It was a Christmas present from my mother to hers. Perhaps you might not consider it to be a gift of significance, a mere change purse and, for that matter, one that looked like the one that Grandma had in service for a decade, but you would be misinformed. There was no “accessory” that was more important to Grandma than this little black leather purse with the silver-like top and clasp. It was at the center of her managing her finances – a matter that she took with the utmost seriousness.
Grocery shopping was an almost daily routine in Grandma’s life. She reasoned, “Why would I stock up on produce which will only lose its freshness in the refrigerator if I can buy something daily at the produce stands?” Of course, like most businesses then, the stands were closed on Sunday so Saturdays were particularly busy. Most people who had the time seemed to share Grandma’s view on buying lettuce, tomatoes and cantaloupes. It was a part of their daily lives.
When Grandma went to the store she would, of course, take her purse containing her little bit of monetary treasure. The change purse, sometimes bulging with coins and sometimes quite slim, was always at the bottom of the purse, usually with a few other items placed on top of it, perhaps so that a potential purse snatcher might miss it in case he made a dash and grab. The outer part of the purse had a zippered compartment in which the few bills that Grandma would take with her were carefully folded, the larger denominations, never more than a twenty, were nestled, secured inside the smaller bills.
When the clerk told her the total of her purchases, Grandma would reach in her purse, unbury the change purse from its hiding place, open the clasp and begin counting out change. It was always better to try to pay for as much of the purchase with coins before having to resort to using paper. Those bills were hard to come by. But I wondered, “Where did all the money that filled that change purse come from in the first place?” And then one day I found the answer.
On the third of each month, or the fourth if the third fell on a Sunday, a little group of our apartment building’s residents would assemble near the mail boxes in the downstairs hallway. Our mailman, Mr. Shapiro, right on schedule, would appear promptly at nine thirty to distribute the mail to the forty boxes. The group, including Grandma had two characteristics in common. They all had gray (or very little) hair and they all were awaiting the arrival of their monthly social security checks. Since we lived in one of the “A” apartments, our mail was deposited early on in this process which was a good thing since then Grandma could collect it and return to the chores she had set for himself to accomplish that day.
But how did that one piece of paper turn into all those coins and the green money with the pictures of presidents and other important people? That was my first lesson in banking and finance.
Grandma bought all the groceries for our family of four and paid for them out of her social security check – a check that was for a little more than one hundred fifty dollars a month. The Saturday after she received her check, she and I would make our way to Fourth Federal Savings and Loan Association to cash it. Despite the fact that there was a bank just a few blocks away, she went to Fourth Federal because they paid an extra one quarter percent interest per year (four and one quarter percent) and because they credited all deposits which were made by the tenth of the month as if they had been made on the first. Ten days of extra interest and a higher rate. Despite her third grade formal education, Grandma understood the basics of economics and interest.
She had been one of the earlier depositors with Fourth Federal and owned Account number 1093-4. The four signified that her current passbook was the fourth one they had issued for her account, the other ones having been filled with earlier transactions. She still had these old books and showed them to me. The first two had been handwritten but Fourth Federal had moved into the modern age of technology and had since implemented a system where these transactions were printed by a machine at each bank teller’s work station. What would they think of next?
There were two things I noticed when I looked at these passbooks. The first was that ever since Grandma made her initial ten dollar deposit, she had never made a withdrawal. The only entries were additional deposits and interest that had posted to her account. Month after month and year after year she had continued to add to her account without fail. This stemmed from her belief that if you didn’t have the money to buy something you did without and her second belief, probably stemming from earlier hard times and doing without a lot of things that she would have liked to have bought her daughters or herself, that this little nest egg was inviolable.
When we got to the S & L, Grandma reached in her purse to pull out her check and endorsed it. She carefully entered the amount on the line that said “Checks.” She then pulled out her change purse, unzipped the pocket containing the bills, pulled them out and counted them. These were “leftovers” from last month. That month she had saved twenty-two dollars after paying all her expenses. She subtracted that and the twenty dollars she saved each month and requested her cash back in the amount of one hundred eight dollars.
The teller, a middle aged woman who had been with the S & L since they opened asked how she would like her cash. Two twenties, four tens, two fives and eighteen singles. Eight of those singles would be set aside for a two dollar a week donation to be placed in the collection plate at church.
When Grandma received her money, she held it in her hand and we returned to the little desk that had the deposit and withdrawal slips on it. She pulled the twenty-two dollars from the side pocket of her change purse and sandwiched those bills in with her withdrawal, making sure that all the bills faced in the same direction before zipping them back in the pocket and burying this little hoard in the bottom of her purse. We then began immediately for home without stopping since this was far too much money for a person to carry on herself at one time.
But before we left the S & L, Mr. Bohanek, the president stopped by to say hello to us. He was a ruddy faced, sandy haired man with tortoise shell glasses who always enjoyed speaking with his depositors. He and the loan committee decided to whom their institution would make loans, long before there were such things as credit scores. Instead, they based their decisions on a person’s character and credibility. They must have been good judges of those as rarely did they make a loan on which the borrower failed to make repayment. Perhaps that also was a statement about how people treated their financial responsibilities in those days.
When we returned home, Grandma put her purse on the little desk in our apartment’s foyer. She removed the change purse, unzipped the side and pulled out all but twenty five dollars from the pocket. That would be more than enough to buy the groceries for the week. The rest went into a yellowed business size envelope that she had used for many years to house the remainder until it was needed. That envelope went back into the secret compartment in the desk. And then the change purse went back into the bottom of her purse where it would rest until her next shopping trip. She used this change purse for the next eleven years until her death.
I still have that worn black leather change purse. It is a relic of a simpler time, a time when people had a different attitude toward life. It was a time when we appreciated the simple things and were grateful for the gifts we had received in loving friends and families. It was a time when simple things were more than enough to keep us happy, believing that if we had enough simple things they could grow into great things and the future would be bright. It was a time when security meant having a little black leather change purse, bulging with coins with a few bills neatly folded in a little zipped up pocket on the side. It was a very good time to live in America.