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Sean Kirst: A lesson for the world in a paper at the door

The woman had one condition. She was surprised when she met a couple of us from The Buffalo News in a driveway on Bridlewood Drive South in her Clarence neighborhood, and at first she wasn't sure she wanted to see anything about what she was doing in the paper.

She thought it over. She took a good look at Gerri and Donald Mrugalski, standing in the garage and smiling at her, and she understood why they had called us.

It was their gift, their way of saying thanks.

All right, the woman said in a gentle voice, so moved by the Mrugalskis that she teetered between laughter and tears. She told me to go ahead and write a column, but there was a stipulation: She did not want her name to be used, because that seemed to undermine the fundamental point.

"This is something we're supposed to do," the woman said.

Maybe. All Gerri knows, at 79, is that she has never experienced anything quite like it. She is from Depew. Her husband grew up on the East Side of Buffalo, not far from the Broadway Market. He worked for 42 years at the old Westvaco plant, retiring as a superintendent. Gerri worked part-time, and their four grown children are now scattered to different points.

Last December, on an icy day, Gerri woke up and followed a daily routine that is no problem in pleasant weather. She climbed out of bed, made her tea, straightened up the kitchen – Don, still healing from hip replacement surgery, loves a late-night snack – then ventured outside to get her newspaper.

Winter was in full swing. The driveway is long. To reach the mailbox at the street, Gerri employed what you might describe as a kind of cautious, shuffling penguin walk. She used a cane to keep herself up, doing her best to avoid tumbling over on the blacktop, because Don's hip makes it impossible for him to do that job.

As she neared the mailbox, a car pulled over. A woman hurried out, picked up the paper and took Gerri by the arm.

"You shouldn't have to do this by yourself," the woman said. Arm in arm – with Gerri leaning on the stranger – they made their way back to the house. The woman did not give her full name, but she had a question.

Would it be all right if she kept stopping to do the same thing?

Gerri said of course, even as she offered thanks. She went inside feeling a little better about human nature, but she also understood how busy things can be. She did not really expect to see the woman again, at least not on a routine basis.

The next morning, when Gerri opened the door to again make that treacherous walk, someone had not only left the paper at her door, but carefully placed it inside a grocery bag. That continued the next day, and the day after that. The same woman kept showing up in the early morning, sometimes six or seven days a week. She never knocked or felt any need to leave her name.

She simply carried the paper to the house – often with the mail, if any happened to be there – then returned to her car.

Before long January turned into February, which rolled into March in one tough, persistent winter. The black car was still pulling over every morning. Gerri, stunned by the kindness, decided she wanted to do something for the woman.

She considered surprising her with a gift card, but that didn't seem adequate. She thought about it a little more, about the larger meaning of someone who took a few minutes out of their own time every day – clearly while on her way to work - to do an act of such anonymous kindness for someone else.

Gerri picked up the phone and left a message on my voice mail at The News, wondering if she could offer her thanks communally, figuring this was a tale we might want to tell.

She was right.

So photographer John Hickey was waiting last week, on a cold winter's morning, when the woman stopped her car. She carried the newspaper up the driveway, and she was surprised when Hickey approached her, then was doubly surprised when the garage door opened and Gerri and Don, both smiling, greeted her.

That's when I asked her if it would be OK to tell the story.

The woman contemplated it. She was startled anyone saw it as unusual. She turned to Gerri and explained, "I saw you out here, and I just hated the idea that you might slip and fall."

She told us she didn't live that far away, and that she works at an office job. She always drives through the neighborhood on her way to work, which also happens to be her quickest way to Wegmans.

Once she saw the situation, she knew it would take her two minutes, maybe three, to park the car and walk the paper and mail to the house.

She said again that she didn't think it was a big deal, or something for which she deserved public thanks.

Gerri and Don understood her point, but they see it differently. They spoke with appreciation of a new neighbor, a guy named Kevin, who hardly knows them yet clears the snow from their driveway after every storm. Then they turned to this woman who comes out of nowhere to leave their paper and mail at the door, who makes sure they do not risk their necks on the black ice of the driveway.

"Aren't we a lucky couple?" Gerri said, words that again left the woman on the brink of tears. She told them goodbye and hustled to her car, living out what to her is a fundamental truth:

A person can do kindness in the world and still find time to do her work.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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