When I retired from teaching, on a whim I signed up to drive for one of those app-based car services. One thing you learn quickly is that with little prompting (like, “So, what do you do?”) most ordinary folks are champing at the bit to talk earnestly (even to a stranger) about their jobs. And if you’re lucky, how their jobs or even the jobs of their moms and dads, have shaped, their lives, for better or worse.
So on this Labor Day, amid the sales, closing up of the cabins, barbecues and the dreading of the next day’s start of school, here’s a story I was told about one guy’s parents’ lifetime of plain living and work with, well, a bit of a twist.
Matthew survived the Great Depression up on the Iron Range, because his father taught him how to find work and account for every precious penny that came their way.
Nearby, and at the same time, Matthew’s future wife, Lila, and her family had so little that bread-and-ketchup sandwiches were often the main course at dinner. But they worked their farm as best they could and also managed to survive.
Whatever money both families scraped together they deposited in coffee cans or cigar boxes — not in the town’s hanging-by-a-thread savings-and-loan.
Parting with their hard-earned nickels and dimes, quarters and occasional dollar bills was unthinkable.
When Lila and Matthew married, simplicity, self-preservation and honorable labor defined their quietly loving and devoted relationship.
Fast-forward many years, to about now. Matthew, having worked steadily and honorably all his life to support the family, was near death. Lila, who soon would live alone in the house they had built by themselves, gathered her grown and now-dispersed children for an announcement she felt was timely and sensible.
Yes, the children remembered that plaid-colored cooler they always used for family picnics. What about it?
And, yes, they remembered that makeshift shower stall she and Matthew had built in their dank basement, and which the daughters would hardly use. (“Yuuuuck,” they would complain.) What about it?
That’s when their mom, according to Pete, who told the tale, led them into the basement. The children watched in bewilderment as Lila removed from the gap between the cement floor of the shower stall and the basement floor, like she was removing her homemade pastries from the oven, several cookie sheets upon which rested symmetrically stacked piles of rectangular packages wrapped tightly in tinfoil. All told, there must have been dozens.
Back upstairs in the kitchen, their mother also brought out that well-worn cooler, this time filled to the brim with more neatly wrapped packets.
Pete unwrapped a package on the kitchen table.
The children didn’t ask questions at first, probably because they were just plain flummoxed at what they saw. But soon Pete had to ask as the three children unwrapped more of the tinfoil packages:
“How much is here, Mom?”
“A lot, by the looks of it, I guess.”
“Didn’t you and Dad count it?”
“Saw no need to. We had enough to get by.”
The children painstakingly counted the bills, all crisp 20s, 50s and 100s, as if they had come straight from a bank teller’s hand into their father’s. Which they had.
Turns out that each payday, Matthew cashed his paycheck or, later, his Social Security and pension checks. Then, after paying the bills — in cash — he took the remainder home, where Lila carefully wrapped and stacked the currency on a cookie sheet or in the cooler. With equal care, Matthew returned the cookie sheet underneath the aforementioned homemade shower stall floor in the basement.
“I’m showing you now — just in case,” their mother explained. “After we’re both gone, we didn’t want you selling the house and not knowing. That wouldn’t have been sensible, now would it?”
Naturally, her children asked their mom:
“Why didn’t you and Dad keep your money in the bank?”
“We didn’t want to lose it. We worked hard all our lives for it.”
Understood. Three hundred and fifty grand is a lot of money.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.