Living Room Stories: Junk Mail

Clarissa Jones was a junk mail connoisseur. Over the years, the sixty-nine year old collected thousands of pieces of this abomination to society. And it wasn’t just any junk mail. It was only the mail that came to her address at 1703 Lincoln Street, the two-bedroom house where she resided for over forty-five years.

You see, Clarissa Jones was the shyest woman in the State. If ever there were a shyer person in the State, they had passed on and gone to the Great Beyond.

Knowing how shy his youngest daughter was, her father bequeathed her the house and a stipend for her upkeep. In all her years there, Clarissa came into contact with very few people: the delivery man from the grocery store, a maid who came in twice a week, the lawn man, an occasional workman to take care of this-that-or-the-other, and her nephew who managed her money.

Clarissa only left the house once a week. Each Sunday, a bus from the First Methodist Church picked her up along with ten others and delivered them to Sunday services. While the other members in the bus rattled their way along, Clarissa kept silent.

To occupy her time, Clarissa wrote letters. Writing letters in her exquisite cursive was a way for her to embrace the world without joining it. Letter writing had been her passion since she was ten years old. At that time, she took up writing pen letters to Michelle Bisset, a French girl who lived in Marseilles. Once a month for the rest of her life, she mailed off a letter to Michelle and received a letter from her friend.

During the Vietnam War, she penned letters to the G.I.s off in that faraway country. Even now, occasionally she received a letter from a vet. They told her how much her letters had meant to them.

After her father died, her two sisters moved away from the town. Her shyness kept her from making acquaintances or friends, and she found herself alone with only the house for a companion.

Then one day she received a brochure in the mail, advertising a new real estate company in town. The brochure sang the praises of the company with several full color pictures of home interiors and exteriors. She read the text several times, then spent the afternoon with a pot of tea. Around six in the evening, the idea hit her. It was such a lovely brochure it deserved a response.

The next morning she got up bright and early, had her breakfast, and then went to work on her first letter, responding to the brochure. In the five hand-written pages, she admired the French windows in one of the photographs. Then she chronicled her experience with the French windows at her father’s home. How she could sit hours at a time and observe through the windows all kinds of life in the back yard. She pointed out how that life changed from season to season. How the butterflies were some of her favorite creatures.

At the end of the day, she slipped her letter into an envelope, placed a stamp on it, then pegged it to her mailbox. She found a cardboard box in the basement. She labelled it “Homes”. She dated the brochure with the date she sent the letter and placed it in the box and put the box in her second bedroom.

Sitting alone in the dark that evening, she smiled her satisfaction with the experience. She decided she would do the same thing with the next brochure or advertisement she received in the mail. The folks that sent out the mailers never knew what kind of effect their work had on people. It must be truly frustrating for them. To let them know how much their work was appreciated became her mission.

Over the years that followed, she sent out thousands of letters. When she received a mailer advertising tea, she wrote paragraph after paragraph of the delights a range of teas gave her mouth. How her tastebuds rejoiced. How one tea was pleasurable with a scone. The scent of a second reminded her of certain pieces of music, such as “Tea for Two.” How a cup of tea could assuage her loneliness on a particularly lonely night. In one line of her prose, she wrote, “In one cup of tea, I found its taste a reflection of all the tea in China.”

For another tea ad, she wrote, “On a cold winter’s night, I am never alone if I sip a cup of tea. Tea is such a wonderful companion.”

And she was not prejudiced in her preferences. In another letter, she gave an equal prose on her enjoyment of a “good cup of joe,” concluding “coffee in the morning, tea in the evening.”

The travel advertisements brought out her best. Some of the letters were twenty pages long.

Eventually she had a revelation. She realized that the companies who advertised the products were not the ones who produced the brochures. It was the companies listed in the fine print. And those were the ones she sent her letters to. And she always sent them out with love. Over the years, she filled dozens and dozens of boxes.

Then, on a chilly Wednesday morning in February, the maid found her at her desk, signing a final letter. Only one niece from the family showed up for her funeral along with three other parishioners. There was a short obituary in the local paper.

At the reading of her will, the niece learned that most of her money and all her possessions were willed away to the Red Cross. “They do such good work,” her will said. There was some money left to the maid, the lawn man and her church. And that was that.

Or was it?

Seems one the advertising executives, Charles Morton, had read a number of Clarissa’s letters over the years. He had become curious about the author of the letters. Six months after Clarissa died, he had a trip to Florida planned. On his way to the Sunshine State, he took a detour to 1703 Lincoln Street.

He pulled up in front of the address and there was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. He found the realtor’s office and asked what happened to Clarissa Jones.

“Oh, she died,” the realtor answered.

“Can I see the house?”

When Charles toured the house, there was one box of the advertisements left.

“We just have this last box to get rid of,” the realtor said.

Curious, Charles Morton leaned down, opened the lid and pulled out a brochure. It was one his company had prepared for Marlboro Cigarettes. He remembered that Clarissa’s letter for this one had been passed around the office. In it, she wrote about her admiration for John Wayne and all those pioneers who settled the West.

“Were there more boxes of these?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What happened to them?”

“We’ve stored them in a warehouse with all the furniture. They’re waiting for the family to take charge of them. I’m not sure but I think they’re just going to sell them off. And trash the boxes.”

“Have you had any offers on the house?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll buy it on one condition.”

“Yes?”

“I want everything in that warehouse that went with the house. Including the boxes.”

Charles Morton didn’t make it to Florida. Seems he retired, then set up The Clarissa Jones Foundation. He turned the 1703 Morton Street house into a museum and an office for the foundation. Then he began collecting letters she sent out.

It took him ten years to accumulate most of the letters, then he published a seven volume set of the letters. At the beginning of each letter was the original advertisement. Once that was completed an abridgement called The Best of the Letters of Clarissa Jones. It became a bestseller, hitting number one on the New York Times Bestseller list for over a hundred weeks. This resulted in a national letter-writing fad. So many letters were mailed, the Post Office was having one heck of a time keeping up.

1703 Lincoln Street, now a museum, was put on the National Register of Historic Places recently and there is a rumor that the President will proclaim Clarissa’s birthday on March 20th as Clarissa Jones Day in honor of letter writers everywhere. To celebrate Americans will be urged to write a letter and mail it on March 20th.

Clarissa Jones only goes to show us that even the least of us can have an impact. We never know.

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