I think of my mother every time I lick an envelope.
As a child, I was her personal licker. Mom hated the taste of glue, so she took advantage of my willingness to spread saliva around until my tongue shriveled. Week after week, she hoarded S&H Green Stamps received at the grocery store until she had an impressive pile. At that point, she sat me up at the kitchen table with the open, naked redemption books and left me to it.
For hours. (Well, it felt like hours.)
Pages and pages of tiny green stamps, 50 to a page. I handled narrow strips of rectangular stamps and laboriously them placed just so after a liberal slurp! to the back of each. When the books were filled (and my fingers and lips stuck together), off we’d go to redeem them for whatever products my mother wanted. (Don’t remember S&H Green Stamps? These trading stamps were popular in the use from the 1930s until sometime in the 1980s. Also called “Green Shield Stamps,” they were distributed as part of a rewards program operated by S&H. During the 60s, their reward catalog was the largest publication in the U.S. and they issued three times as many stamps as the U.S. Postal Service.)
Once Mom had me caught firmly on the wheel of stamp slavery, we moved on to bill envelopes, letters to relatives, and postage stamps. All fell to the might of my tongue. (Which, admittedly, reads a bit racy nowadays.) But at Christmas…ah, that’s when my childhood vocation truly kicked up a notch.
Christmas card envelopes (back in the day when my folks sent out nearly one hundred of the things, if not more) and the postage for each one. Package to go into the mail. Christmas Seals from the American Lung Association. (The arrival of which I looked forward to with almost as much anticipation as the JC Penney, Sears, and “Monkey Ward” Christmas catalogs.) Mom was fond of wrapping the gifts she gave with white tissue paper and securing the ends with decorative seals in the shape of poinsettias, Santa, holly, and other harbingers of the season. Guess who got to lick every one of the damned things?
These days most stamps, no matter their origin, are self-stick, peel-and-apply affairs. We whip them off the backing and press them down without a second thought. They’re a true blessing for anyone with a large mailing job. Still…
I think something’s been lost in this desire to make the process quicker/easier/faster. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to not have to lick a passel of stamps and envelopes every year. But now (especially with my mother disappearing by degrees into the fog of Alzheimer’s, her memories of that time reduced to cheap coinage), I miss sitting with her at the kitchen table, watching with eagle-eyed intent as she addressed each envelope and pushed it across to me so I could lick it closed, apply the stamp, and stack it neatly. (Back then, you had to bundle them by town.). In the background, Christmas carols played on the old console stereo (vinyl records stacked on a spindle back then, no cassettes or 8-track tapes and certainly no CDs) — Mario Lanza, The Vienna Boys Choir, the collection of Firestone Christmas albums. Something delicious baked in the oven and (more likely than not) snow fell in a soft drape past windows festooned with garlands of plastic holly and red cellophane wreaths. I miss that time of quiet peace and closeness (a rarity with a woman who found it difficult to show her children affection). I miss that connection. Which, I suppose, is why I hold close the memory.