The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘family’ Category

MOTHER KNOWS BEST – SOME THOUGHTS ON THANKSGIVING

It’s so long ago that I don’t remember the exact number but I think I had ten or twelve of them.  They were jigsaw puzzles but not of the type that we find today, cut from cardboard.  The frames were made of wood, perhaps 3/8″ thick.  The pieces were individually hand painted.  Each puzzle had, perhaps, fifteen pieces.  Naturally, they were fairly easy to do.

As a challenge, my parents would empty three or four puzzles at a time, mixing up the pieces.  This proved far more entertaining to me.  I could work on these for hours at a time, swapping in different puzzles and doing the same thing, mixing together four  new puzzles.

But eventually, my interest in doing the puzzles diminished since I had done them so many times.  They were consigned to the little closet in my room.  Their main function was to take up a fair amount of the limited space on the top shelf.

Several years went by and I hadn’t even thought about playing with these puzzles when my mother came in one day and said, “Honey, I was thinking.  You haven’t played with your puzzles for a long time and they’re not doing you or anyone else any good.  Why don’t we take them down to the N. Y. Home for Foundlings and give them to the children who live there?”

I didn’t know it lived within me but as soon as she had spoken those words, I suddenly felt as though the air had been sucked out of my body and one of mankind’s greatest enemies, selfishness, rose up and spoke on my behalf.

“I don’t want to give them away, Mommy.  I’ll play with them again.”  And I walked to the closet, stood on the little step stool and reached for the top puzzle which I promptly emptied on my desk just to prove my point to her.

My mother said, “Okay, dear if that’s the way you feel.”

When she left the room I breathed a sigh of relief.  I had held on to my puzzles and no one was going to take them away from me.  So I completed the puzzle which held no interest for me and returned it to its place in the closet.

No more was said of this as we approached the Thanksgiving holiday.  It was the Saturday before the big day and my mother asked if I would come with her to do some grocery shopping.  I was happy to tag along.

So we stopped at a couple of stores and purchased a few items.  Then we went and took a detour and ended up at the orphanage to which my mother had wanted me to donate my puzzles.  It was a fairly large building, rather grey and bleak both from the outside and, as I was to learn, equally as unspiring inside as well.

When we rang the bell a matronly lady came to the door.  She wore a simple dress and a cardigan sweater and her grey hair was knotted into a large bun at the back of her head.  Her hair reminded me of the yarn with which my mother knitted to make sweaters for the family.  You could have put quite a few of those knitting needles in that bun.

But she was warm and very friendly as my mother introduced herself and we quickly were brought in from the chill and entered the building’s lobby.  Apparently, this lady had been expecting us.  I didn’t know that my mother had called and asked if I might join the children in a “play date”.

I was ushered into the orphanage’s play room where there were seven or eight children involved in a variety of activities.  Several were playing Chutes and Ladders and other board games.  But there was one little boy who was working on a jigsaw puzzle.  I asked if I could join him and he agreed.  His name was Timmy.

So Timmy and I worked together to put the puzzle together.  It was one of those less expensive puzzles with quite a few pieces but made from cardboard.  I remember that the puzzle was of a German Shepherd, standing in a field.  We had almost all of the puzzle finished with only three or four pieces to go when I noticed that there were no more pieces.  That poor German Shepherd had no nose.  So I asked Timmy where the other pieces were.  He told me that they had been lost a long time ago and that we were finished with the puzzle.  I remember feeling bad for that German Shepherd.  How could he smell his dinner?

Timmy and I started on another puzzle.  This one was a picture of a sail boat on a lake.  We had just finished the frame and were starting to work on the insides when my mother came in and told me that we had to leave.  I said goodbye to my new friend and mom and I returned home.

I didn’t sleep well that night.  The thought of that poor noseless German Shepherd kept running through my mind.  And I felt sorry for Timmy and the other kids because they had to work on puzzles with missing pieces.  I remember running into my parents’ room and waking my mother with the urgent news that I had decided to give my puzzles to the kids at the orphanage.  Despite being awakened out of a deep sleep, I remember seeing a few tears well up in my mother’s eyes and she smiled with approval.  “We’ll talk about it in the morning, dear.”

