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HOW BACKYARD NEIGHBOR KIDS MADE SNAIL MAIL COOL AGAIN by Donny Levit

When two tin cans and a piece of string just won’t do


L to R: Jack, Sammy, and Alexina at their backyard mailbox.
L to R: Jack, Sammy, and Alexina at their backyard mailbox.

The expression on my son’s face had that utterly recognizable grimace of licking the bitter glue before sealing an envelope. But Jack was undeterred; he had a letter to mail and nothing was going to stop him. Perhaps the most shocking part of it all was his immaculate penmanship as he carefully spelled out “S-a-m-m-y” on the front of the envelope. After all, it was the spring of 2021 and his handwriting was suffering badly after the relentless months of remote instruction. But this was a 7-year-old on a mission.


Jack sped out the back door, trailed by Alexina, his 5-year-old sister who wanted in on the action. They galloped towards the back of the yard, mounted a step stool, and lifted the lid of the newly painted wooden mailbox hanging on the other side of our fence.


“When is Sammy going to check for mail?” asked Jack. Jack and Sammy had barely finished painting the mailbox but still insisted on mounting it as soon as possible. “I want to draw something for Sammy,” said Alexina. “Be patient,” I told my kids – knowing full well that I’d feel the exact same way if I were in their shoes. I texted Sammy’s parents to give them a heads-up that she had a special delivery.


By now, you’ve probably figured out that Sammy lives behind us. Although we recognized her family from the neighborhood, we didn’t put two and two together until the kids explained it. Sammy and Jack had become close during their time at the Y Aftercare program, which served as a socialization lifeline during remote instruction.


The two became wizards at using Google Maps and quickly discovered they lived a street apart. I guess you can call Sammy’s family our diagonal (or catercorner, kattywumpus, catty-corner…you decide) backyard neighbors. And when the kids returned at the end of the day from their aftercare program, they’d often gravitate to the back fence and continue chatting away. The two of them cooked up the mailbox idea so they could write each other letters when they weren’t spending their afternoons together. “Sometimes we forget to tell each other something at the Y,” Jack explained.


The duo developed quite a backstory to the reason why they insisted on painting the mailbox silver.


“We were born on a dragon planet,” explained Sammy.


“We are brother and sister silver dragons. We got split apart when a giant meteor started to crash,” said Jack.


“And the dragons rode the meteor down to Earth,” Sammy added.


The tale continued with the meteor crashing somewhere in New York City before they eventually made their way to Maplewood. If Joseph Campbell were still alive and researching these two, he’d probably add a chapter to The Hero with a Thousand Faces.


Soon enough, the two silver dragons were jumping on the trampoline together over at Sammy’s place. Our families took advantage of the summer weather to convene for pizza and conversation out back. Their dog Rosie and our dog Akashi developed a copacetic relationship. We even received an invite to crash their block party last fall. All of this was taking place while the mailbox filled with letters and drawings.


Although Jack became rather adept at using his laptop during remote instruction, we did not welcome the relentless screen time. I’ll admit to having more than a few nightmares about this generation growing up as lonely keyboard warriors because of all of this. Fortunately, their backyard friendship gave him a reason to close his computer and handwrite letters.


It’s now January 2022, and the silver dragons are hard at work painting a new mailbox. The original one fell victim to the weather and was literally falling apart. As I hang the new one up, I’m hoping the letters will continue. “Now that I’ve known Jack for a whole year, I feel like I’ve known him forever,” said Sammy. May they continue to be friends and pen pals as we cope with these challenging times.


And we promise to bring more beer if Sammy’s family invites us to their block party again.


Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock show Under the Influence and his jazz show Kind of Pool on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.


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