Columnists > Soul Food

Winter nights

Lessons learned on a paper route last a lifetime

Issue: "Year in Review 1998," Dec. 26, 1998

Once upon a time-when we lived where houses were within walking distance-my four boys had paper routes. Their entrepreneurial dad and I were grateful for the opportunity to help them learn about keeping commitments, working for wages, and handling accounts. We were also grateful the local paper was only a weekly.

On Wednesdays, they'd fold the papers in thirds, slide a rubber band around (on rainy days a plastic bag), and load them in their carrier bags. I'd drop the boys off one by one at their start points, then pick them up at the end of their routes. I'll never forget the dedication and determination on the face of my 8-year-old, Zach, staggering beneath the weight of his bag. His route consisted of two very long blocks of mostly retired people who anxiously awaited their Wednesday paper. No doubt in his mind that a paper route was a worthy endeavor! When I picked him up, no matter how exhausted, he glowed.

Things like this brought out the glow in me as well. Over my years of mothering, I've found no matter what I set out to teach my kids, God never fails to send a few lessons my way too. One has to admire our Father's efficiency.

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The flipside of delivering papers is collections. It was critical because each boy was billed for all the papers dropped on our driveway that month. To break even, each one needed to collect from at least two-thirds of his customers. So collecting involved lessons in record-keeping, courtesy, and-most of all-perseverance.

It also took a little extra ooomph to get out the door on winter nights, when dark fell early and cold whipped through the hills of our northern California neighborhood.

One such night, I packed the boys in the van after dinner and we headed out to do collections together. Each boy was loaded with change in his pocket, pen and clipboard in hand.

Ben's route was closest. Heater blasting, we wound our way to the first address. I stopped the car, turned off the ignition, and turned to shoo my third son out the door. The front light was on, assuring us Ben would not stumble in the dark. But it also illuminated something special for me-a radiant smile spreading over my son's face.

"The nicest people in the world," he said, before he stepped out into the cold. With the engine off, his brothers and I blew on our hands to keep them warm. Ben came back with dimples flashing.

We drove up four doors to Ben's next customer. As I turned off the engine, Ben beamed again. "The nicest people in the world!" he said.

"I thought the first house was the nicest people in the world," I said.

"Yeah, but these people are too," Ben answered, sincere as sunshine. Another big smile, another big tip.

We replayed this scene again and again. Ben's brothers and I forgot the cold, warmed by Ben's infectious love of the people he served. Soon we were all chanting, "The nicest people in the world," in front of each customer's house.

For our family, this became a defining moment. Though our newspaper days are long gone, the lessons we learned stayed with us. Even now, "The Nicest People in the World" remains part of our family's idiom-a reminder of the gladness of heart when we forget ourselves and think more highly of those we serve.

There is a scriptural precedent for this, of course. That was what God continued to teach the young Christian mother who happened to be driving the car that night. Ben's radiant outlook challenged me as it painted a picture of serving with gladness.

Jesus was the truest servant. When I think of the love he lavished on ordinary people who were devalued by those who thought their spiritual houses were in order, when I think of him kneeling before his disciples to wash their dirty feet, I see a dazzling smile on his face -not loving because he had to, but because he couldn't help himself.

So many things I learned on my sons' paper routes. Most of all to keep a careful watch. God uses the things of our everyday lives to give us glimpses of his love. For a mom like me, children keep the lessons lively. The life of Jesus makes them news.

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