After we returned from church, Grandma prepared a light lunch.  It was just enough to keep our stomachs from growling but not so much as to spoil the large Sunday dinner that she always made.  And when we had finished, mom asked if I would like to help her pack up the puzzles as dad was going to have to drive us over to the orphanage as they were too heavy to carry.

I got on the step stool and started handing them down to her.  She had gotten two cardboard boxes to put them in.  I remember looking at them somewhat wistfully, knowing that I would never see these old friends again.  Maybe I had made the wrong decision in giving them away.  But then I thought of Timmy and the other kids and the German Shepherd who had no nose and those thoughts vanished from  my thinking.

Dad picked up the two boxes and we headed toward the elevator.  When we got to the ground floor he put them on the floor and went to get the car which was parked several blocks away as mom and I guarded this bit of treasure.  When he returned, he left the car running, grabbed the boxes and the three of us headed to the orphanage.

We were lucky to find a space right outside the building.  Dad turned off the car’s engine, grabbed the two boxes and the three of us walked to the entrance.  I remember ringing the bell.

The same nice lady whom I had met the day before, greeted us and invited us inside.  She quickly led us to the game room and dad found a desk on which to place the two cartons of puzzles.  Timmy and several of the other kids who I saw the previous day were there.

“Timmy, I brought you some new puzzles.”

Timmy came over and eagerly started looking through the first box.  He reached in and pulled out one of them.  It was a silly puzzle, a duck riding a bicycle.

“Wow, these are neat!  And I’ll bet we won’t lose these pieces, they’re so big and heavy.”

It gave me a warm feeling to see the joy in his face.  And I was sure that would be shared by many of the other kids as they played with what once had been my very own jigsaw puzzles.

Despite the turmoil in which we find our world today, there is still reason to be grateful at Thanksgiving.  It goes beyond a day filled with football and a meal replete with over eating.  It comes down to something far simpler and yet far more profound.

We are fortunate that despite the tumult which wells around us, there are still people who are willing to show charity to strangers for no reason other than it gives them a warm feeling inside.  And if we ever lose that, we are much like that jigsaw puzzle that is missing a piece or two, the pieces that comprise the finest part of the human spirit.

Have a joyous Thanksgiving.

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THE SHANGHAI SURPRISE

It was one of those evenings, perhaps you’ve experienced them as well, when I couldn’t decide what to have for dinner.  I thought about my menu options and suddenly an incredible sense of gratitude swept aside my indecision as I realized how fortunate I was to live in a country and be in a position where I actually had so many choices available to me.

I reflected on growing up and the role food played in my family life.  Being raised in a home where there were two incredible cooks, my mother and grandmother, food was not merely something we needed for life’s continuation, something to be enjoyed.  Our evening dinner provided us an opportunity to reinforce our relationship as a family as we would discuss the day’s events and what each of us would be doing the following day.  It was the focal point that allowed us to bond.  It was an expression of our love for one another.

Well, back to my debating what was to be for dinner.  I seldom either eat out or buy something to take home and eat here.  While I enjoy cooking, making dinner, eating it by yourself and then cleaning up sometimes is more of a chore than a joy.  So I frequently will prepare multiple meal-sized quantities of food, soups or stews, and freeze them for future use.  But with the return of 100 degree plus weather, neither a hearty beef stew nor a bowl of bean soup seemed too appealing.

It had been some time since I had eaten Chinese food, one of my favorites.  And while I often will prepare it myself I wasn’t in the mood to cook.  So I consulted the website of the local Chinese restaurant from which I order occasionally.

The first thing I noticed was that the prices had increased by one or two dollars an item since I had last ordered.  That nearly deterred me from ordering, thinking that a bowl of granola with some fresh strawberries might be sufficient for my evening meal.  But then that didn’t sound too appealing so I started to read through the menu to see if anything caught my fancy.

I ruled out the appetizers as they were completely overpriced – and I make a better egg roll than the restaurant.  Of course, appetizers are one of the most overpriced items at any restaurant and the reason they push them is there is a large profit margin in them – more so than in their main courses.  So I made a note to myself to make up a large batch of egg rolls and freeze them for future use.

I scrolled through the main dishes but nothing jumped out at me until I hit the section entitled, “Chef’s Specials”.  These were not to be confused with the “specials” that your waitperson will tell you about at a nice linen tablecloth restaurant which, incidentally, are normally creations that are put together from leftovers that the restaurant wants to dispose of.

