03168_000_021This article won third prize in the 1982 Ensign article writing contest. Elaine Reiser Alder, mother of four, lives in the Logan, Utah, Twenty-second Ward.
“It’s time to go now, mom,” he called through the front door. “Better get some gloves on, ‘cause it’s getting kind of cold out here.”
The midwinter grey and the street lights defied the time. It was just five o’clock, and my son, the pint-sized newspaper carrier, had been folding and putting rubber bands on his ninety papers ever since he came home from school. Now he packed them sardine-tight into a double bag; the single bag was for me.
He called from the porch again, “Let’s get going before it’s dark.”
For Christmas we gave “gifts of self” that year. When I asked eleven-year-old Nate what would be most special for me to give him, he didn’t hesitate. “Come with me on my paper route, will you?” His impish grin forewarned that it would be memorable.
Ironically, I scheduled the day to give my gift without knowing it would follow the season’s biggest snowstorm. So, with dinner simmering in the oven and our bodies bundled against the cold, we headed down the street. Twenty inches of snow lay on the ground, a slight breeze wisping its surface into feather-like drifts.
It was two blocks to the first door, then a ramble through the student trailer court, breaking trails in the fresh snow.
Drifting snowflakes added a holiday atmosphere to the dusk, while little Christmas lights in trailer windows told us that mini-families on shoestring incomes lived inside. Their gift-giving, like their monthly newspaper bill, would be carefully budgeted, and their Christmas trees and window decorations signaled traditions handed on to a new generation.
My bag was heavy, though my seventy-five-pound guide bore the double burden. His year’s experience as a carrier had taught him all the tricks, including how to tote a bag with papers balanced front and back. He suggested that I deliver on one side of the road as he called out the numbers to me. He would do the opposite side.
The first few trailers were fun. There is a simple satisfaction to a paper route—service, orderliness, completion.
“See that trailer?” my sidekick asked as he pointed toward the small, metal home. “They had a baby this week.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, when I collected from them I could tell she was going to. Then they printed it in the window with shoe polish,” he reported.
As an afterthought, “It was a girl.”
A few steps more and he remarked, “I don’t like to collect from the people in this trailer.”
“Why?” I puzzled.
“Oh, … they don’t seem to have very much money.”
“What makes you think that?”
“They always get it out of a fruit bottle. Sometimes it’s all in pennies and dimes.”
We walked along in silence for a few moments.
“I just wish I didn’t have to collect from people who don’t have much money. It kind of makes me feel sad.” I was moved by his sensitivity.
As the snow fell thicker and the bags became lighter, the calves of my legs felt tight and my boots irritated the skin. The novelty was beginning to wear off, the trailer court looked much bigger.
But I had to admit that the snow was post-card pretty and the company charming.
“These people are really neat,” he began as he placed a paper on one porch.
“Whenever I collect from them they give me a cupcake or a cookie. They always make me feel like I’m important,” he added self-consciously.
We trudged along without a word for many minutes. But my mind was anything but blank: He gets three cents per paper per night for this … No wonder he hates to get up at six on Sunday mornings … If only his customers knew what a sacrifice this is … Is it really worth all this effort every day?
My musings were interrupted when Nate asked, “Mom, what is frankincense and myrrh?”
Surprised, I tried to answer.
“What does that have to do with a paper route?” I teased.
“Nothing. But we were talking about it in Primary. They’re sure different-sounding words, aren’t they?”
So we talked about frankincense and myrrh. That was good for a few more trailers.
“Do you know who lives there?” He pointed to a trailer.
“No,” I replied. To me these were all just numbers on an emergency list tacked to the bulletin board at home.
“The USU quarterback. I’ll bet he makes All-American next year, he’s so good. He used to be one of my customers, but then he stopped. I don’t know why. I sure wish he still was.”
He grinned. “I told all my friends at school that I was his paper boy. They thought that was pretty cool.”
I was dragging along, but he ran ahead to a cluster of out-of-the-way trailers.
