Harry swept the burnt umber oak leaves away from the door with his foot. The swirling wind of autumn piled them against the door as quickly as he moved them away.
Shutting the door behind him, his cane tapped the wooden floor as he made his way across the room. He smiled as he slowly sat in the oak rocker handcrafted by his Dad nearly a century earlier. I’m not sure who creaks more, my old bones or this old rocker; he spoke to no one listening. The coal oil lamp on the table beside him cast a soft glow over the room, adding to the yellow cast of the fireplace crackling a few feet away.
This was a good day; he had mail.
He reached for his spectacles that lay across the opened Bible. Adjusting them on his nose, he reached again for the brass letter opener with the handle made from an antler of his first deer. He was ten when his Dad sent him on his first hunt with directions to bring back vittles for the family. He had no charge for either a buck or doe, just for meat. Oh, he was proud of that first deer!
He held the gleaming brass, gazing over a tool he had opened thousands of envelopes with, but one he had to explain the use of to his grandson, Ethan. It was a confusing conversation as Harry explained the importance of a written letter and Ethan describing how his mail came on a screen. Harry had lived so many years without electricity in his cabin in the woods that he did not understand electronics.
Likewise, his ten-year-old grandson, Ethan, had difficulty understanding how important the trip was for Harry each day as he tottered down the graveled lane to the mailbox. Harry explained that opening the mailbox each day was like opening a box of hope. On Thursdays, the local weekly Gazette would be waiting for him with the news of Yellowpine. Oh, sure, it was full of ads for things he didn’t want and promises of winning things he didn’t need, but the best part was finding an envelope with handwriting on it.
He took Ethan to an old wooden trunk in his bedroom. Gladys had passed on nearly ten years earlier, but Harry never changed a thing – her dresses still hung in the closet, her quilting basket still stacked on the table in the corner.
Ethan looked confused as Harry opened the trunk. Inside, there were several old shoeboxes stacked neatly. Dates were written on each box and Harry’s shaky hands reached for the one that read, January – September, 1944.
Harry opened the shoebox that was packed tightly with envelopes. His leathered fingers lifted one out the stack and he handed it to Ethan.
In the left-hand corner it read:
Sergeant Harry Withers
United States Army
In the center it read: Mrs. Harry Withers
P.O. Box 325
Harry began to read to Ethan:
My dearest Gladys,
I am doing okay but I sure miss being home with you. They tell us that we will ship out soon, but we never know when that might be. I sure wish this war would get over.
It has been too long. I am …
His voice cracked as emotions overwhelmed him. It was if he had written those words yesterday. Ethan leaned in to him.
Drawing a deep breath, Harry explained how important letter writing was to soldiers and how sad it was for soldiers who didn’t have anyone at home to either write too or receive a letter from.
For some reason, Ethan understood the gravity of the moment so he and his Grandpa Harry spent the afternoon going though old photos, letters and story-after-story.
Harry reached again to turn the lamp up for better light.
Slowly, he slid the brass opener in the crease of the envelope and opened the letter. Unfolding the paper inside, Harry began to read:
Dear Granpa Harry,
This is the first time I have even written a letter than needed a stamp put on it. I wrote my name in the corner like you used to and then put your name in the center. Mom took me to the Post Office and they had a new stamp out about veterans so we chose that one. I hope you like it.
Thank you for showing me that old trunk and reading those letters you sent Grandma. I really had a good time.
Harry reached this time for a Kleenex to dab away the tear trickling down his leathered cheek. He lifted his spectacles from his nose and wiped his eyes.
Leaning back, he slowly rocked as he gazed into the fire, mesmerized by the dancing light and brimming with pride and pleasure. He had worried that he was boring Ethan that day – an old man reliving his youth to a kid that maybe just pretended to care.
He read the note again. After ninety years of life and countless trips to the end of the lane to open the box of hope, this trip was the best ever. The mailbox had no money, no promise of winning the lottery, no bargain-price shopping gimmick. Instead, it was filled with hope.
Harry remembered his Dad often saying that the best gift we could ever give God was the gift of gratitude.
It turns out, Harry thought, that the gift of gratitude is also the best gift we can give each other.