I do enjoy the fancy names that Chinese restaurants give these dishes.  “Seven Happiness”; “Lotus Delight”; “Wise Man’s Joy”.  Fortunately, they always list the ingredients that make up these creations as no one could deduce from the names what actually goes into them.  And I noticed that rather than the typical eight or nine dollar price for a full order of their more mundane offerings, these dishes were all priced several dollars higher.

I was about to return to the main menu when suddenly I saw a dish which was entitled, “Shanghai Surprise”.  It wasn’t the name which drew my attention but the price.  Unlike the other “Chef’s Specials” which all ran about twelve dollars each, this one was $250.00 for an order.  I thought that this must merely have been a typo and perhaps this dish really was fifteen dollars.  In reading the ingredients, it sounded as though it was merely a variation on Moo Goo Gai Pan.  But I thought that out of curiosity I would inquire further of the restaurant what made this dish so special – or at the least point out to them that they had made an error in posting this dish’s price.

So I called and after a brief hold spoke with one of the ladies who work taking orders for those of us who would rather deal with a person than simply placing the order via the internet.

“Hello, could you tell me if your ‘Shanghai Surprise’ is really two hundred fifty dollars per order?”  Naturally, I expected her to gasp and tell me that price was incorrect and that they were going to fix it and thank me for letting them know.  But instead I got a response which surprised me.

“Yes, it is.”

“Forgive me for asking but what is there in the ‘Shanghai Surprise’ which makes it so expensive?”

“It comes with two fortune cookies,” she replied.

“But all your meals come with fortune cookies.”

“Yes, but these are special fortune cookies.  One of out of four of them contains a micro fiche of a Hillary Clinton email from her unsecured server, expertly hacked by a group in Shanghai.”

I wound up having the granola with fresh strawberries for dinner.

GOOBERS AND GRUBERS

It finally arrived – the long awaited envelope.  It had been well over a week since I had sent away for it – but my letter had to make it from New York to Arizona and then the response had to come all the way back.

I had found an ad in one of my “Fantasy and Science Fiction” magazines and had responded.  Who wouldn’t answer this ad?  It promised to send the person who clipped the ad a “secret” way to accumulate wealth without really having to do much of anything.  It didn’t matter if you were young or old, a PhD or a high school drop out, the system would bring riches to whoever used it.   It was the American dream – and the information would be sent absolutely free of charge.

Some people are motivated by theory and others by practical concerns.  In my case, I wanted to become a fourteen year old success because I was tired of sleeping on the Castro convertible sofa and sharing my “bedroom” with the “dining room.”  If I made a lot of money we could move from our small apartment into one of the new high rises that were being built throughout Manhattan.  My parents had looked at several apartments in these new edifices, but decided that quadrupling the rent for just a small amount of additional space just didn’t make sense or fit our budget.

When Grandma handed me the envelope containing the “secret system” I took it and held it with the reverence due a holy relic.  I went to my desk, placed my school books on the side and laid it gently in the middle of the blotter.  I took the seldom-used letter opener and carefully opened it, making sure that my cut was even and neat.  After I completed that I waited a minute or two before daring to pull out and read its contents.  But I finally summoned up the courage.

Before me I had a pamphlet that explained how a person could make a huge amount of money by getting into mail order.  I read every word of this brochure, replete with “testimonials” from people who were identified only by their first names and an initial for their surnames and the city in which they lived – stories about how they had made a small fortune in mail order thanks to the secret system.

And what was it that they were selling?  They were selling copies of a booklet that explained how to get into mail order – a copy of which was reserved for me – if I merely completed the enclosed order form and returned it with my five dollar remittance.  Once I had received my copy, I would have the opportunity to purchase additional copies which I could sell at a “huge profit” and the booklet would explain the step by step way of doing that.  To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Even though I knew that something just didn’t add up, I was reluctant to give up so quickly on this opportunity to get my own bedroom.  So at dinner that evening I asked my parents to read the brochure and give me their opinion.  Needless to say, it did not survive their imprimatur.  Nevertheless, having explained why this was a scam  they still permitted me to purchase the book if I chose to spend my five dollars on it.  My parents allowed me to make my own mistakes – as long as they weren’t likely to be dangerous to my health or well being.  Their theory was that rather than hearing them preach, a little personal experience would be far more enlightening to me.

