Returned to sender
Returned to Sender
My father didn’t leave us much, thinking it somehow better that his girlfriend, whom he lived with for a dozen years, come to own our parents’ things. There’s no point relitigating that now, despite my fitful daydreams of smashing each of the china cup-and-saucer sets I’d purchased as Mother’s Day gifts into chalky shards of memory. I agreed with this arrangement when Dad said it was what he wanted, and it wasn’t as if my house needed more clutter, but after he died the stuff meant more to me.
One thing I got was his passport, filled with stamps from Britain, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Austria, one of the Baltic states. My sister (whose frequent e-mail messages since Dad’s death helped take the place of my phone conversations with him) said she would enjoy having it as a keepsake. She and Dad were the travelers in our family. Mom had her fill escaping Nazi Germany, and my best trips are still to come.
So near the end of the year, I mailed a package to my sister, who lives outside Jerusalem, from my New Jersey post office. It contained four bags of organic chocolate chips (she doesn’t eat processed sugar), a book about a zoo in Palestine (she’s a leftist, and I thought she’d appreciate the zookeepers’ gumption) and the passport.
About three weeks later, my wife came home to a message from the American Embassy in Beijing. It was a fairly long message. Nina (the embassy’s second secretary, it turned out) said that a Chinese woman had contacted the embassy to report that she had Stanley Schachter’s passport and wanted to return it to him. Nina somehow tracked me down, in hopes of putting the Chinese woman in direct touch.
These sorts of encounters with strangers no longer take me completely by surprise. A couple of years ago, I Googled my mother. She wasn’t famous, and she died before the Internet was invented, but one entry came up. Long story short, my sister and I ended up talking with two women who went to elementary school with Mom in Berlin. Not long after, I got an e-mail message from a guy in Southern California. He was a crime analyst for the sheriff’s department, and he had something of mine: a copy of “The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook” he picked up 30 years ago at a garage sale — I’d written my name in it. He said he’d get it back to me, but he never did; that’s O.K. — he’s the detective.
My father loved hearing me tell these stories. He loved absurdity. Still, what was his passport doing in China? I e-mailed Cindy, the Beijing woman who had been in touch with the embassy, and she quickly responded. “It is so good that you contact me, I am really happy to receive feedback from you,” she wrote. “Maybe last week, I received one package from my friend, but when I opened this box I found it is not the things she sent to me.”
Somehow, I guess, the label came loose from her friend’s package and stuck itself to mine. It remains a mystery exactly where packages mailed within China mix with packages mailed from New Jersey to Israel.
“I found the passport,” Cindy continued, “and I know that must some one urgently need this, so I contact the U.S. embassy, mailed them and hope they can find the gentleman. Now if you are sure this is your fathers, OK, I like to back to you. Originally which places you mailed to? Are you in CHINA? I mean which place I post this passport to? Did I make myself clear?”
Quite clear, despite her broken English: Cindy was going out of her way to get something valuable back to someone halfway around the world, someone unlikely to ever have the occasion to do her a good turn. I replied, explaining my story: father dead, package meant for Israel. I asked her to return it to me and inquired how I could repay her. I told her about the year my sister spent in China, working at a pizza parlor in Kunming and visiting Buddhist shrines. I wrote that my father “loved to travel, though he never got to visit China.”
Cindy’s reply arrived after a few minutes: “It is my pleasure that can help you, for me it is not a big thing, I think most people would do the same thing as me.” She said I could pay her back if I ever got to Beijing. She said she was sorry to hear that my father had died.
“You said he loves travel,” she added. “Maybe this is a journey for him.” I smiled at the mysticism of that.
When I went to my post office to collect the package, the clerk was not so interested in its travels. Next time, she said, I should be sure to write the destination in big letters. Then my next package would be less likely to go astray. I’m not so sure this one did.