From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

We’ve Got Mail

A small blur flew a few scant millimeters past my nose. “I don’t eat these!” Mrs. Clara Anthony wailed. This spry eighty-six-year-young resident of the Golden Years Nursing Center had quite a reputation. Glancing down at my feet, I discovered a single-serving box of cornflakes that she had just launched from her bed.

It was my first day on the job as the new activity director, fresh from college and full of ideas. I was determined to give my residents more than the traditional three Bs of nursing-home activities: Bibles, Baskets and Bingo.

Every attempt I made to pry Mrs. Anthony out of her bed and socialize with others met with failure. She would lift her glasses to her eyes and say, “I don’t do those things.” Shopping trips, travelogues, drama club—nothing could budge Clara.

“She’s a crotchety old cuss,” said Annie, a nurse’s aide. “She could join in on the activities, but she prefers to sit in her dark room and wait for mail.”

“Mail?” I asked.

“Ever since her only son and his family moved to Texas, all Mrs. Anthony does is wait on mail. She misses them somethin’ fierce.”

Each week saw more and more residents up, dressed and ready to participate in the “goings-on,” but Mrs.

Anthony continued to withdraw.

“I give up,” I admitted to Pam, the Adult Basic Education teacher. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You must be talking about Clara Anthony,” said Rachel, my assistant.

“Gary, Mrs. Anthony’s only interested in mail. If a day passes without a letter, watch out!” added Pam.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Rachel replied, “If either Pam or I pass her room empty-handed, she throws the nearest thing.”

“I’ve seen books, cups, even flowers come sailing out of her room,” added Pam.

“She sounds unhappy,” I speculated.

“Unhappy?” Rachel said incredulously. “After she’s thrown out half her room, she breaks down in writhing sobs.”

“She misses her grandchildren,” Pam mused.

Several days later, I walked into the activity room amid boisterous giggles. Rachel, Pam and a dozen residents were trying on an assortment of baseball caps. “Where did these come from?” I inquired. “There must be hundreds.”

“A hundred and twenty, to be exact,” replied Robert, a retired airline pilot, who visited regularly to do travelogues for our residents.

“After the residents told me about the garden club and their need to wear hats in the sun, I decided to clean out my closets,” said Robert. The unused caps were emblazoned with a variety of emblems.

“Hey, check me out, Gary. I’m a mailman.” Stephen grinned as he displayed his new blue cap with the words “U.S. Mail” affixed across the front. This ten-year-old son of a staff nurse would occasionally volunteer and help with arts and crafts.

As I stared at his cap, Rachel asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Rachel, have you delivered today’s mail to the residents yet?”

“No. Why?”

“I’ve got an idea. Stephen, would you like to be our new mailman?” Stephen nodded in agreement.

Pam asked, “Gary, what are you doing?”

“Mrs. Anthony loves getting mail, and she misses her grandkids. Why not let Stephen deliver her mail?”

“But she doesn’t always get mail,” Rachel pointed out. “Besides, I don’t think Stephen really wants a pillow thrown at him.”

“Why don’t we see?” I concluded.

As luck would have it, Mrs. Anthony did have a letter that day. Stephen donned his mailcap, and Rachel, Pam and I trooped down the hallway to Clara’s room together.

“We can’t all go in,” I warned, stopping in front of her door. “Knock first, Stephen, then go in.”

Stephen tapped twice on Clara’s door.

A delicate voice responded, “Come in.”

“I’ve got mail for you, Mrs. Anthony,” Stephen said proudly.

“Oh my, what have we here? Aren’t you a dear.”

“She wouldn’t be saying that if he didn’t have a letter,” Pam whispered.

“Hush!” I hissed, leaning closer to the half-open door. Looking more like a covert CIA operative, I whispered, “I’m trying to listen.”

Clara continued, “What grade are you in?”

“Fourth grade,” replied Stephen.

“I taught school for forty years.”

“Wow! I’d sure hate to be in school that long,” Stephen quipped.

The laughter spilled into the hallway as the three of us stood spellbound by the sudden change in Mrs. Anthony.

“What’s your name?” Clara inquired.


“Would you read my letter to me, Stephen? My eyes aren’t so good.”


Rachel broke the silence in the hallway. “Gary, there’s nothing wrong with her eyes.”

“Shh . . . it doesn’t matter,” I whispered. “It’s working.”

“What’s working?” Pam asked.

Pointing toward Clara’s room I said, “Look.”

Peering around the corner, we saw Stephen reading to Clara. Her smile spoke a thousand words.

“Thank you, dear,” Clara said after Stephen finished.

“You’re welcome. I’ll come back tomorrow if you get another letter.”

“You don’t have to wait for me to get mail, Stephen. Come any time. In fact, I have a grandson just about your age.”

“You do?”

“Yes, but he lives in Texas. I don’t see him much anymore.”

“That’s sad. I miss my Nana, too.”

“Where is your grandmother, Stephen?”

“She’s gone to heaven.” Stephen hesitated for a moment before asking, “Would you be my Nana?”

Clara chuckled. “Oh my. How would your mother feel about that?”

“She wouldn’t mind. She works here.”

“Well, honey, you come visit me any time.”

No mail came for Clara over the next few days, but the staff began to notice a dramatic change taking place.

“She quit throwing things,” Rachel reported.

Pam added, “And she stopped crying all the time.”

While the staff and I discussed Mrs. Anthony in my office behind closed doors,we heard a gentle knock. “Come in,” I said.

Stephen smiled and said timidly, “Hi.”

As he opened the door we heard a familiar feminine voice. “I hope we’re not disturbing you.” There sat Clara in her wheelchair with Stephen at the helm, both of them wearing “U.S. Mail” caps.

“We’re off to deliver the mail,” Stephen proclaimed proudly. “Aren’t we, Mrs. Anthony?”

She winked at us and smiled. “Yes . . . that is . . . if it’s all right?”

We were speechless. In one week, Clara had gone from a sullen, sorrowful recluse to a smiling social butterfly.

After a few seconds, I managed to say, “Rachel, please give them the mail.”

The mailbag perched in Mrs. Anthony’s lap, Stephen announced, “Come on. We’ve got mail to deliver.”

“Let’s ride!” Mrs. Anthony shouted.

We heard the pair chanting as they disappeared down the hall. “Through rain, sleet . . . snow.”

Pam uttered, “How about that?”

“Amazing,” I added.

Stephen and Clara became a common sight. When they weren’t delivering mail, Clara helped Stephen with his homework. When they weren’t too busy, he showed Clara how to play Nintendo.

Stephen became our first volunteer to “Adopt a Grandparent.” While he couldn’t replace Clara’s grandson, just as Clara couldn’t replace Stephen’s grandmother, they discovered the value of a little time and love between two people.

Gary K. Farlow

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on Adopt-A-Grandparent Foundation, visit the Web site: www.adopt-a-grandparent.org.]

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