There are things that are so pressed into one’s memory they become part of your arms, your legs, the nose you smell with, the tongue you taste with, a touch of skin that is never forgotten. Those memories swirl in the cold of a cloistered winter morning that slides into late afternoon before you realize you haven’t changed out of what you had worn to bed the night before.
In between the first cup of coffee and preparing the evening meal on a day when you’ve dwelled in prior decades, talking to people who are no longer, walking in hot sunshine, solving life’s problems, the stories slip in and out. They begin eagerly, but before they can be captured, they dissipate like smoke rings, they simply lose their form. And some take on a life of their own …
I’m walking down Longwood Avenue to Vera Dingman’s house. I’m maybe 8 or 9 or 10 and eager to make money. Vera was my first employer. Her house was situated on the high side of the street. All the houses on that side of the street ran up from the sidewalk in steep steps, two levels of steps before you reach the front door. My short stubby little girl legs had to stretch high, my knees nearly hitting my chin in order for me to push my body up and up to Vera’s door. Vera was always waiting in her upholstered chair, a formerly tall elegant woman, now slightly stooped by advanced old age, long thin arms, legs and a voice gravelly from cigarette addiction. She wore old-fashioned high collared black dresses from another era, black sensible shoes, saggy hosiery with her white brittle hair piled upon her head. She was dignified in her manner, polite and peaceful in a way that only those who are at peace with themselves exude from their pores. She had a cat forever cradled in her lap. I see the sun coming through the window behind her on an early summer morning, making the lacy cobwebs hanging in grand swags around that window and extending over the ceiling above Vera’s head less fearsome and more decorative.
The shopping list would be ready. In her perfect old lady, once steady hand, she scratched out the necessities that would last her for a couple of days. Milk, bread, cat food, maybe a quarter pound of bacon cut fresh by the grocer and wrapped in brown butcher’s paper, two bananas, an apple, tomato soup and cigarettes. She hands me a few dollars from her cloth change purse that is tied to her belt by a piece of string. Her long slender fingers are curved, the uncut nails are talon-like and yellow, the skin stained from nicotine. She gently uses her hands like tools she must focus on to get the proper result. The process seems an eternity, but I am as patient with Vera as she is of her hands.
Finally, I hurry away to get the job done. Vera knows she can trust me to get it right, bring back the supplies, all the change from the purchases and without wasting time. I run up the hill, stop at the crosswalk, and then skip into the grocer’s. The walk back is always a struggle. The supplies are heavy for my small frame, but I’ve got a purpose and it must get done.
Back at her house after conquering up those tall stairs with a bag or two, Vera hasn’t moved but I notice several more cigarette butts in the standing ashtray by her chair. I set the bags on the tiny kitchen table in a room that is no longer really a place to prepare food, but more a receptacle for used plates, glasses and bits of moldy bread. Opened cat food cans reek where they have been left on the floor for the faithful feline, some empty while others partially full of dried out fish by-products. Everything goes in the kitchen but the cigarettes. The fresh pack is delivered into her waiting claw-like hands along with the list and the change. She smiles at my efficiency and calls me a good girl. Then the reward is passed from her cool papery hand to my wet fleshy palm: a half dollar. That princely sum she pays me three days a week – never two quarters, nickels, dimes, or pennies – always a half dollar coin. I say goodbye and sprint for the door.
The short return home transports me to the modern world circa 1960. As I run upstairs to my room, my Mother calls out “don’t slam the door” from her perch at the kitchen table. In my bedroom, I fish from under the mattress the tin box that is my vault and open it carefully so the contents don’t slip out. Half dollar coins make a racket when they hit the floor, and I don’t want my Mother to know how many I have. I count the coins, stacking them like poker chips. As Vera’s errand girl, I’ve amassed a fortune – nearly ten dollars.
My excitement at having earned so much money over the past few months gives me such a sense of accomplishment and power. I’ve got big plans that include using a Sears & Roebuck catalog in September. With the help of my Aunt Margaret, I’ll send an order to them and buy my Mother some Christmas gifts. My aunt will conspire with me, helping me fill out the order form and envelope, writing out the payee name on the postal money order, and then receiving the shipment to her address. It will work like a charm.
Selecting the items was a mixture of joy and pain. The electric mixer was what I really wanted to purchase, but I didn’t have enough coins to acquire it. I had to settle on a hammered pewter lemonade set and a porcelain jar for her instant coffee.
Looking back with the knowledge time imparts, I see Vera, Aunt Margaret and Ma in ways the child could never conceive. I see my benefactor as the frail elderly lady in the big house who could scarcely care for herself never mind a cat. She needed so much more assistance than a little girl could provide. Nor did I have the cognitive wherewithal to comprehend her need. But I’m glad I was there for her in my small way, and she made me rich beyond my dreams.
Aunt Margaret had a house full of children and very little in the way of financial resources. She put all that aside and helped me spend my fortune on my Mother, her younger sister, without ever making me feel it was a waste of my hard-earned cash.
And my Mother expressed such surprise at my enterprising nature and such delight at the gifts I selected for her, even though we never drank one drop of lemonade from that pitcher and tumbler set. She did use the instant coffee container, however. On wintry afternoons, I see her standing in her kitchen waiting for the water to boil and commenting on how ‘nice’ the little brown jar is sitting on her table – I’m warmed by the memory, the sight of her smile. (“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” My Ántonia by Willa Cather.)
By Marilou Newell