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The Importance of Knowing Someone Slightly

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I didn’t even know his name. But he was one of those people whom I saw almost every day, someone who forms the background of your daily experience, like the grocery store clerk or the coffee barista. He was always there at the Tahoe City Post Office in the morning, mopping the floors, holding open the door for customers, chitchatting with people while they retrieved their mail from their post office boxes. And then one day, he was gone. Just like that.

If someone had told me that Tom Heron had died, I wouldn’t have known whom he or she was talking about. But when I saw Tom’s photo in an article about the horrible car accident that occurred in Carnelian Bay last month, I was shocked. I had just seen him the previous morning, as usual, at the post office. I think we smiled at each other in silence, the casual hello of people who recognize each other but know nothing else about the other person.

I learned of the accident when I was picking up my daughter from kindergarten. Over the school loud speakers came a voice announcing that Highway 28 at Carnelian Bay had been closed because of a traffic accident, and that buses and parents coming from that direction would be unable to get to school. My first thought was, “What a drag. Glad I’m not stuck over there,” followed by a more compassionate concern: “I hope I don’t know anyone involved.”

I’ve known quite a few Tahoe people who have died during the past 10 years, most of them friends killed while doing something extreme — climbing big mountains, BASE jumping, skiing fast down something steep. It’s always tragic and sad and heartbreaking, and never gets any easier. But there was something different about this incident, about the death of someone who was not a friend yet not quite a stranger. It’s as if something as familiar yet unknown to you as the tall pine tree you drive by each morning was suddenly not there anymore. You are so used to seeing the tree that, unconsciously, you count on it being there every day. You take its very essence for granted to such an extent that to have it disappear is a sort of shock to your world, a tear in the very fabric of your existence.

Oddly enough, this had happened to me before with another person who used to work at the Tahoe City Post Office. I didn’t know her name either until I read the reports about her murder. Victoria Rider was around my age with curly brown hair and a British accent. I would see her at the post office helping behind the counter or stuffing mail in the boxes. But unlike with Heron, I had actually shared a conversation with her. I was pregnant with my second child and she was on her lunch break, and we started talking about childbirth and babies. I can’t recall the details, but I remember it was a somber discussion.

Rider’s decomposing body was found in a Tahoe Vista field eight weeks after she was reported missing. She had been bludgeoned to death, and her teenage daughter and older boyfriend had fled to Mexico. Her 2006 murder, and her daughter’s disappearance, remains unsolved to this day.

It’s amazing what you learn about a person after they die that you never discovered in life. Although I had spoken with Rider, it wasn’t until I read the article about her death that I found out she had four other children, three of whom lived in England. I learned from Heron’s obituary that he wasn’t employed by the post office as I had thought, but ran a cleaning business, and he had three kids and five grandchildren.

Trying to make sense of these random deaths, of two people who were connected by their place of work and their role in my world as nameless but everyday fixtures, I asked a postal worker what he made of it all. He said the only way they’ve come to explain Heron and Rider’s premature deaths was by speculating that the Tahoe City Post Office must have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground, a sort of “plague on your house,” to paraphrase Shakespeare.

What I take away from these tragedies is that life is full of surprises, both good and bad. And that nothing, not even that large, sturdy, powerful tree that watches over you as you go about your daily business, is forever.

~ Comment on this column below.

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Reader comments so far...

Jodie (not verified)
Melissa this was a touching reflection of who my dad was. Yes, many knew him personally, but there is something special in knowing he impacted even those with whom he never had an exchanged of words. My dad loved his job not because it provided a means of living, but because it allowed him to do what he did best; encourage others in their lives, even if it was just an exchange of a smile. Thank you for writing this article.

Brenda Heron (not verified)
Melissa this is a long time in coming, but now that I am settled in at my daughters in Fair Oaks I wanted to write to you. Thank you for the wonderful article about my husband Tom. Like my daughter said it allowed him to do what he did best, to give a smile, encourage people and make sure they all had a great start to the day. I could hardly get through the artlcle for the tears. So many wonderful things you said about him not even really know who he was. His family misses him very much, as I found out, do the people whom he greeted at the post office. Thank you for the wonderful article.. Brenda Heron

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March 14, 2019