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For Valentine Postmaster, Letters Of Love Take On New Meaning This Year

(Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

By Ari Snider

Valentine’s day is upon us, and, like all holidays during the pandemic, it can feel kinda weird. How do you celebrate a holiday that's all about love and connection during a time when so many are isolated from their loved ones? 

One option is to join the thousands of people from across the country and the world who send letters through the little post office in the town of Valentine. 

On a recent morning, Valentine postmaster Ismelda Ornelas was flipping through a box of Valentine’s Day letters addressed to everywhere from Austin to Wisconsin to California and beyond. 

Even in a normal year, Valentine’s Day means different things to different people. But for Ornelas, it always means letters. Lots, and lots, and lots of letters. 

“I have been seeing a lot of Valentines come in and usually I get between 10 to 12 thousand Valentines,” she said. 

Each year, people from near and far route their mail through Valentine so it can get a special Valentine-themed postmark, designed each year by a local kid. 

“This year the winning design was two deers that were like kissing and then their horns form a heart,” Ornelas said. 

And the winning artist just happens to be Ornelas’ nephew. It's something of a family dynasty at this point - Ornelas herself won the contest when she was in high school. 

It’s a fun small-town tradition, but, there’s a lot more to it. 

“It’s a big deal,” said Maria Carrasco. “Even though the students sometimes don’t realize how big a deal it is, you know how far away these postmarks go to, and how many collectors collect them and treasure them.”  

Carrasco was the Postmaster before Ornelas, and she was the one who got the whole design competition started back in the 90s. 

Carrasco saidover the years, letters from Valentine have ended up in the hands of some pretty unlikely people. 

“You know while I was here I got requests to do postmarking for Queen Elizabeth,” she said. “And believe it or not I got a response and I know it’s whoever does her mail, that she really appreciated in knowing that it was our students who designed it from our little school.” 

She said she was speechless when she got the request. 

“You go woah! You just wanted to meticulously do the best that you could do on that one.”  

While postmarking a letter to Queen Elizabeth is a fantastic piece of local lore, Carrasco said this whole thing  is not about a fleeting connection to celebrity. It’s about the thousands and thousands of stories that come through this little post office each year. 

Stories like a woman who requested a postmark for her terminally-ill husband. 

“It would probably be his last Valentine’s,” Carrasco remembered the woman writing. “And she wanted to do something extremely special for him. That tugs on your heartstrings there, and you do the best that you can do.” 

Ornellas agrees with this sentiment, even as she’s getting ready to stamp letters until her arms are sore. 

“It’s anxiety-producing, it is going to be a lot of work,” Ornelas admitted. “But I love it. It’s an act of kindness.”

In a year of so much loss, Ornelas saida handwritten letter from someone you care about, and who cares about you, has taken on new gravity. 

“I lost my mother this past year, so, you know, having things that were hers and in her handwriting it just means so much more to me,” she said. “And I'm sure during this pandemic a lot of people have lost a lot of loved ones, so it's something that they can treasure and maybe pass on to future generations too.” 

Valentine’s Day is Sunday, Feb. 14 — but there is still plenty of time to get the special postmark — Ornelas will be using it to stamp letters until March 14.