A few weeks ago, after my son, daughter-in-law, and 3-year old granddaughter, Lina, left my house here in South Wellfleet, I discovered that they had inadvertently left behind Lina’s bath toys. These were not fancy things – a few foam letters that stick on wet walls, a bath-friendly book, and a collapsible little bucket. Knowing that these bits and pieces were part of an important daily bath experience, I had to send them right away and not wait until September when I was back at home. When I got to the post office in South Wellfleet the Post Master helped me find the right size box, shove the things inside, seal and send it. As she was getting me organized, she said that about half of the Post Office business was sending back the things that people left behind. Sometimes, what was to be reunited with their owners was not worth the postage cost. Yet, there was a constant flow of returns. I suspected that there was something important to say about this phenomenon and I made a plan to come back and learn more.
I returned to the Post Office this morning. The Post Master wasn’t there, but the Post Office Clerk was and she filled me in on the kinds of things that get left behind, how they get sent back, and perhaps more important, why.
The most common left-behinds are chargers – all kinds of chargers for cell phones, computers, iPads, iPods, and for every other type of electronic device. Then there are things that seem to be slightly more personal, such as books, cosmetics, pillows, bathing suits, and clothing of various kinds – especially kids’ clothing. Wallets are pretty personal since they potentially contain a lot of private information and eye-glasses that are specific to one individual. There are unusual send-backs like the huge, tassled head dress that someone left behind in a motel room after a parade. It was tricky trying to figure out how to pack it up so that it would arrive home safely. Getting even more personal was the teen-ager’s diary that she had tucked under a motel-room mattress trying to hide it from her mother and father. Her panicked call to the motel pleaded, “don’t tell my parents!”
When a woman in hospice care talked about her favorite vacation in a special place on The Cape, the owner where she had stayed bundled up some motel sheets and blankets, and sent them to her before she died.
It is the children’s items, perhaps, like Lina’s bath toys that arouse the warmest reactions. There are the teddy bears and ragged blankets that kids can’t fall asleep without, or the little tea set – a beloved grandmother’s gift.
What is so interesting about all of this is that people take the time to make sure the owners of stuff get back what is theirs. It takes a lot of effort. Post Office staff search for addresses. Home owners bring in things from renters, and hotels, motels, camp grounds, cabin owners, and trailer parks do the same thing. Every little and big thing has to be packaged, stamped, and mailed.
I am sure people would not hesitate to do this for family members (as I did), friends, or even slight acquaintances but, in these cases, they are doing it for complete strangers. Often the returners pay the postage without expecting to get reimbursed. “People who you know will thank you,” the P.O. Clerk says, “but with people you don’t know the only gratification is that you did something good and that feels great. People just do it. It’s a natural thing.”
I do not know if other places that attract people from all over have this custom, but it is clearly happening year after year in this little Cape Cod town. “This town seems to be different from other places I have lived,” she says. “People seem to be a little more thoughtful. There is a sense of community and contributing, and not thinking about what you are going to get in return. People here are the nicest – laid back, interested in each other, offering help and looking out for everyone else. It is very humbling.” When she first moved here the concern people showed felt intrusive and suffocating. “Not anymore.” she says, “Now it feels comforting and supportive.”
The tradition of returning things is long here and it is unlikely that will change into the future. There seems to be an embedded culture that allows for caring and concern for people who live here. But, importantly, this spirit extends to visitors who leave behind seemingly valueless things. To me, it shows an unspoken, unquestioned, and non-debatable respect for every person and whatever is important to them whether they are known and familiar, or total strangers who, themselves, may never return.