The Postal Service giveth, and the Postal Service taketh away . . .

THE GIVETH: Around Memorial Day, Ellen Passel of Arlington mail-ordered some water lilies. She dutifully waited the two months she's been warned to wait. Finally, one day last week, Jim Steadman, Ellen's regular mailman, called her at about 8:40 a.m.

"It was his day off, and he was arranging the route for his substitute," Ellen said. "He had my package. But he noticed the sign on the side of the box that said 'Do Not Expose to Heat or Cold.'" So rather than risk any damage to the lilies by allowing them to be carried all day on the route, "he called to tell me to come and get them -- on his day off!"

Pretty terrific, Ellen and I agreed. But get a load of this last chapter:

While down at the post office to pick up her lilies, Ellen decided to file an official letter of thanks in honor of Jim's thoughfulness. She asked a supervisor for the appropriate form.

The Postal Service doesn't have a praise form, he explained.

All it has is a complaint form.

Undaunted, Ellen filled out one of those, crossing out the word "Complaint" and substituting the word "Praise." But doesn't that tell it all about the post office's self-image?

THE TAKETH AWAY: Gladys E. Douglas of Northeast routinely obtained a $141 money order last Feb. 22 so she could routinely pay her auto insurance premium.

"Sometime later," Glayds writes, "I was informed the insurance company that my policy had been canceled due to my failure to pay the past premium. I contacted the company as was told that they never received my money order. Of course I promptly sent them another money order and they reinstated the policy.

"It was not until last week that I discovered what had happened to the original money order." It was returned b a "very considerate missionary" named Kenneth F. Thesing.

"Greetings from Tanzania," the Rev. Mr. Thesing's letter began.

Picking herself up off the floor, Gladys read:

"Today I received some books from the United States. They were shipped in a bag. After taking out the books I found this envelope. . . . I checked it and feel that it is something you would want returned so I am writing to do so."

How, you ask? Why, you ask? Control yourself, you logical soul. With the Postal Service, it's sometimes better not to ask.

Speaking of postal puzzlers, Avedon Carol of Kensington writes with an international one:

Why has the Postal Service returned all letters addressed to Canada during the 34-day-old Canadian postal strike? Why send them back so we get socked for the postage all over again when we mail them again, she wants to know? Why not just stash Canada-bound letters in a warehouse and send them across the border when the stike ends?

Sorry, Avedon, but I'm with the postal people on this one.

They've returned our Canada-bound mail because they feel that having a letter sit in a warehouse for untold members of weeks would be worse than asking us to pay the postage a second time.

This way, there's no uncertainty about whether Grandma got her birthday card on time or about whether the widget factory received our order. And because we know that our letters didn't get where we sent them, we can get the message there in some other way.

We're forever complaining that the postal people don't understand how time is money. This time, they've shown that they do understand -- and they deserve our support.

One frown, however:

A letter I sent to Tornonto three weeks ago came back stamped with "RETURN TO SENDER/SERVICE SUSPENDED." Was it postal service that was suspended, or the service provided by the company I was trying to contact? Ambiguous.

Why not tell it like it is, as Mr. Cosell would say, and stamp the envelope: "RETURN TO SENDER/POSTAL STRIKE IN PROGRESS?"

Sign of the times, perhaps a misprint, perhaps not, as noted by my colleague Jack Eisen, in the window of a men's haberdashery downtown:

"Half-price Sale -- Sport Shirts, reg. $16.00. Sale: $800."