M.J. van Maastricht

“The Bliss of Ignorance” by M.J. van Maastricht

26 August 1951 

Somewhere in Korea

My Dearest Margaret,

There isn’t much new for me to add. Every day seems to be the same. But I wanted to let you know that I’m okay. Went on a patrol yesterday, fortunately uneventful. I can hear fire in the distance, but we have not had too much action ourselves. It has been rainy today, though the letter from you at mail call certainly brought a bit of sunshine to an otherwise gloomy day.

I was a bit confused by your last letter asking why I haven’t written. Of course I am writing. Are you not getting my letters?

With much love,
Your Edward.


“Anything, Mr. Farrell”? Margaret asked.

George Farrell, the mail carrier, knew exactly what she meant. She wasn’t asking if there was any mail, she was asking if there was one particular kind of mailpiece. Of course she had mail. She had at least some mail every day, but she was looking for a piece of mail from her husband, Army Specialist Edward Black, who was on the other side of the world, sent to try to prevent the spread of communism, or so they were told by the men in suits sitting in comfortable chairs.

“No, not today, Margaret.” George said.

Margaret came out every day to meet George, waiting for a letter from her husband. Her neighbors could almost set their watches by it. While her waiting now seems like an exercise in futility, it wasn’t always this. He wrote almost every day. And then she only received one letter from him two months ago. And nothing since.

“But here are your other things. A magazine in there too!” George said.

Margaret took the bundled mail from George’s hand. It felt thick, she thought to herself, perhaps he just missed something when he was sorting today. As she turned around and headed back for the screened door on the porch, she held the bundle tightly, so that the breeze didn’t carry anything away. It wasn’t so much that she was afraid to lose anything, she was afraid of losing the one letter that she’s been waiting for. One by one she flipped through the letters, nothing from a military address. Though the sun was warm, the wind suddenly felt colder than it had before, and she wondered why she kept going out there day after day.

Margaret sat in the rocking chair on the porch of their home just off the base. Fort Lewis would swell when the United States entered into a new war, and with each swell of soldiers there, more housing was required, and so housing on the base, as well as in communities around the base were built up rapidly. They rented a house that was built in the late 1930s as the second World War was heating up. Edward enlisted in the army the day after he turned 18, in February 1945, because he couldn’t get his mother to sign the papers the year before. By the time he finished basic training the fate of the war was already sealed. Fort Benning was his next stop to train for the infantry. Margaret, on the verge of becoming Mrs. Farrell, wanted him to be an electrician or a plumber, or anything but an infantryman. But he was determined. So when the United States decided it wanted to keep communism at bay, they sent Ed and a whole lot of others to Korea, so that they could fight against the Chinese using Koreans as pawns.

Tucking the mail in a safe place where the wind wouldn’t upset things further, Margaret pulled out her calendar and began counting the days. Fifty six days. Fifty six days since she has heard anything from Ed. Fifty six whole days with hearing nothing. Not even the dreaded cab driver carrying a Western Union telegram. Margaret has had friends who have had that. The poor cab drivers, what a job that must be. Margaret grew to hate cab drivers, but also felt such pity for them, stuck doing a job that no one else would do. But at this point, even that might be a relief of sorts.  She shuttered at the thought. Who would want to receive that telegram: “I regret to inform you…”? No need to read any further than that. She didn’t want to hear of her husband’s death. But she wanted to hear something—anything—rather than void of absolutely nothing. Waiting for the mail each day, she began to feel an emptiness inside her, one that reverberates within the recesses of her mind, echos from years ago.


It was not just the empty mailbox, but also the looking out the screen door. Not really sure what she is looking at, but it was fifteen years ago, sitting on a porch, looking out a screen door, and then she knew exactly what she was looking for. Clutching her mother’s scarf, hoping that she will come down the road again. It’d been three days that her mother had been gone and while no one told her what happened, adults often underestimate the perception of children, even as young as seven, and she overheard her father talking to someone. Said she went down the bluff to the Turtle River with her big coat with the big pockets, filled her pockets with rocks, and walked into the river. No one’s found her body, but she hasn’t been seen, either. Margaret was still hoping that somehow her mother would come back, coming down that long dirt road that disappears into the horizon.