“Just a minute, mom,” he called. “I’ve got to put these in the milk boxes. These customers don’t like their papers left on the porch.” Now what? They even expect extra service. A little further on, he showed me a trailer where “Dad’s secretary lives” and another where “she saves the rubber bands for me.” Two trailers beyond he said, “These people gave me a Christmas card and a plate of cookies last week.”
Around the corner he showed me where “one of dad’s students lives. He asked me if we were related when he wrote my name on the check.”
Our conversation continued as I visualized the customers he was describing.
“The people in number 40 gave me a tip for Christmas. I didn’t expect it, but it sure made me happy,” he admitted.
“The next ones here just got married,” Nate said. “In the temple, too. Pretty neat, huh?”
“How do you know it was in the temple?”
“Oh, they have a picture on their TV set. They’re standing out in front of the temple.
“He’s a student body officer besides. I’d like to be just like him.”
He stopped at the next trailer. “Something sad happened to this family,” he said as he walked toward the door.
“What was that?”
“Do you remember when I told you about the little baby that died? This is where that family lives.”
“Yes, and I remember cutting out the obituary from the paper. Did you take it to them?”
“I did. But it was sort of hard to know what to say to them. He was the only baby they had.”
We neared the end of the route; but he had one more hero to tell me about.
“Did I tell you that I’ve got a golf champion on my route? He won the tournament.”
“Look in that living room window. See all those trophies? He’s just in college, but he’ll probably be a pro.”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s nice. His wife is always telling me she appreciates it when I get the paper right by the door. They’ve got a cute little girl, too. They aren’t hard to talk to, even though he’s important.”
By now we were ready to leave the trailer court. It was nice having a lighter bag on my shoulder, and I was sure he felt better with his bag nearly empty, too.
“Well, that’s the trailer court. I’ll show you an easy way over to the dorms.” Tromping through an adjoining field, we looked like two white ragamuffins.
“Let’s make tracks through here,” Nate called as he moved ahead of me. “There’s nothing in the snow. I’ll go first. I love to do this between the trailers on a snowy day,” he informed me.
“How many customers do you have in the dorms?” I asked.
“Just fifteen. They’re a cinch.” I was ready for a cinch at this point.
We trudged, single file; I aimed for his footprints. Then he turned around toward me.
“It’s more fun to deliver in the new snow than anything.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly.
“Oh, you know. Making tracks and watching the snow fall by the street lights. It’s kind of warm and soft and quiet.”
I felt silly for feeling the cold instead of appreciating the setting.
Seven dorms were ahead of us now, each one with four stories. “How can you tell these dorms apart, anyway?” I questioned.
“It’s just like a checkerboard, mom.” He described the apartment numbers and the letters for the buildings. I listened, suddenly glad that little boys, instead of their mothers, have paper routes.
One by one he delivered his last few papers. At the “B” dorm he instructed, “Wait down here in the lobby, mom. I’ll run this paper to the fourth floor.”
At the next, “I have to leave this paper on the vent and then ring their bell.”
In Dorm “E” he called back, “This one’s just on the first floor. I’ll do it fast.”
Two buildings later: “I have to put this one on the head resident’s desk. My customer picks it up there.”
At the last dorm he had been entrusted with the combination to a lock box, and each day he tucked the paper inside and locked the box back up.
In a moment of awe, I began to genuinely appreciate this little boy with his computer memory. I hope he never gets sick, I thought. There’s no way we’d be able to substitute for him and come out even on the papers.
“Well, we’re done,” he said as he delivered the last paper. “Wasn’t too bad, was it?” he asked, sensing my amazement that we hadn’t run short or quit along the way.
We were just two blocks from home now. The sky was dark, light snow still falling.
“Pretty neat customers, aren’t they?”
“Sure are,” I agreed.
“And you give nice Christmas presents, mom,” he confided. “It’s more fun when there’s someone to talk to.”
But the gifts were manifold that day. My gift was time and company; his was a message that years of mothering had not been wasted. His teachers had given him simple faith; his customers gave him trust in humanity and confidence in himself.
“Next Christmas will you give me two days, mom?”
“Why not?” I squeezed his gloved hand extra tight, warming inside with pride, even renewal.
Sometimes the best gifts aren’t wrapped in paper and bows. And sometimes the giver gains the most.