Even before I had given my folks the brochure I knew that something just didn’t sound right.  But I was hoping that I was wrong and that my parents would agree with my original opinion that I had latched on the key to riches.  After several days of soul searching, I concurred with my parents and tossed the brochure in the wastebasket.  My father summed up the experience with the statement, “When something seems too good to be true – it probably isn’t.”

In 2010 the Congress passed and President Obama signed the PPACA into law.  Now more commonly referred to as Obamacare, the law was touted by Obama and lawmakers who supported it as the best thing that had happened since the invention of sliced bread.  It offered every American the opportunity to get “affordable health insurance”; we would be able either to keep our existing insurance or get a better policy through the healthcare exchanges that were going to be established; despite the fact that these new policies would be better they would be less expensive; every American household would save $2500 per year for this insurance; and on top of all of that, this three thousand page bill would reduce the national debt.  It almost seemed too good to be true – and it wasn’t.

Nobody who took the trouble to read through the law believed that the promises could be delivered for a simple reason.  The numbers just didn’t add up – and they still don’t.  But without going into a detailed analysis of the math, if you think about the law’s purported primary goal – insuring all Americans with affordable, quality medical care – it should be clear that goal is inconsistent with providing quality healthcare.

Let’s assume that magically everyone suddenly signed up and there were no longer Americans who couldn’t see a doctor for lack of insurance.  How would this impact the quality of delivering medical services?  It would cause a lower quality of health care if, for no other reason, than that we have now added forty million potential patients to a system to which no new medical practitioners or hospital facilities have been added.  The overall effect would necessarily be longer wait times to get an appointment which in and of itself constitutes a decrease in the quality of healthcare.

We know that few if any legislators actually read the bill before voting to approve it – per then Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  That in itself is disturbing as that is the reason that we pay these people quite handsomely.  But if they had read the bill I sincerely wonder if they would have been much more elucidated on its contents than before they began that exercise.  Besides its length, the law is convoluted and the language goes beyond what we have come to expect from Washington speak.  For that reason perhaps, we employed an MIT professor, one Jonathan Gruber to advise those who wrote the law on how to craft it.  The Federal government and various state governments apparently paid Professor Gruber the sum of nearly $6 Million over several years for his insight.

Over the last ten days a series of videos have surfaced in which said professor has been recorded delivering a number of talks to various groups, mostly within the hallowed halls of academia, and explained that in order to secure the law’s passage, basically its contents had to be both disguised and lied about because it would never have passed if the public new what it actually contained.  In the course of his explanation he pointed out that, “The American public is stupid.”

While this academic apologized for the statement from the first of these videos which was released as an unfortunate malapropism, on several other occasions he made essentially the same comment.  This is not a faux pas but a reflection of the professor’s world view – and more generally – an example of the world view of most on the liberal left.  People are simply too stupid to do what is in their best interest – so it is up to enlightened do-gooders to enforce what is good for them on them.

These comments brought me back to the time I was able to attend “The Howdy Doody Show.”  It was much earlier than my experience with the magic mail order system.  I think I was about eight – and like all the ther kids who attended, I sat in “The Peanut Gallery.”  Like all the other “peanut attendees” I was wowed by Buffalo Bob, Princess Summerfallwinterspring and Mr. Bluster.  It was a half hour of pure fantasy and delight.  But I graduated from The Peanut Gallery.

I wonder if Professor Gruber ever had that same experience.

“Goober – a peanut.”  {Colloquially – A person of limited intelligence}.

“Gruber – a pompous, cynical ass paid nearly $6 Million by various government agencies to deceive the American goober to buy into Obamacare.”

SPAY AND NEUTER

With a lifelong passion for companion animals, primarily dogs although a few kitties worked their way in, I heartily support the effort to act humanely and control the animal population so that fewer of them are inhumanely treated or are euthanized.  While I personally value these critters more highly than at least a couple of the people I’ve met on my journey, I realize that the prevailing thought among most people is that we, as top of the food chain (momentarily), are far more important than the most wonderful of our four footed friends.  So let’s go with that line of thought for a moment.

