Surviving with limited resources can lead to keeping secrets, as the following episode from my childhood illustrates.
At age five I stood peeking over the side of the washtub watching Momma rub Daddy’s shirt up and down on a washboard. After scrubbing for several minutes she put the shirt in another tub filled with rinse water and swished it around. Finally she twisted the shirt to get the water out, then shook it before laying it down with the other wet clothes she would later take outside to hang on the clothesline. Next Momma picked up a pair of Daddy’s pants.
Momma always checked the pockets of everybody’s pants before washing them. As usual, she reached her hand deep into the pocket, but this time, when her hand got all the way to the bottom, she froze, then gasped. I could see that her hand was clenched in a fist inside the pocket.
“Did something bite you?” I asked, alarmed. Carefully, she pulled her hand out of the pocket, turned her hand over, and slowly opened her fingers. In the palm of her hand was a quarter.
“Momma! A quarter!” I looked up at her, waiting to hear what she would say.
“Shhh!” Momma nervously looked around, then stared into my eyes intently and said, “Don’t tell a soul about this. I’ve been praying for some money to buy a present for my momma for Mother’s Day, and here it is. This quarter is a miracle.”
Momma examined the quarter closely, turning it over and over in her hand. Finally she looked around the room anxiously, then ran over to a high shelf and picked up a cup. We never used that cup for anything. She put the quarter inside very gently so as not to break the bottom out. Then she replaced the lid and returned the cup to the shelf, pushing it way back behind everything else.
Momma returned to the washtub and reached toward me. She put one hand on each side of my face, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Honey, please don’t tell nobody about the quarter. I’ve never had no money to buy a Mother’s Day present for my momma before, and I want to, so bad. But if your Daddy found out that I found a quarter in his pants pocket and didn’t tell him, he’d be real mad. Please don’t tell nobody.”
I promised Momma that I would never tell, and I couldn’t wait to see what she would buy.
The very next day Momma told Daddy she was out of salt and needed to go to the corner store. Momma never went to the corner store by herself except once in a while when Daddy was working, so she had to wait until he was ready before we could go. While she waited she walked nervously back and forth from the kitchen to the “other” room. Finally Daddy said, “Okay, let’s go.” Amy was big enough by that time to hold my hand and walk with me behind the two of them. The day was chilly, but the road was not too cold for my tough feet. I was saving my shoes, which used to be Josephine’s, for Sunday.
There was only one man hanging around behind the store that day. Daddy said he didn’t know him, but he went to join him anyway. He said he wanted to be friendly to strangers. Momma didn’t seem to mind that Daddy didn’t go inside with her, and she walked into the store quickly. Once inside, she walked around and around, picking up everything and looking at the prices. I held onto Amy so Momma could shop in peace. Finally she picked up a little glass box with painted blue and white flowers and a hinged lid. The box fit in the palm of her hand. On top of the lid was the word Mother. Momma sighed and smiled, then took the box to Mr. King and said, “I have a quarter. Could I put this on layaway until I get 50 more cents to finish paying for it?”
“Oh,” Mr. King said. “I hadn’t gotten around to marking that box down yet, but I was planning to mark it down this very day.”
“What are you planning to mark it down to?” Momma asked excitedly.
“Oh, about 20 cents,” he said.
Momma closed her eyes and held the box up to her heart with both hands. “I’ll take it,” she said, smiling, then handed him the quarter.
Mr. King gave Momma five cents change before wrapping the box in brown paper, putting tape all around the package, and giving it to Momma. “Oh, I almost forgot. This comes with it,” Mr. King said as he cut off a piece of beautiful wrapping paper and handed it to Momma.
Momma looked so happy, glancing back and forth from Mr. King to the box. She folded the paper and put it in her pocket, along with the box. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” Momma was smiling more than I could ever remember seeing her smile as we left the store. “This is a secret,” she told Mr. King as she walked toward the door.
“Don’t you tell nobody,” I warned him, just in case he didn’t get the message, as I dragged Amy along behind me.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell,” Mr. King whispered loudly enough for all three of us to hear.
To this day I find myself “hiding” new things that I buy—a habit that doesn’t sit well with my husband. I think this habit dates back to the quarter incident. However, I also feel a rush of excitement over coins! My purse is always heavy with them, especially quarters. They provide a deep sense of satisfaction.
Bethanie Tucker is author of Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading and coauthor of Research-Based Strategies and Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students, among other titles. She is an aha! Process national consultant training on the programs she created, plus A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Research-Based Strategies, and others. Keep an eye on the aha! Process blog to find out what happens next in Tucker’s memoir series “Many Bridges to Cross.”