Paper Becomes Us

For every special moment in our lives, paper is there. A record. A memento. A gift for the soul.

“Because everything that matters to us happens on paper. Without paper, we are nothing. We are born, and issued with a birth certificate. We collect more of these certificates at school, and yet another when we marry, and another when we divorce, and buy a house, and when we die. We are born human, but are forever becoming paper, as paper becomes us, our artificial skin.” ~ Ian Sansom, Paper: An Elegy

Yes, we begin and end on paper: two certificates marking the passage of human life through this world.

And all along the way, we collect more paper. Diplomas, driver’s licenses, voter ID cards, and, if we’re lucky, maybe a vehicle title and property deed. If we’re really lucky, we might collect drawings from our children, photographs, love notes, and birthday cards filled with sappy sentiments and funny jabs from friends and family.

No matter how old or young, whether in crisis or celebration, we mark our momentous occasions with paper. But what makes a moment special? When does a moment become a memory?

Here are the stories of four individuals, disparate tales of moments big and small. The time when paper, like the very fiber from which it’s made, becomes woven into our lives. The time when paper becomes us.

Mother’s Name

Ann’s hand paused over the words.

Mother’s Name.

Marion Keysor, she thought, with a mix of certainty and panic. Surely, it must be Marion Keysor—her rock, her lifeline, her mom—not herself, Ann Sorenson. Gripping the pen a little tighter, she readjusted the plastic clipboard pressing on her sore belly and read the words on the birth certificate paperwork again.

Mother’s Name.

It can’t be, Ann thought. Despite a lifetime of dreaming, years of trying, nine months of tremulous pregnancy, and 12 hours of labor, she suddenly felt ill-prepared. Their daughter was here. She was her mom. This was real. Was she ready?

Looking up, Ann caught her husband watching her with a look of adoration and pride. Nestled neatly in his arms was their darling girl, swaddled tightly in a white-striped hospital blanket, looking like a baby-faced burrito. Ann exhaled, realizing suddenly she had forgotten to breathe. Her mind settled. Her heart lifted.

Yes, she thought, thinking of her own mom again. Yes, she was ready. She took another breath and turned back to the form.

Mother’s Name.

Ann pressed the pen to the paper and began to write.

Weeks passed before the official birth certificate arrived in the afternoon mail. With her baby napping quietly in her arm, Ann slid her index finger under the envelope flap and tugged. Unfolding the crisp, smooth paper, she felt the bumps of the clerk’s seal before tracing her finger over the magical words.

Mother’s Name: Ann Marie Sorenson.

She flashed back to that moment of panic and awe in the hospital. The exact moment she realized she, too, was a mother.

“Thank you, Mom,” she whispered, as she brought her daughter’s sleeping face up for a kiss.

All That Glitters

“It’s funny the little things you notice,” says Susan Poplawski, addressing a crowd of volunteers gathered at the North Carolina processing center. They were about to begin shipping thousands of shoeboxes filled with donations to disadvantaged children around the world.

“And, sometimes, it’s the things you don’t.”

Recounting her trip to a Romanian orphanage the year before—where the children had been shoebox recipients—Susan wanted to underscore the importance of the volunteers’ mission.

“Because the first thing I noticed,” she says, “was the paper.”

She quickly explained that in years past she lined her shoebox donation with wrapping paper. It usually was an afterthought, and almost always with whatever leftovers she had on hand.

But there in Romania, amidst the drab, gray walls and utilitarian cribs of cold, blue steel, were squares of brightly colored wrapping paper carefully taped to the wall. Sparkling pink stars on a background of silver, Christmas reds and greens, and balloons shimmering in a kaleidoscope of colors.

The orphanage attendant had noticed Susan curiously eyeing the paper and explained how much the children loved the mismatched collection, still creased and slightly torn from shipping. They had no money, she’d told Susan, for pictures or colorful paint. For many of the children, the bits of wrapping paper were the most beautiful things they’d ever seen.

It was the paper, of all things, they treasured most.

“You see?” says Susan, tears gathering in her eyes at the recollection. “Too often we’re so focused on what’s going in the box—the toys and trinkets, toothpaste and candy—that we don’t notice the true gift. Something as simple as sparkly paper can be so much more. The gift of beauty. The gift of hope.”

Heritage Lost, Heritage Found

Frank Schulz approached the ticket counter and presented his passport to the agent.

But it was more than a passport. The agent would never know that this little blue booklet, like the hundreds of others that passed through her hands every day, represented a lifetime of hopes and dreams come true.

He’d saved for decades for this trip. A trip to the dairy lands in the valleys of Austria, the home of his ancestors. Until now, his life as a small dairy farmer in Wisconsin never allowed for much. The grueling demands of his animals, morning and night, afforded little money and no time for travel.

Instead, Frank settled for what tales from his father he could remember. He’d been gone 30 years now, yet Frank would never forget the day his father received his U.S. citizenship. The paper represented new beginnings for a family plagued by war, but also a sad farewell to the lives left behind. His father’s tales about life in the old country among the beauty of the Alps were always bittersweet.

The tales fascinated Frank. He’d tried to fill in what family information he could from the genealogy resources at his local library. He’d managed to trace back nine generations. But now, today, it was becoming real.

The ticket agent handed back his passport, saying, “Enjoy your flight, Mr. Schulz.” Grasping it in hand, he turned and shuffled slowly toward the gate. He thought about landing in Vienna in a few hours and the stamp of Austria punching down on the blank blue page of his passport—and his spirit soared.


The shoebox sat in the back corner of the shelf. In his mother’s loose hand, “Jerome” was scrawled across the front in faded black ink. Jerome reached for the box and sank heavily onto the corner of the bed.

His sisters had already sorted through the clothes, and now the shelf was the last thing to be cleared out before the estate sale people set up shop.

Opening the lid, a faint hint of his mother’s perfume escaped as he glanced down at the stacks of letters arranged neatly in the box. Letters that started his first week of college. All he had were lined pages gently torn from his first composition notebook.

Damn, he thought, shaking his head and smiling to himself. It seemed like yesterday. She was so proud of her baby boy going away to college. On a scholarship, no less. As a single mom, she’d worked long hours to support her four kids.

Jerome promised to write her each week with details of school. And he faithfully kept his promise. She liked the wild stories from his history classes the best. She’d once told him they reminded her of a world she’d never gotten to see.

College came to an end, but the letters never stopped. By then, Jerome was in the habit of sorting through life in his weekly missive to his mother, even through the long days and late nights on his beat as a journalist at the large metropolitan daily newspaper.

Sitting on his mother’s bed, he gently unfolds the first letter, faded and stiff, and begins to read the story of a boy becoming a man. To celebrate paper is to celebrate being human. It’s secure and versatile, tactile and robust. Our art, our history, our souls live on through paper.