For as long as I can remember, my dad has been a collector of things.
He learned that habit from my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born. Fleeta collected bits of fabric and string she thought could someday be useful. She collected recipes and newspaper clippings and paperback books — things she liked, and things she thought could be valuable someday.
My dad collects family history books, coins, heirlooms like my grandfather’s golf clubs — and stamps. I always wondered how a tiny piece of paper with old glue on the back could ever be worth anything.
The stamps he has are in denominations of 1 and 2 cents, sometimes 5 cents. Never more than 10 cents. When he mails a letter, he uses the stamps as postage, so the cover of the envelope is often covered with a collage of colors and fragments of history.
There’s a faded blue 4-cent stamp from 1959 that celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. There’s a 2-cent stamp with a scarlet-colored picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s face superimposed on an image of the “Little White House” in 1945. Roosevelt built the house in Georgia the year before he was inaugurated in 1933, preserved forever in a rectangle used to send mail across the country.
One of my favorites is a 3-cent stamp with a tiny, detailed drawing of Mount Rushmore from 1952. The whole thing was drawn in shades of green, with bushy trees framing the base of the mountain, and a mother and son standing on a path below, staring up at the South Dakota wonder.
It turns out these stamps are beautiful, and meaningful. Each one represents some seminal moment in our history, from a 3-cent purple stamp with a woman and two children on it that says, “Honoring those who helped fight polio,” to a grey, 5-cent stamp from 1963 with a sketch of John F. Kennedy’s face and the quote, “The glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
I asked my dad for some of his collection and started sending letters with his stamps on them, too. I loved picking out the right colors and fitting them together like a puzzle as I added up to the cost of sending a letter. I don’t know if I could fit enough on now to pay for it.
The rising cost of postage has always been my dad’s sensor for gauging inflation. He used to throw out that information when I was a kid — “It cost 3 cents to mail a letter in 1932, you know” — but I never got what he was saying. It didn’t mean anything to me that it cost 20 cents to mail a letter in 1981, shortly after I was born, until I recently tried to mail a letter with a 39-cent stamp and the funds were insufficient. These days, it’s 49 cents.
I decided it’s not worth sending a letter with these precious little pieces of paper, but I didn’t want them to be buried in the dust, either. One day I had the idea that I could turn them into magnets and put them on my fridge or give them away as gifts if I really loved the person.
My 5-year-old sees the magnets every day. Recently, he asked me to make him one, just so he could hang up his pictures and stories with something nobody else could touch. I agreed.
When I finally got around to letting him choose his stamp, he sifted through the plastic sleeves, eyeing every little square and rectangle with interest. He took in the tiny sketches and shades of yellow and lavender and moss and asked me from where the stamps came.
“These are grandaddy’s,” I told him. It was as though he was taking in a new appreciation of my father with this understanding that he was looking at something really, really cool, even though I didn’t say a word about what the stamps actually meant.
He debated choosing a large, long 10-cent stamp from 1975 that celebrates the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but he chose a smaller, red square that commemorates Benjamin Franklin’s ability to harness electricity. It turns out, he learned about Franklin’s kites just that week in preschool — kite starts with “K.”
And then I saw just how valuable those little stamps could be. It turns out, my father’s stamp collection is worth more than I ever thought it could be.
It is priceless.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.