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Essay: Care Package

Masks and social distancing can make quick interactions awkward, but essayist Mary Steinart-Ng explores her own experience and her gratitude for workers in a pandemic.

Interactions with strangers are few and far between in the time of COVID-19. Following social distancing guidelines and wearing a mask aren’t exactly conducive to positive interactions at the grocery store or the post office.

But essayist Mary Steinert-Ng had one of those interactions recently while trying to send mail to her daughter. She talks about it and her gratitude for those working through the pandemic in her essay “Care Package.”

I waited in line one recent morning at my town’s bustling little post office, hugging a bright white box in a pale, windowless room. I hadn’t expected to be shipping a care package to my daughter so soon. She had moved across the state to her freshman dorm, just eight days before. But with that transition came gale, fog and drizzle.

“Mom, I’m so cold,” she said when she phoned.

She gave me a list of her needs. I think now that her clipped, plaintive call said less about weather and more about dread. Fever, chills and coughs soon spread among her neighbors. A campus lockdown followed.

I chose the sturdiest box I had. A bread machine, our first ever, had arrived in it last spring. While we sheltered in place, our family, like so many others, had ordered the gadget on instinct and impulse, desperate to provide comfort at home. Layering water, flour, sugar, dry milk, salt, butter and yeast had soothed me. Routine brought order to my day.

Repacking the box for my daughter, I layered soft hooded sweatshirts in pink, lavender and gray, all extra-small, like her; purple plastic spoons, because mac and cheese had turned her other spoons orange; three crisp stacks of lined notecards, since middle school her trusted tools for quizzes and speeches, and postage stamps to send handwritten wishes to friends.

I stepped to the counter. On the other side of a clear curtain stood the same tall, blond clerk in the same bland blue cardigan who has presided there for years. Her face was lined, her manner precise, her shoulders more bent than I remembered. She weighed the package, tapped a few keys and printed a label.

“Does anyone even bake bread anymore?” she asked.

Her small talk startled me.

“I think people do. Yes,” I stammered through my mask. “You just add the ingredients, close the lid and press the button. You don’t even have to knead the dough — it rises in there, too.”

She stopped, rested one elbow on the box and looked at me. “I have a friend,” she said. “He’s retired, of course. He grinds grain for flour himself. Well, he baked bread when my boyfriend and I visited. And I didn’t think much about it, but he sliced that loaf and we had it with butter and I thought, ‘this is supper for me. This is all I need.’”

The clerk and I abided in astonishment, she in her friend’s house and me in mine. When my bread machine arrived, I baked every day for two weeks. Sometimes close to midnight – because what did it matter? – the aroma and a timer chiming reached my husband down the hall at his desk, our daughter upstairs in her room. We gathered around the dim table, spread warm slices thick with butter and jam, then silently filed to bed.

The moment ended, and we resumed an exchange we know by heart. The clerk pressed and smoothed the label on the box. I passed payment  through a slot.

“Please tell us whether I have provided excellent customer service,” she said, and slid the long, curly receipt to me.

Reminded that others waited, I nodded, flashed a grin and left. Only later did I sift through the obstacles in our exchange: the curtain, my eyeglasses, uncut, shaggy bangs and face mask. Did she even know that I smiled?

She asked me to rate her service. Here’s what I would say about this person, this clerk my receipt calls #5:

Dear #5, Thank you for going to work without fail, for showing up though you’re weary and risking your health for me. Thank you, especially, for sending off a simple box of what is essential during uncertainty: warmth, care and connection.


Mom of a Faraway Daughter