Aunt Edna had a grudge against banks, and she kept her faded savings book to remind herself that she did.
"Three hours in the rain I stood, and that bank never opened again; it folded during the Depression and took my life savings with it." Aunt Edna's life savings at the time amounted to $67.50.
She never forgave, or forgot. Little use to her that others had lost millions in the Great Crash-her hard-earned nickels and dimes were gone forever. So Aunt Edna opened her own bank-The Buster Brown Bank.
On paydays, Uncle Louie was the depositor. Aunt Edna was teller, treasurer, president and bank guard. The vault was the back right-hand corner of the clothes closet. Used envelopes were relabeled "butcher" "grocer" and "rent." This was the MUST box.
She also had a branch office-a MAYBE box. It was much smaller; maybes came less often than musts. It was there she sequestered the odd 50 cent piece and occasional quarter for, oh, a new winter coat-MAYBE-or the trip MAYBE she and Uncle Louie would take some day.
Often Aunt Edna had to make withdrawals from the MAYBE box for the demanding MUST box, but she was always philosophical about her balance. "Well, next year, maybe."
Aunt Edna's approach to economics bordered on the mystical. "Always have something set aside," she cautioned us all in conspiratorial tones. "You never can tell." Whenever she said this, she gave a wise nod, and Rockefeller could not have sounded more profound.
That life was fickle and unpredictable she was certain, and her philosophy was that, in the long run, you were going to have more rainy days than sunny days. If there were dark clouds always on the horizon, Aunt Edna wanted to be sure her personal silver would be there to line them.
She was a great proselytizer. "Have you set something aside, just in case?" I was never sure what ominous "cases" there might be, but when Aunt Edna spoke, everyone listened. She was sort of a neighborhood E.F. Hutton; after all, she had 2 shoe boxes in her closet.
PAPER MONEY VS. CHECKS
Aunt Edna barely conceded to the use of paper money-it felt "insubstantial" to her. She did decide eventually that a $20 bill put much less strain on her leather purse than $20 in pennies, though.
When Uncle Louie's shop began to pay with checks instead of cash, Aunt Edna was instantly suspicious. It was a watershed in her financial manipulations. "What's this paper? Do I tear off pieces as I go, what, what?"
We all hastened to assure her a check was perfectly legitimate, but she was unconvinced. "Go get real money, then come home," she ordered. Uncle Louie was forced to enter the suspect bank to cash the check and to bring home "real" money.
With a strange sense of logic Aunt Edna considered she had "put one over" on the bank staff....they had given her dollars for a piece of buff paper.
Uncle Louie had been an uncomplaining depositor and never questioned Aunt Edna's thrifty habits, but he looked longingly in the furniture store window at times, his eyes caressing the new-fangled television sets displayed there. He shook his head at the prices and walked home.
Aunt Edna was undaunted by the extravagant television, though - Operation Motorola went into effect. It was a secret operation-- everyone in the family and the neighborhood knew except Uncle Louie.
A row of mayonnaise jars appeared in the closet, scrubbed and ready for deposits. There was a jar each for half-dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. She searched for ways to make the money multiply.
Aunt Edna was an expert on cutting corners; shirt collars and cuffs were turned once, then the frayed edges taken apart and reversed a second time. The Sunday chicken went from roast to casserole to thin soup as the weeks progressed, and she was not above scouring the sidewalks in a stooped position to find the stray penny wedged in a crack.
LOOK OUT WELLS FARGO
After many suspense-filled months, the project was financed. The children's stake wagon was borrowed, and the mayonnaise jars of money were clinked noisily down to the furniture store. The neighborhood children formed an unarmed guard around the Wells Fargo Wagon while Aunt Edna went in to negotiate.
She had the set all picked out-the big mahogany box with the 12-inch screen and 8 knobs. Nothing but the best for her Louie.
"How much down?" the salesman inquired as he brought out the credit applications. Aunt Edna rose to her full height of five feet and countered:"I don't buy on time..how much OFF for cash?"
The bargaining was quickly over. No one ever bested her. The children creaked in the tinkling wagon to the desk. "But-it's all change!" the man protested. "But it's all here--what's the matter, you think I can't count?"
Uncle Louie was delighted with his surprise, and so was the whole neighborhood. Alternating shifts of family and friends came to sit in kitchen chairs to watch the fascinating wrestling matches, the test patterns and to watch the local disc jockey play tunes for dinner. The camera closed in on a turntable spinning a 78 record. What entertainment!
Everyone was welcome to stay and watch until they, too, could save up for a television. Aunt Edna was willing to share her financial acumen: "You want a television? First, get mayonnaise jars..."
As Aunt Edna's creaking bones began to protest the on-the-knees withdrawals from the shoe box on the closet floor, she switched to a more convenient container for her "walking around" money.
A Bull Durham pouch, a tiny muslin sack with drawstring, was emptied of tobacco and lengthened with a piece of twine. Suspended from her neck, and tucked down into her copious bosom, it was Aunt Edna's new branch office.
"You need a dollar for school, love? Your momma can owe me-turn around!" When she had settled the pouch and herself again, I could turn back. She handed the crumpled dollar to me with a smile. It was warm. It smelled of lilac water.
As the years passed, Aunt Edna's confidence in the world of finance gradually was restored. As her mind faded, so too did the memories of the hard times, till only the aged passbook was left as a remembrance.
VINDICATION VIA SOCIAL SECURITY
She considered the prompt arrival of her Social Security checks to be the equivalent of monthly apologies from a bureaucracy eager to get back in her good graces after losing her $67.50. She had successfully overseen the raising of her family from the resources of a shoe-box system, and now she consigned her financial affairs to her son.
From the back of the closet she extracted her last box, the MAYBE box. So many bills and change had revolved through its confines, and so few MAYBES had been realized. Aunt Edna bought some binoculars with the remainder of the MAYBE box contents.
Having successfully conquered earthly enigmas, she was ready to take on the heavens. The UFO craze had hit America, and Aunt Edna watched the skies for flying saucers. I often thought she hoped to spot some little green men so she could warn them, "Have you put something aside, just in case?"
A NEW BOX
Today I pull up to a large box, a blown-up version of Aunt Edna's old closet bank. I offer a piece of plastic to the box. I enter a secret number. Crisp bills emerge. Pressed, antiseptic bills, they smell of nothing in particular.
It has often occurred to me that if banks really wanted to cultivate a caring, intimate image, they would introduce some pleasant scent to their sterile dough. A smell to make the taker think of warm, loving things. Perhaps the scent of lilac water.
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