My father came from a family of seven children. They had all the amenities of life – an apartment, food on the table and the need for every family member to pitch in to keep the first item over their head and to make sure there was something to put out for the evening family meal. You might call their existence, humble. They may not have had much but the were grateful for what they had.
Their meager lives meant that in order to survive they were keen observers of reality and were motivated by a simple principle known as common sense. They had no choice but to be practical and do what worked because the alternative was too awful to contemplate.
My father, having been raised in this environment, naturally passed along some of his family’s simple wisdom to me. Among those lessons which he ingrained in me were, “If it sounds too good to be true – it probably isn’t;” “Never put all your eggs in one basket;” and “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
When my father was a child he would occasionally receive a few pennies from his family on important occasions like his birthday. In addition, my grandfather encouraged him to keep and save a penny or two each week from the money he made delivering papers. And then, of course, there were those incredibly lucky moments, as he came home from school, when he might find a penny on the sidewalk that someone had dropped.
Now it might not seem like much to us today as we debate whether we should even continue minting Lincoln cents, but in those days there was such a thing as “Penny Candy” – and would you believe you could buy it for just one little copper cent.
My grandfather encouraged his children to save by giving each of them a little blue box. He instructed them to take each of the pennies that they had saved and place them in this little savings bank and further instructed them that when they had accumulated five pennies they should bring them to him and he would exchange them for a nickel.
The day came when my father had accumulated his fifth penny. He emptied his little blue box and brought them to his father who, true to his word gave him the nickel he had promised. He also gave my father a little green box, together with instructions that he should deposit his nickels in the green box and when he had five of them he should bring them to him and he would exchange them for a quarter.
Of course, many months went by before my dad saved up twenty-five cents, but that day finally arrived. As instructed by his father, he emptied his green box and took his five nickels to the family’s patriarch. Once again, true to his word, grandfather handed him a Standing Liberty quarter and told him to put that quarter in the little red box that hung from the wall in the dining room. He told dad that, “The red box is the family’s joint savings account.” Never questioning the wisdom of his father, dad deposited the quarter in the red box as his siblings and parents looked on. When the coin fell, the family all applauded.
My father, who was only twelve at the time, said it was two years before he understood that the red box was a gas meter and his deposits to the little red box helped keep the gas flowing in their little apartment.
Things were simpler then.