She had a baby brother, William, who tried to enter the world early and did not survive long. Father blamed the crash. Mother blamed herself. She was never the same after that, and it was one year later that she left her family to go after William. Margaret didn’t understand why her mother left her family, her flesh and blood family. And why she chose to do it this way, without telling anyone. Margaret wasn’t naïve, but she was still a child, a child who was forced to grow up too fast. A child forced to face the grim realities of life in the Depression, the death of her newborn brother, and now in the tragic death of her mother by her mother’s own volition. She never understood why her mother did what she did. Perhaps she didn’t have to. And Margaret hadn’t felt that emptiness again, at least until now, no communication for fifty six days, and again she found herself feeling trapped, lonely, like the husk of a human, like a pumpkin when the innards have all been scraped out to make a jack-o-lantern. And she was afraid. Afraid that Edward had left like her mother had left her. Afraid that Edward was dead somewhere over in Korea and no one had found his body or would find his body. Perhaps even more afraid that Edward met someone there and was cutting her loose. She felt abandoned by her mother, and now it seems that Edward was abandoning her now, too.

With each passing day, the conversation with George Farrell was the same. Margaret would ask if he had anything, and he would reply, “Not what you’re waiting for.” Days turned into weeks, which began to be measured in months. Margaret continued writing to Edward, but there was nothing but silence from across the world.


George Farrell was a handsome man, now in his thirty-seventh year. Trim, muscular, with sharp angles on his features, he was the kind of man that gained notice, at least. George had been a postman for five years, and appreciated the regular pattern of the route. Delivering mail to the same neighborhoods and the same addresses and the same people day after day. Some might find that to be rather rote and dull, but for George, it allowed him to notice more things. With the routes being followed with body memory, he was able to engage with people, talk with them, and notice things around the neighborhoods.

George had taken a particular notice of Margaret. His voice became increasingly tender when he told her the heavy words that there was nothing for her from her husband. He felt pity for her grief, and sought to be a friend that she seemed to need. The normal niceties with the postman began to lengthen, such that George was able to get his route remapped so that he ended in Margaret’s neighborhood, which allowed him a bit of time after all his mail was delivered to join her on the porch to visit, talk, and keep her company.

“Would you like something to drink, George?” She asked. No longer was he Mr. Farrell the postman, now he was George the friend, the confidant, the one who was there.

“Oh, you know when I’m off the clock,” George said.

Margaret smirked and held up her index finger, signaling that she will be back in just a minute. No need to ask what George wanted, she already knew. There was a secret ingredient that she used in her old fashioneds. Well, at least it was a secret to George. While most everyone else uses bourbon as the alcohol base for the old fashioned, Margaret prepares them the Wisconsin way: with brandy. Sweeping her brown wavy hair behind her ear, she brings out two glasses, one for each.

She sat down in her usual chair, and set both drinks down on the table which separated their chairs. George takes a sip.

“There really is something to this,” George said.

Margaret smiled, winked an eye and nodded.

“One of these days, you have got to give me this recipe,” George said.

“But George, you wouldn’t need to come ‘round here anymore.” Margaret said.

“Aw no.” George replied. “No doubt I’d still come swing by you. It’s not just the drinks, but it’s the company that keeps me coming back!”

Margaret enjoyed George’s company, particularly because she’s alone while Edward is in Korea and seemingly forgetting about her. In Margaret’s mind, it seemed that Edward had moved on. It was over five months since she heard anything from him. Her writing frequency had trailed off, too. You can only write so often to someone who doesn’t write back, and she last sent him a letter three weeks ago.

“I can’t believe that Ed hasn’t written to you in so long!” George said.

“I can’t either. Who knows, maybe there’s another woman over there,” Margaret said.

“You know, Margaret,” George said, cautiously, “If Ed’s moved on, I mean, don’t you think that it might be time for you to move on?”

“Move on?” Margaret said.

“I mean, not entirely,” George said, “but begin to live your life instead of just waiting by the mailbox.”

“But—” Margaret said when George interrupted her.

“—You are by that box every day,” he said, “just waiting. You need to live your life.”

But how? How could she neglect her husband who may have gone missing, who may be captive, who may have been killed but they just have not yet found him?

“If he was killed or missing, they would have told you by now.” George said. “Trust me, in my rounds, I see plenty of people. They would tell you by now.”

