When I was a boy of nine in the little town of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, I used to mow the lawn of Mrs. Long, an elderly lady who lived across from the Presbyterian Church. She paid me very little for the chore, for she had not much money. But she did promise me, “When Christmas comes, I shall have a present for you.” I spent much time wondering what it would be. The boys I played with had baseball gloves and bicycles and ice skates, and I was so eager to acquire any one of these that I convinced myself that my benefactor intended choosing from among them.
“It would hardly be a baseball glove,” I reasoned with myself. “A woman like Mrs. Long wouldn’t know much about baseball.” Since she was a frail little person, I also ruled out the bicycle, for how could she handle such a contraption?
On my last Saturday at work, Mrs. Long said, “Now remember, because you’ve been a good boy all summer, at Christmas I’ll have a present waiting. You come to the door and collect it.” These words clinched it. Since she was going to have the present in her house, and since she herself would be handling it, unquestionably she was giving me a pair of ice skates.
I became so convinced of this that I could imagine myself upon the skates. As the cold days of November arrived and ice began to form on the ponds, I began to try my luck on the ice that would be sustaining me and my skates through the winter.
“Get away from that ice!” a man shouted. “It’s not strong enough yet.” But soon it would be.
As Christmas approached, it was with difficulty that I restrained myself from reporting to Mrs. Long and demanding my present. Our family agreed that the first of December was too early for me to do this. “She may not have it wrapped yet,” someone argued, and this made sense.
On the 21st of December, a serious cold snap froze all the ponds so that boys who already had ice skates were able to use them, and my longing to possess mine, even though I could not open the package for a few days, became overpowering. On December 22 I could restrain myself no longer. I marched down the street, presented myself at the door of the house whose lawn I had tended all summer, and said, “I’ve come for my present, Mrs. Long.”
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, leading me into her parlor, its windows heavy with purple velvet. She sat me in a chair, disappeared to another room, and in a moment stood before me holding a package which under no conceivable circumstances could hold a baseball glove or a bicycle or even a pair of skates. I was painfully disappointed but so far as I can recall did not show it, because during the week, my advisers at home had warned repeatedly, “Whatever she has for you, take it graciously and say thank you.”
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What she had was an ordinary parcel about nine inches wide, a foot long, and no more than a quarter of an inch thick. As Mrs. Long held it in her frail hands, curiosity replaced my initial disappointment, and when I lifted it from her, the extreme lightness of the gift quite captivated me. It weighed almost nothing.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’ll see on Christmas Day.”
I shook it. Nothing rattled, but I thought I did catch a sound of some sort—a quiet, muffled sound that was somehow familiar but unidentifiable. “What is it?” I asked again.
“A kind of magic,” Mrs. Long said, and that was all.
Her words were enough to set my mind dancing with new possibilities, so that by the time I reached home, I had convinced myself that I held some great wonder. “She gave me a magician’s set. I’ll turn pitchers of milk into rabbits.”
How long the passage to Christmas was! There were other presents of normal dimension and weight. But Mrs. Long’s box dominated all, for it had to do with magic.
On Christmas morning, before the sun was up, I had this box on my knees, tearing at the reused colored string that bound it. Soon the wrapping paper was off and in my lap lay a flat box with its top hinged about halfway down.
It was exactly the present I needed, and it reached me at precisely that Christmas when I was best able to comprehend it.
With great excitement I opened the hinged lid to find inside a shimmering pile of ten flimsy sheets of black paper, each labeled in iridescent letters, Carbon Paper Regal Premium. Of the four words I knew only the second, and what it signified in this context I could not guess.
“Is it magic?” I asked.
Aunt Laura, who taught school, had the presence of mind to say, “It really is!” And she took two pieces of white paper, placed between them one of the black sheets from the box, and, with a hard pencil, wrote my name on the upper sheet. Then, removing it and the Carbon Paper Regal Premium, she handed me the second sheet, which her pencil had in no way touched.
There was my name! It was clean, and very dark, and well formed and as beautiful as Christmas Day itself.
I was enthralled! This was indeed magic of the greatest dimension. That a pencil could write on one piece of paper and mysteriously record on another was a miracle which was so gratifying to my childish mind that I can honestly say that in that one moment, in the dark of Christmas morning, I understood as much about printing and the duplication of words and the fundamental mystery of disseminating ideas as I have learned in the remaining half-century of my life.
I wrote and wrote, using up whole tablets until I had ground off the last shred of blackness from the ten sheets of carbon paper. It was the most enchanting Christmas present a boy like me could have had, infinitely more significant than a baseball glove or a pair of skates. It was exactly the present I needed, and it reached me at precisely that Christmas when I was best able to comprehend it.
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I have received some pretty thundering Christmas presents since then but none that ever came close to the magnificence of this one. The average present merely gratifies a temporary yearning, as the ice skates would have done; the great present illuminates all the years of life that remain.
It was not until some years later that I realized that the ten sheets of Carbon Paper Regal Premium which Mrs. Long gave me had cost her nothing. She had used them for her purposes and would normally have thrown them away, except that she had had the ingenuity to guess that a boy might profit from a present totally outside the realm of his ordinary experience.
I hope this year some boys and girls will receive, from thoughtful adults who really love them, gifts that will jolt them out of all they have known till now. It is such gifts and such experiences—usually costing little or nothing—that transform a life and lend it an impetus that may continue for decades.
Originally published in Reader’s Digest in 1967
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