At the post office, a woman asked quietly: "Christmas stamps?"
It was mid-September and steamy, not a North Face parka or pair of Ugg boots in sight. Outside, people were more apt to be sipping iced matcha tea lattes from Starbucks than hustling home to cure the shivers with a comforting cup of Swedish glögg.
"Not yet," said the window agent. "October."
The customer offered a glum, "Thank you." No question she’d be back before Halloween.
Christmas stamps. September. Really?
Comes to me a vision of long-ago evenings in late December. My wife, Wink, and I are at the dining room table. Boxes of cards, unopened, sit before us like criminal complaints. Seasonal neglect, felony grade. We are repeat offenders.
"But, but, but," we might have pleaded, "there are four children. We have been shopping. We have been assembling toys that would stump an industrial engineer. Our employers demand daily attendance. We mean no disrespect, but we just couldn’t get to it."
For us — then and now — card-writing is a deadline enterprise.
As a newspaper reporter, I grew accustomed to beating the clock while an editor stood by, impatient, unforgiving, possibly homicidal.
"Gotta’ have it."
Christmas was worse.
"Cards to all these people?" I often complain.
"They’ll think we’re dead if we don’t," my wife answers.
Back then, we developed a technique that still applies.
Wink addresses envelopes and writes greetings to her family. Because of a presumed occupational advantage, I do the rest. If fortunate, I hit upon something that will seem custom-crafted but — don’t tell — works for almost everyone.
Last year, the theme was obvious: "Have fun on the holidays — but first check with Dr. Fauci."
During the Great Recession, I turned to a financial theme: "Bob Cratchit’s 401(k) is better than ours. Oh well, Merry Christmas."
More than usually distraught about politics, I once wrote: "Happy New Year. See you in Canada."
We finish in two marathon evenings. My writing hand suggests I’ve been trying to reinvent myself as a knuckleball pitcher for the Mets. (Hey, they could do worse.) I have to run it under hot water to uncurl frozen fingers. I look like Cro-Magnon man.
At the mail slot, I stand for minutes, feeding envelopes two or three at a time into the big blue box.
"Wow," a bystander might say as the process continues.
"Exactly, brother," I might reply. "Wow."
You’d think we would avoid the last-minute drill.
Our "kids" are in their 50s and — let’s hope — no longer expect doll houses or racetracks assembled at 3 am. Shopping isn’t a frenzy anymore. Jobs? Long left behind.
Still, I wonder, what’s the rush?
I heard on the radio that holiday shoppers should hit stores early — supply chain problems owing to the pandemic — and there was news that artificial Christmas trees and ornaments, many from China, could be an issue because shipping containers are scarce.
OK, we’ve been warned.
I refuse to juice up the schedule. This is not the time of life to be in a hurry.
Hasten Christmas and you’re looking ahead to Valentine’s Day. Then it’s Easter. Now you’re itchy for Memorial Day weekend. Oh, boy, here comes Fourth of July. What’s on for Labor Day? Suddenly you’re in the post office one stuffy September morning asking for Christmas stamps.
This is a mistake. Hit the brakes, I declare, not accelerator.
Close to deadline, Winky and I will be at the dining room table, boxes of cards everywhere, address book opened to the A’s.
"Phew," I say.
"Start writing," says Wink.
I’ll be searching for a versatile one-liner.
Maybe: "Have a ball — and get your booster!"
Or: "Best wishes for the New Year. Anything’s got to be better."
Often now our work stops briefly.
"I’ll miss him," says Wink, marking a name.
"Me too. Sweet guy."
Soon enough, we pause again.
We will work into the night, and the next night, too. We will put rubber bands around the stacks of cards. I will take them to the mailbox, one hand stiff.
Most likely, our greetings will arrive on time. No matter. Better late than never, we joke, closing the address book, knowing, at our ages, the saying has extra importance. Oh, you betcha’, better late than never.