less-new. Alas, the high standards, the confidentiality and the professional services we so recently enjoyed are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

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In hindsight I’m glad that Evelyn retired when she did even though she hadn’t wanted to just yet. Her eyesight let her down but she was spared the betrayal of an organization that she had served so well for nearly all her working life. Not only that… I’ll bet her holiday season is much more relaxed these days, as well!

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Deb Segelitz
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands. Equally surprising to her is that she now has a small business restoring and selling old fountain pens. These two facts have convinced Deb that life is either beautifully random, or filled with destiny created by someone with a sense of humor. She hopes the fine north state residents will accept her as an honorary member, since she has some cousins in California who she visited once, but even more importantly because the north state folks she actually knows are fabulous people, who are also the reason for her presence here on anewscafe.com. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Deb is grateful that she lives in a place that's about as point-and-shoot as it gets. Her tortoiseshell cat, Smartie, rates her as an average minion, too slow with the door-opening but not too bad on the food-dish-refilling, and her husband hasn't had her deported back to the States yet, so things must be going all right there, as well.
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41 Responses

  1. Matthew Grigsby says:

    I will never, ever get tired of your yarns, weaving us a rich blanket of words and pictures. Evelyn sounds like good people, and familiar too, as I’m sure we all know someone similar.

    You’re capturing and sharing a way of life most of us will never know and I’m so happy you are. This is poetry.

    And that red door with the wreath?  LOVE!

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Matt!  I’m so glad you enjoyed ‘meeting’ Evelyn!

      That house with the red door and wreath is down a set of outdoor steps from me, just around a corner or two.  Cheery door is cheery!

  2. Christopher Whedon says:

    Well done! A charming story!

  3. Beverly Stafford says:

    Charming indeed.  You and Sem are doing a sort of Evelyn in that you are being forced to make an unintended move.  I hope all is going well for you both.

    • Deb says:

      Ah, you are so right Beverly, and I hadn’t thought of that but it’s true.  Hopefully when we do move, it will be a good move in every way.  I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  4. Karen Calanchini says:

    As always, yor stories  bring wonderful  pictures to my head. I have Evelyn pictured just as you described  her. I love the photos in this story, so charming…if only those old stones could talk.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Karen!  I’m glad you enjoyed it.  We share the thought about those old stones, I often wonder what they have ‘seen’ through their long existence…

  5. Michael Karas says:

    Nice!

  6. Oh, Deb, thank you, once again, for sharing your lovely gift of observation and story-telling.

    I join Beverly in seeing the parallels between Evelyn’s life and yours – and everyone’s life, because change is constant, like it or not.

    I wish for you and Sem changes that are only for the better.

  7. Eleanor says:

    Dear Deb

    Though I never lived so far north in Scotland, just the stones of the houses bring back such memories, and a little tear behind my eyes!   You made the story come alive in full color, and I recognize all the nuances of the Scottish way of communication.   So much said in so few words.

    Thank you for a lovely start to our day here.    You certainly have a way with descriptions, visual and verbal.

    I hope yours is a good day, and that your upcoming changes are moving along as you would wish.

  8. Cathy says:

    Dear Deb,

    What a wonderful story and description of Evelyn! My father had macular degeneration so I can empathize with the problems she’s having now and what she’ll face in the future if it worsens. Your writings and photos make me pine for a trip to Scotland!

    Best wishes to you and Sem,

     

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Cathy!  I’m glad you enjoyed the story 🙂  My mother has macular degeneration, fortunately it progresses slowly and she can still drive etc.  I know it’s something I have to be aware of, too, as a result.  I’m sorry that your father had it, too.

  9. Ginny says:

    What a wonderful story done so beautifully, Deb

    May your Christmas Season be the best, yet, and your move be easy in the New Year.

    Blessings and Glad tidings.

  10. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Beautiful story and photos, as always.  The Highlands couldn’t ask for a better expat ambassador.

    I have to say, though…you rarely dissuade me of my prejudice that among the British Celts, the Scots are a wee bit crankier than the Irish and Welsh.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Steve, I’m glad you enjoy the stories and photos and the glimpses of my wee bit of the Highlands.

      I haven’t met many Irish or Welsh folks, so I couldn’t say for sure, but the Scots I know brook no nonsense, that’s for sure.  They are filled with warmth and hospitality but whoooo poppa do NOT cross them! 😀

  11. Anne Gibbons, a Glesca Lass says:

    That’s the first time I’ve seen the word, “clype” in print. Your sure are picking up the vernacular!

    Thank you for bringing Evelyn into our lives.

    Have a merry and stay-cozy Christmas with your Sem and your neigbours.

    • Deb says:

      There are so many great words here, and I think my brain must be gradually shifting to using them more regularly as “clype” was the first one which came to mind for that sentence 😀

      I’m glad you enjoyed ‘meeting’ Evelyn.  She is a wee star.  Merry Christmas to you and yours as well, Anne!

  12. sue k says:

    I adore your writing and your photos are exquisite!

    Thank you so much

  13. Barbara Cosindas says:

    Beautifully written and I so love the photos!! Thank you for sharing this wonderful story!

  14. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    Beautifully crafter portrait of an amazing woman.  My first thought was that I hope Evelyn gets to read this piece, and then I started thinking of all the reasons why someone from this culture might not like so much attention!  I suspect that you, in your way have communicated your respect for the way she handled such a responsible job, and your love for her.   I’m glad you wrote this tribute to an amazing woman.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Joanne.  Evelyn wouldn’t like the attention, she’s not that sort of person.  Most of the people I write about are similar, and it’s why I don’t talk about my village by name, and why very few people I write about are given their actual names, here 🙂  People tend towards privacy, and I like to respect that, sharing a little about them while maintaining their boundaries.  I like to write about who they are, while not actually spelling out WHO they are, if that makes sense!

      • K. Beck says:

        Perfect. Too bad the majority of Facebook people don’t understand that concept!

        • Deb says:

          Living in a small village has made me very aware of how much people guard their privacy – especially since some folks love to be in other people’s business!

      • Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

        I do understand.  I’m a second generation Polish-American.  One of the biggest commands we understood  was to never, ever share any information about our family to anyone.  I can actually picture that she would be offended by the article and never speak to you again!  I love that you protect the privacy of these people.

  15. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    crafted

     

  16. "B" says:

    I love and will always love your writing! Great story!!

  17. Beverly Stafford says:

    Deb, you have obviously chosen an occupation that’s exactly right for you – restoring antique fountain pens so that you can write beautifully with a beautiful instrument (even though you use a computer!)

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