The Gray Envelope

A short story by Victoria Emmons (the writer)

The walk up my steep driveway to the row of mail boxes at the top of the hill left me winded. I pulled open the small, black door for box number 9044, expecting free circulars and a telephone or energy bill. A curious, gray envelope dominated the stack of mail awaiting my attention.

I lingered in front of the mailbox and stared at the business size envelope. My name was imprinted on the return address. My name was also neatly handwritten as addressee. Only one important word differentiated the two: catering.

Ever since I adopted my husband’s surname, people confused me with another person of the same name. Victoria Emmons is not a common name. Nor is it shared by anyone famous, or so I thought. Yet the likeness created a strange, new relationship for me.

The first mistaken identity occurred at an alumni reunion in Palo Alto for my husband’s alma mater. I was adjusting to my new last name having worn it only a week. At the registration table, I wrote “Victoria Emmons” in large, bold print on a name tag and stuck it on my jacket. Within seconds, someone asked me if I was a caterer.

My husband and I lived on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Unbeknownst to me, a rather famous caterer sporting my new name managed a business on the other side of the Bay. Victoria Emmons Catering was well known there. The company had served Queen Elizabeth when she toured the Bay Area some years earlier. The caterer’s stellar reputation brought her a wealth of business. Trucks bearing her corporate logo — and my name — scooted all around town.

That night at the reunion, I thought it humorous that someone mistook me for the famous caterer. I brushed it off, explaining that I was a hospital administrator and never gave it another thought. Until it happened again.

For the next 15 years, I experienced countless mistaken identity moments. There was the mother at a Castilleja School parent gathering who struck up a friendly conversation about our daughters, eventually asking for my favorite recipes. Or the parent who was far less subtle, nearly accosting me with hand outstretched while shouting, “Victoria Emmons! I just have to shake your hand!” She was disappointed to learn I was not the caterer.

Once at a volunteer awards luncheon in Los Altos, a woman checking in guests noticed my name tag.

“Victoria Emmons! I want to thank you for doing such a wonderful job on my husband’s funeral,” she said, her eyes beginning to moisten. I gently squeezed her hand.

“Thank you,” I said. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

I was now becoming a caterer.

I did some research. I learned that the the caterer with whom I shared a name was much shorter and older than me. She even spoke with a British accent. It was clear that not many people knew what the real caterer looked like. I wondered how long I could get away with being her impostor.

While it was bad enough that strangers mistook me for a caterer, when my own friends did so, it was disheartening. One day over lunch, a friend asked me about my catering business, expecting that I could work two full-time jobs.

Even a computer store salesperson once confused me with the caterer when I tried to buy a new laptop. He was convinced I had a Stanford address since Victoria Emmons was already in their system.

Queries about my catering became commonplace. I began to introduce myself as “Victoria Emmons, not the caterer.” It was my personal disclaimer. After all, I was known in the community in my own right. As spokesperson for El Camino Hospital, my name appeared frequently in the newspapers. I was often interviewed on radio and television. I wondered if the other Victoria Emmons knew about me.

The day the gray envelope arrived, I knew she did.

I was eager to read the letter that Victoria Emmons the caterer had mailed to me. This was the first direct contact with my namesake. My hands shook a little as I pried open the unexpected correspondence.

Inside the business envelope, I found a 4” x 6” envelope addressed to me. It had been mailed to the catering company. I was confused. The smaller envelope contained a lovely handwritten note on embossed stationery from a woman in Princeton, New Jersey, whom I did not know. Tucked inside her note was a newspaper column about me.

The note began, “Dear Victoria, Imagine my surprise when I read about you in the New York Times.” The writer went on to ask how things were going in California. The bizarre communication left me befuddled. No letter from Victoria Emmons the caterer was included in the envelope.

The news clip about me, a brief mention in a daily column about acts of kindness by New Yorkers, had been somewhat of an accident. My sister Anita who lives in Manhattan lost a stamped letter intended for me. The person who found the letter wrote a poem on the reverse side, signing it “vegetable writer” prior to dropping it in a mailbox. When I told Anita about the vegetable writer, she encouraged me to send the heartwarming story to the Times columnist who published the story.

The woman from New Jersey sent the article about me to her friend, the other Victoria Emmons. It was a natural mistake. My namesake forwarded her friend’s note to me without explanation. I wondered how she got my address.

I wrote a response to the woman in New Jersey to set the record straight. I felt certain she was embarrassed by her mistake. I did not share with her that her friend the caterer and I had a 15-year history of mistaken identity.

When the caterer finally retired and sold her business, the name changed and so did my odyssey. People quit asking me for recipes. Although I never met the other Victoria Emmons, I felt like an old friend had died.

Story first published in “Captivate Audiences to Create Loyal Fans” by Julaina Kleist-Corwin © 2017