He’s right, Margaret thought to herself. He has to be right.

“I need another drink,” Margaret said.

She went into the kitchen, leaned on the counter and looked deeply into the sink. Margaret moved from sadness and worry to anger. There’s no way that he could have died and no one would have realized it. And she’s certain that the Western Union telegram did not get lost. For whatever reason, she was certain, he was choosing to ignore her. She kept getting money but perhaps it was just guilt money. Pouring the brandy into her glass to prepare another old fashioned, she kept pouring, as the mixture of fear, anger, and betrayal filled within her.

She remembered the feeling, not only of the emptiness, looking down at the road that disappeared into the distance, waiting for her mother to come back, but also the sadness, fear, and anger she felt when she sat there all day and into the night and her mother still never came home. What kind of mother leaves her daughter? How could she abandon us like this? Her face began feeling warm and it was not just the brandy. This familiar mixture of emotions which had laid dormant for so many years began to bubble to the surface again as she threw her glass into the sink with brandy and glass shards leaping around the kitchen. He abandoned me, she thought. Just like my mother.

When Margaret walked out of the kitchen and opened the door to the porch, she noticed that the chair that George was sitting in was empty, with his glass on the table. He must have heard me and it scared him, she thought.

George did leave. Margaret didn’t scare him, it took much more than that to scare him. But he did need to get home. George lived across town in a small bungalow. The sun was just below the horizon and George flipped on a light as he opened the door. He took off his jacket, and fished something out of the inside breast pocket. Walking into his bedroom, he opened his closet door, took down a box and tossed a letter into the box. The letter was addressed to “Margaret Black” and the return address was an Army Post Office.


George didn’t set out to become a felon. Not that anyone does, but perhaps more than some others, he fell into this. But he wasn’t doing it out of malice. If a crime requires a bad intent, George certainly didn’t have it. How George got into this situation is a story unto itself. It’s all part of being the postman, you get to know the people on your routes, not only their mail, but because a postman goes to everyone’s house every day, you begin to learn things about them as people.

There were times that George would come around and he would hear Edward yelling. George knew well enough that sometimes things are rough, and sometimes yelling happens. Not to mention the fact that he’s the postman, he can’t get in everyone’s business. But there was that one day, the day that George remembers, when Margaret was sitting on the porch when he came to deliver the mail, he noticed a bruise right near where her neck meets her shoulder. George didn’t say anything, didn’t ask what they were from. He didn’t need to ask. He knew. The fact that she said hello to him just like any other day without ever saying anything about it confirmed his suspicion.

George wasn’t about to get into everyone’s business, but even for him, this was past a line that he could not stomach. But the question remained, what to do about this? He was cordial with Margaret, and he enjoyed exchanging pleasantries and small talk, but they were hardly friends, and he hardly had the standing to get between her and her husband. But the next week, Edward was getting in a taxi, and George didn’t see him at all after that. After two weeks had gone by, he asked Margaret who told him, with almost a lightness of voice (either actually there or imagined by George), that Edward had been sent to Korea.

Margaret was safe for now, George reasoned. But unless he gets killed in Korea, Edward is coming home. And it was at this point that George began to think how he could try to ensure Margaret’s safety in the future, when Edward wasn’t on the other side of the world. One may ask why George was so fixated on Margaret, this one individual among many on his postal route. To be honest, this was the question that George asked himself.  Maybe it was because Margaret bore a little more than a passing resemblance to his sister Frances. Maybe it was because growing up he had a neighbor whose husband hit her around and he remembers the late night screaming and the crying and the excuses and the explanations and everyone knew what was really going on and no one did anything. Whatever it was, George made a vow to himself and the good Lord that he would do whatever he could to make sure that he, now, would do something.

He went through the usual options. Or at least he thought about trying to kill him. But he realized that was a terrible idea for several reasons, not the least of which was that George wasn’t someone who killed people. So he put that thought out of his mind. But his strategy came to him one day when he was delivering a bundle of mail to the Black household, and on top of it was a letter addressed to Margaret and the return address was from an Army Post Office. Perhaps the way forward was right in his hands, he wondered. George was a postman, after all, and despite the fact that doing something with the mail other than delivering it was both a felony and would get him fired, he reasoned that he could probably get away with it. After all, it was only a felony if he was caught, or so he told himself. And this was a crime for good reason, there are lots of bad things that people could do with mail, and a lot of problems that could arise with mail not being delivered. But he’s doing something good here, and this is the story that he told himself that allowed him to justify, at least to himself, and if needed to the judge, what he was doing.

