I wrote this one many, many years ago but, in honor of Mother’s Day, thought I would regurgitate it.
It was a brittle, sunny day in Anchorage, Alaska. It might have been June. As I walked through a wide-laned neighborhood with giant drooping trees that consumed the sidewalks and carpeted the lawns with their leaves, I counted houses. If one looked from afar, the houses would have looked like cereal boxes in a row, small white-trimmed cereal boxes that came in buttercup yellow or cerulean blue or, Nantucket gray. But up close the houses boasted enviable features like farmer’s porches, birdbaths, swing sets or inflatable kiddie pools.
This quintessential street was the paper route my mom walked every morning. At 5am, even in the Alaskan winter, she delivered papers from a huge canvas bag that hung across her chest like a giant apron.
One might find it strange that a commodity trader would deliver newspapers for the joy of it. But she told me that sometimes, in the predawn light, the constant cadence of her own footsteps put her into a trance. True cold gets so pervasive it becomes euphoric. In an empty world, the heavy breath and monotonous action of slinging papers transported her. She resurfaced only when at our front door again and when she came in to find us eating yogurt and watching Smurfs, her red face glowed with transcendence.
On Sundays, the papers came later in the morning so my sister and I walked the route with her. This particular Sunday, the whole street oozed with the hot smell of baked bread and dandelions contended for sunlight from even the littlest crack in a sidewalk or leaf filled storm drain. Dandelions were my favorites of all flowers. Having eaten the bitter and buttery head of a dandelion flower at least a few hundred times, I felt that calling it a weed was unkind.
My dad said that something in the bitter yellow blooms was good for us but we ate them just because we could. For a kid, there is no pleasure like strolling along, nonchalantly picking a flower and then just eating it (even if it didn’t taste all that great). Especially when you look over and your dad is just smiling about it.
Dad used to walk this paper route with my mom. As I swooped to grab a dandelion poking out from under a cedar fence and then ran to catch up with her, I wondered if he ever ate any of the thousands of dandelions on this street. Of course, if mom walked her usual soldier-like stride, he probably never got the chance.
My little sister and I began walking the paper route because Mom and Dad were filing for divorce. Dad was even talking about moving back to Seattle. Whenever we asked if we were moving, Mom just shrugged and said, “It’s not out of the question.” We just assumed it was her quirky way of saying no.
As we passed the two story pea-green house with the picnic table in the front yard and the round submarine windows on the sides, we knew time was running out. Mom flashed us a quick smile and sped up; and we had to walk-run to keep up. We didn’t care because we loved this game.
Shuttling along, three of our hurried steps to every one of hers, she tossed newspapers wrapped in a tang-colored plastic bags into driveways, each one landing with a crinkle and thud. It sounded like a giant letter being stamped. If I counted the thuds of landing newspapers, I wouldn’t think about my aching legs. But I lost count and started over so many times, I could never remember how many houses there were.
Mom always made up little games – road trip games, spelling games, bathtub games. The paper route game was more of a race though. If the last paper hit the last driveway before the church bells started chiming and if we had refrained from complaining along the way, we’d go straight to Safeway and buy a whole box of Orange Creamsicles. Then we’d divide the box into three, eating two each. Two WHOLE Orange Creamsicles.
When we finally reached the baseball field corner that ended the route, we giddily sidled up on either side of mom and took a hand to cross the street. Just one more block to Safeway and only four houses left. Crossing the street when you’re a kid is a big endeavor and everyone knows the goal – to get to the other side as quick as possible. So when my mom paused in the middle of the quiet street and looked down, we panicked. What was she thinking? At any moment a car could just come out of nowhere and mow us down. Didn’t she know that? For a moment, she just stood there. My sister and I, with pulses rising, looked frantically from left to right. Left again. Right again. Mom squatted and the newspaper carrier on her chest threatened to spill the last four of the little oranges missiles in every direction. I saw it all in my head – newspapers scattered, cars flying through stop signs. I was only six and I could feel a disaster coming. Couldn’t she?
She picked up a plastic keychain, badly scratched from being run over. The ring was gone and what was left of its small metal chain was mangled and rusted. The thick plastic was rough and jagged in her hand and the image was barely visible through the scuffing. She looked at it and gave one of those smiles that never seemed like a smile. We looked at it too, confused. The image on the keychain was a row of cartoon hula dancers in little grass skirts and multicolored flower leis. In bold letters “HAWAII” was written in the sky above the dancers and palm trees were suspended over both ends of the word. Mom looked at our impatient faces and held up the keychain for us to see. She inhaled s small fast breath and held it. In a quiet, excited voice that sounded like a secret – or a promise – she said, “This is where we are going to live.”
In the distance, the church bells started. Baffled at how this could be more important than Orange Creamsicles I shrugged and said, “Ok.” At that, she flashed a contagious smile and we crossed the street, each with our own destination in mind.