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Home Grown

Love of the Pastel Service

The world’s a more colorful place when we don’t say what we mean

By Cynthia Adams

My immigrant husband has always had a soft spot for the postal service.  Since arriving here from Johannesburg, Don has marveled at the fact that American mail is delivered in a reasonable period of time.

Not so back at home, he will say, shaking his head, giving a warm smile as the postal truck pulls to the curb and delivers mail. When working at home, he is always prepared to step outside to say hello.

In South Africa, by contrast, mail can — and does — disappear.  If the post arrives, it won’t be swiftly. We finally abandoned sending his family birthday and holiday cards. “Back home,” he says, snow, rain, heat and gloom of night can and will stay couriers from their appointed rounds. 

He so admires American mail’s superior service that he makes a point of knowing carriers by name. Kevin is “a great guy,” Don says.

The men and women of the USPS were among his first friends in a new country.

“They pick up stamped mail right from our door!” Don marvels with genuine pleasure. “They didn’t in South Africa.”

Our first Christmas together presented a little culture shock to him, too, as presents piled up beneath the tree. His Christmases had always been more austere.

“A little something for everyone,” I explained, defending perceived extravagance.

Soon, Hershey’s Kisses appeared, piled beneath the tree. The reason? “So the postman can have a little something!”

Following a move across town, we observed Shirley, our new mail carrier, endearing herself to every dog on our block by dispensing doggie treats.

Shirley was so beloved by neighborhood hounds that howling commenced the moment the mail truck appeared. She doled out biscuits at fences and front doors as doggies up and down the street yelped with anticipation.

Don contributed to the cause, leaving Milkbones for Shirley. One pre-Christmas morning he wrote a check.

“Who’s that for?” I asked. 

“Our pastel loady,” he murmured.

“For the dog treats fund,” he scribbled in the memo line.

Our what? He repeated absentmindedly, “Shirley,” he said, “our pastel loady.”

I clapped my hands in delight. Through a misfiring of a brain synapse, postal lady became pastel loady

A spoonerism! 

Tangled, inverted words and phrases were dubbed spoonerisms, thanks to Archibald Spooner, a brilliant, colorful intellectual. The legendary Oxford professor and chaplain apparently amused his students and congregants by unwittingly switching parts of words

A classic example was when Spooner misspoke during an interview, declaring “the weight of rages will press hard upon the employer.” He meant to say, “the rate of wages.”

Another misstep by Chaplain Spooner: “It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.”

Spooner’s student was denounced by the Oxford don for tasting two worms, rather than wasting two terms

One mystifying Spooner quote more Harry Potter than Oxford-speak? “You will leave by the next town drain.” (Rather than “the next down train.”)

In 1930, Spooner conflated “conquering kings,” spluttering out “kinkering congs.” Clearly, people could not wait to hear what his brain would produce next.

Even though his gaffes were widely quoted, and doubtlessly misquoted, Spooner remained good-natured. When he retired from public life, Oxford became a duller place. No more colorful clunkers.

Likewise, when the very popular Shirley retired from the pastel service, neighborhood dogs slumped, tails drooping. They went into a collectively silent, grousing funk for weeks.

Our terrier, Kip, eventually stopped gleefully racing along the fence line at the sight of each passing mail truck.

There was a sad reckoning: A fine pastel loady had passed from daily life. Missed by canines and customers alike, the world grew less colorful, a much grayer place.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.