It was quiet and dark, like the middle of the night, when I came down the stairs into the living room at 5:15 am on winter mornings in 1957. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I turned on the porch light and squinted to see if my bundle of 42 Ohio State Journals had been dropped at the curb by Mr. Meyers, my route manager. Papers had been late on only the two occasions when the presses had broken down during the night, but I always hoped for a late delivery and a few minutes to stretch out on the davenport. Then I went to the hall and turned up the heat on the Honeywell thermostat which Mom hadn’t allowed me to touch before I started carrying papers. I was so flattered with this new authority that it had not occurred to me that it enabled her and everyone else to get up in a warm house.
Soon I staggered up our driveway with the bundle of papers, brought them into the living room, and began folding from the loose pages on the right side and tucking the roll into the left side. A well-rolled newspaper could be tossed onto concrete porches with a satisfying thud and remain folded upon impact.
I heaved the strap of the canvas bag with 42 rolled papers over my head and onto my 13-year old shoulder, steadied the bag on my right hip and lurched next door to my first customer’s house in the biting cold. The pressure of the strap cutting into my shoulder steadily lessened as I thew more papers. I tried to avoid overshooting the porches and hitting the lower panel on aluminum storm doors that resounded in the early morning silence like a cymbal. I quietly put the paper inside the storm doors of the elderly and a couple of handicapped customers. Most houses were dark and few cars were on the streets. The frigid air muffled sounds, especially when I was crunching through fresh snow making the first footprints. In an hour, my hands were stiff with cold, but my paper bag was empty and I had circumnavigated my route.
I pushed open the unlocked door into the warmth of our shadowy living room, slipped off my shoes by the door, and went to the kitchen where I spooned Hershey’s cocoa into a cup of milk in a sauce pan on the stove. I found a doorknob for my coat, reached under the shade to twist on a lamp, and stood on the register in the living room alternately rubbing my hands together and holding my palms down to the blowing warm air. I had learned to time my return to the kitchen so I could pour the hot cocoa into a mug just before it boiled, set it on the hardwood next to the floor register in our living room, and slid my back down the wall to sit onto my favorite seat in the living room, the register. I luxuriated in the rush of warm air as the furnace sighed, grunted and flexed its ducts. The metal louvers were uncomfortable, but the warm column of air was more than adequate compensation. I knew the register was pressing its pattern into my flesh, and, as it got hot, I wondered if I might be branded with that pattern. But it felt good, like a hot shower, so I remained in the column of flowing warmth as long as I could.
Now that my customers had their newspapers, I could relax with my hands thawing as I held the hot mug. I skimmed the front page for the headlines about JFK, read about Dick Tracy and Pogo in the comics, and plunged into the articles on St. Charles’s and Ohio State’s basketball teams on the sports pages.
Each time I looked up from newspaper, the picture window had become brighter. The houses across the street emerged first as shadows and then silhouettes in the brightening sky. The next glance revealed the sun shining into the living room like a searchlight highlighting the raised black swirls in the gray carpet and rapidly suffusing the off-white walls in a hopeful morning light. The large, black-framed charcoal print of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the clouds of heaven escorted by cherubs became visible. The folds of the shiny, light gold drapes that flanked the windows reflected the sunlight throughout the room.
The arms of the easy chair claimed by my Dad and the other chairs in the living room were at my eye level and canted toward our prized Zenith console television set, encased in dark walnut with a rich fabric covering the speaker, beside my warm seat. The illuminated living room became a gray-on-gray composition as colorless as our TV picture, often obscured by snow with static and rolling black bands. I was warm again and hoping for color in my day, at school if not in the winter landscape.
Mom’s door opened and I heard her padding down the hall to the bathroom. A few minutes later she was filling a pot with water and oatmeal. When the oatmeal was ready, this pot fit above another with water simmering to warm the oatmeal. I later learned this was a double boiler. If anyone wanted breakfast, warm oatmeal was ready to be ladled into a cereal bowl, mixed with milk and sugar. Day after day, it became as tiresome as gruel, but a nutritious, hot breakfast was available to us.
I washed up in our only bathroom before the parade of siblings came down the stairs through the living room to the bathroom. Dad, my brother Steve and I were in and out quickly. Kathy and Margy were busy with facial treatments and hair brushing. Grandmother encouraged brushing one hundred strokes every day.
One would bang on the door and order the other, “Don’t take all day in there!” Then there would be an appeal to Mom, “I know she’s just doing her hair. Come on Mom, tell her to let someone else get in the bathroom.”
The sounds of cereal pouring into bowls, the refrigerator door opening and closing, and the toaster popping punctuated the bustle of six people getting dressed and ready for work and school. Someone would ask Mom where to find an article of clothing that was somewhere in the cycle that progressed from the hamper to the washer, the dryer, the folding table, and the ironing basket, and she found it in minutes. Nothing was lost until Mom couldn’t find it. Someone occupied the register at all times. Mom would tell then sternly, “Get a move on or you’ll miss your bus. And don’t forget your lunch again.”
Mom turned off the burner under the oatmeal and lowered the thermostat before she and Dad left. The congealed gray oatmeal would be emptied into the trash in the evening before Mom got home. We never told her we didn’t have the oatmeal for breakfast and I don’t think she ever asked.
The last to leave, I turned the lock on the inside of the knob and pulled the front door shut behind me. I was ready for a new day.