When I was little, I was afraid of people in hats. We lived in my grandmother’s house, and when she came home at the end of the day from her job in the loan department of a bank, I wouldn’t let her hug or kiss me if she bent down toward me with her hat on. The woman coming through the front door in, city clothes, dresses and suits and brooches and fancy hats, didn’t seem like the same woman who wore shifts and made homemade noodles and baked cinnamon-sugar snails with the leftover crust from her apple pies and shared her Fritos with me when we watched Lawrence Welk once a week or the Miss America pageant once a year.
Mom went to work once my little brother started school. She was a teacher’s aide in our elementary school, a job she could walk to. She and another aide worked in a narrow little office that had been the milk room when I was in kindergarten. She mimeographed things, created bulletin boards, and did lots of stuff I never knew about. She also was consulted and helped decide my punishment when I called a fifth grade classmate a bad word whose meaning I didn’t really understand. She, not my teacher, explained matter-of-factly to me what I had said and told me I’d be staying in for recess that week (though I was released early on Friday for good behavior).
I got my first job roughly around that time, as a sixth grader walking a first grader home from school every afternoon. We walked to my house, turned the corner, walked up another street, and I escorted her across the dangerous county road, where the sidewalks ended and cars came flying downhill around a blind curve. My pay was fifty cents a week, two quarters every Friday.
Mom later took a job as a bank teller in the next town down the river from ours. She didn’t drive; she rode with my childhood best friend’s mother, who was also Mom’s friend. She was a teller, and eventually she was given the second window from the front, the one that got the most traffic. She came home with stories: The old woman who used to come in and ask for giveaways, smiling a little too brightly, “Pencils and pens for my children?” The time a thief ran in the side door, through the bank and out the side door, followed by some policemen on foot, “just like the Keystone Kops,” she said. Her impatience with coworkers who would pack up to go and stand around the time clock, waiting it to advance to the minute that put them in the zone of clocking-out time instead of a quarter hour before clocking-out time. The world-shifting fact that her job included deciding when dollars were too raggedy or worn out to keep being used.
Actually, come to think of it, at first she worked at a little bank across the street. (That’s the one where she successfully lobbied to get the ladies’ lunchroom table moved out of the ladies’ employee restroom.) It merged with the bigger bank. When I went off to college, I went supplied with gifts from two of her coworkers: a large ziplock bag crammed full of about 2 pounds’ worth of paper clips, and “pencils for your children” — a full gross of First-Union Bank pencils from the merger, 144 of them in a cardboard box of pale banker green.
She returned to the school district, as the executive secretary to the superintendent. He recalled that her letter of resignation from the aide job years earlier was a model of the kind of letter you’d write if you wanted to keep your bridges open with that workplace.
The Christmas I was in the second grade, she gave me a hat — a style I for some reason called a “potsie hat.” It was like a sailor’s cap with the brim turned down, orange with fuchsia strawberries, yellow lemon slices and lime green lime slices. It cured me of my fear of hatted people by turning me into one.
Once after I swept my bedroom floor, she walked by just as I was scooting the tiny pile into the dustpan, and saw some pennies in there. That’s money, she told me. It’s only pennies, I said. We don’t throw away money, she said with the restraint that meant she was mad, or worse, disappointed. (She didn’t seem either a few years later when she was put in that strange position of talking to me about calling my classmate a bad name.)
It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize that pennies, added up, make quarters and dollars. I just wasn’t fond of chores, and it didn’t seem worth my time to separate them out from the dirt they’d gotten mixed in with.
I’m working here at the desk my great-aunt gave me in high school. On the desk is a heart-shaped wooden noteholder that was on Mom’s desk when she worked for the superintendent, which is the last job she had when she died much too young. The note I’ve stuck in it is typed from sculptor Anne Truitt’s book Daybook: “Work is the backbone of a properly conducted life, serving at once to give it shape and to hold it up.”
I stopped letting sleeping pennies lie.
I still have that green box. I still have one of those pencils.
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