One of the things I loved about growing up in small-town America was that the post office put out the mail twice a day—once in the morning and again in mid-afternoon. My grandfather walked the few blocks to the flag-topped building religiously, using the dual outings to greet passersby and learn “the news.” As often as not, he had me in tow.
His box, which I still remember was 122, had a dial with letters instead of numbers. He carefully turned it this way and that until the heavy door opened to reveal a letter or maybe a post card—not the shiny kind with pictures, but the plain kind that had writing on both sides.
He explained that the code to open the box was secret. But it wasn’t—at least not to me. Twice a day I watched as he swung the letters left, then right, then left, and I always knew which ones came next. I was confident that as soon as I could reach the dial I could do it myself.
On most days we just returned like we came. But on some days—the kind with blue skies and warm breezes—we continued east on the root-cracked sidewalk, crossed the railroad tracks, and then went up the hill past the church. He stopped to talk to everyone—people sitting on porches, sweeping their steps, or pruning their hedges. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Sometimes people gave him things like sugar cookies, greens, and eggs.
At the church he would talk more, light a cigar, and I would play in the cemetery. I liked it there, but there were things I didn’t understand, like why some stones had flowers and some had flags, why some were big and some small, and why some lie broken and mossy on their sides. The whole place was odd with undulating ground, quirky plants, and statues of angels over stones that read, “baby.”
But the thing that most bothered me was the beehive in the back. It was a tall beehive that sat on the ground and tipped away from the craggy maple beside it. The hive was just on the far side of the iron churchyard fence, and it faced away from the cemetery toward a small vegetable garden that filled the backyard of a two-story wooden house with a clothesline that cranked off the porch.
Even though the beehive faced away from the churchyard, the bees still went into the cemetery. They were everywhere, sampling the flowers that grew beside the stones, along the walkways, and beside the fence. This upset me. There was something passively creepy about honey that came from flowers that grew out of dead people. Seriously. I worried about it a lot.
From the church we circled around to the general store, a place where they sold honey in combs. We didn’t always get to buy honey, but when we did, I always choose the darkest, richest kind called buckwheat. I knew what a field of buckwheat looked like and I knew that no buckwheat grew in the cemetery. While many people dislike the molasses taste of buckwheat honey, the fact that it was free of angel-topped babies was the grandest endorsement. To this day, it is still my favorite honey.