It was quite a thrill the first time that he, when sorting mail for delivery, looked to the right and to the left, and when it was clear, slid the letter into his inside jacket pocket. Perhaps this is what Caesar felt like when he crossed the Rubicon, and realized that he’s already gone too far to go back now, so he may as well just press on toward Rome. But now the question was: what does he do with it? He didn’t think quite this far. In fact, he didn’t think through any of this all that much. He’s bumbled his way into this, and now he’s committed to a pathway. Kept the letter in his jacket pocket, as that was, he thought, the safest place for it.

When he got home, he went into his closet, which is the deepest part of the house, and found a shoebox filled with some letters that he had exchanged with a love interest of his some ten years ago. That interest eventually never materialized into anything long term, and thus time to part with these mementos of a life which once was and which could have been but never was. After he emptied the box, he took the letter out of his jacket pocket, quickly put it in the box, put the lid on, almost as if someone was there to see him do it. Moving a blanket on the shelf, he put the shoebox as deep as he could in the deepest part of his house and covered it. No one ever goes in there, but just in case, he wanted to be sure they didn’t accidentally see this. At first, he wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing and why. He knew that he was upset at Edward, that he wanted to help Margaret, and for some reason he thought that intercepting his letters would help.

Week after week, George with equal care, never sloppily, snuck the letters from Edward from the mail that he was sorting into his jacket pocket. He would carry it with him through the day, until he would retreat to the safety of home, open his closet, retrieve the box from the deepest place of the deepest place, open the box, and slide the letter in. He amassed quite a collection, and it periodically dawned on him that at some point he would have to do something about that. He couldn’t keep this going forever, eventually he would have to stop. This is how everything ends, he thinks. Eventually things come crashing down, deceit revealed, everything that happens in the darkness is brought to light and everything whispered behind closed doors shouted from the mountaintops.

It was quite a story that he had to tell himself. Margaret’s disappointment at no longer receiving mail from Edward, disappointment turned to worry which turned to anger. It was difficult for George to see, he did care about Margaret, in fact, this is the whole reason why he was doing this. He was doing this for her. And some day, George would keep telling himself, someday this will pay off, this will bear fruit, when she is finally free from him. And she won’t ever have to suffer at his hand ever again.

There were some days that he considered just giving up, stop intercepting his letters, and just get out while he could. But then she’d probably somehow find out that his letters were not getting to her, and then she’d ask questions, and people would look into things, and everything would close in on him. So at this point, he was trapped. And while trapped in this web which he spun himself, it was not something from which he could free himself, he thought it also best to intercept her letters to him. It was a few weeks after he began intercepting Edward’s letters that he began doing the same to her letters, lest her husband realize something is amiss. Better for each person to just think that the other stopped writing, that communication itself had not only ended but even no longer attempted.

This all led to this moment, sitting on the porch at the end of the day, drinking brandy old fashioneds. When Margaret was inside, George realized that it wasn’t time for him to push right now, that he needed to let the seeds of suggestion germinate. To help her see that she had a life apart from him, that she had an identity apart from him, that perhaps she was better off without him. It’s something difficult to allow to set in. George would be back tomorrow, bearing nothing, or at least nothing in terms of somethings, but he might swing by again to join Margaret on her porch at the end of the day, perhaps drinking a brandy old fashioned, but it wasn’t so much the drinks that kept bringing him back. He didn’t leave because he didn’t enjoy her company, quite to the contrary. He needed to get home because he needed to unburden himself with the contents of his pocket, with the hope that Margaret might also find herself unburdened.



M.J. van Maastricht is a pastor, writer, and speaker. A native midwesterner, he and his family have made their home in the Capital Region of New York, where he serves the Altamont (Altamont, NY) and Helderberg (Guilderland Center, NY) Reformed Churches. Additionally, he is an adjunct instructor for New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, NJ.

1 thought on ““The Bliss of Ignorance” by M.J. van Maastricht”

Comments are closed.