I’ve previously written about an explanation I received from a Russian Orthodox bishop as to what the “unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit” was.  For those who missed it let me recap.  God’s love and forgiveness is limitless.  But unless the person who needs that forgiveness asks for it, God does not impose himself on the sinner.  The way most of us know this is by the label, “Free Will.”  But if a person is so hardened of heart that he refuses to ask for forgiveness, it is denied him.  That is not by God’s choice but is a function of the individual’s decision.

While I am not a theologian, from a lay person’s perspective I have come to the conclusion that certain specific acts or crimes are manifestations of the person who has reached a point where he or she is incapable of asking for compassion – because that person is unable to understand compassion and feels no guilt about inflicting violence and brutality against others.  The three crimes which I view as examples of this are crimes against children; crimes against the infirm or elderly; and crimes against animals.

We send our children to school to be educated in the fundamentals they will need to make it through.  We trust that when they go there they will be provided a safe environment in which to learn.  The most recent shooting spree by a jilted boy friend in Washington state is garnering only slightly more attention than the hatchet attacks against two rookie New York City policemen, probably because the shooter, a Native American, doesn’t fit the left’s agenda that virtually all violence is committed by white males and the NRA is responsible for all our ills.

But this piece is not about school shootings.  It is about something at least as tragic and even more widespread.  It is about sexually predatory teachers.  And it seems, based on recent arrests, that there is an ordinate number of women, not men, who are the guilty parties.  That doesn’t work well with the “War on Women” meme that abounds in the liberal media.

I recently read several stories in which female teachers took advantage of their position and had sexual relations with their students.  One was committed by a twenty-two year old substitute teacher on her first day teaching at a school in Washington, D. C.  The student was a seventeen year old male, on whom she performed oral sex.  Perhaps as disturbing as the story were the comments on the story, many of which referred to her attractive appearance and left remarks like, “Wow, she’s a looker.  I wish I had her teaching my class when I was in high school.”

Another story from a few days earlier detailed the fact that a thirty-four year old teacher had been arrested in California and charged with having an inappropriate sexual relationship with one of her students.  In this case she was married and has several small children at home.  That in itself is a scary thought.

In New York City, a gym teacher was charged with thirty counts of statutory rape for allegedly having sex with one of her male students on a regular basis over a period of many months.  In addition, she faces four charges for “criminal sexual acts”.  Apparently, predators are not restricted to any geographical area.  All they need is a classroom.

My parents had many concerns that they pondered in my rearing.  I am, however, confident that worrying about one of my teacher’s molesting me while at was at school was not on their list of worries.  If I had kids in school today I suspect I would feel differently.

Now I realize that there are those on the left who adamantly oppose the death penalty, suggesting that the argument that executing someone does not really deter others from committing similar executable crimes.  Perhaps they’re correct.  And the argument that if we made a mistake in arriving at a conviction and then execute the person, well that decision is irreversible.  That’s definitely true.  So I would like to promote a compromise punishment for people who are found guilty of sexually predatory behavior – whether teachers or otherwise.  Spay and neuter.

Should the reader think this is “cruel and unusual punishment” I would draw their attention to the children who are maligned and how they are likely to suffer a lifelong struggle to overcome their abuse.  And, unlike a lethal injection or a firing squad, having to live the rest of your life as an asexual person might indeed prove to be a deterrent for others contemplating engaging in similar activities.

As to the argument that the death penalty is final – well, I’d admit that this too would be irreversible should someone be wrongly convicted.  But I have faith that in the near future, science will have developed a way for us to clone ourselves – so for those few who were innocent, there would still be light at the end of the tunnel.  That might be a brighter light than the one that will ever shine on the victims whom these predators have abused.

COLOR BLIND

Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning was a small store, about a ten minute walk from my apartment.  The proprietor, a lady who was in her mid-fifties when I first began bringing my clothes there was a Taiwanese woman who spoke very little, broken English. Her name was Chan Mei.  I used her services for a very long time.

When I say a long time it was over a period where I saw her son Peter grow from a toddler, playing in his play pen in the store; watch him grow old enough that he would help out with the ironing; graduate from the University of Illinois with a degree in electrical engineering; get married and have his first child, a daughter whom he named Doris.

After Doris was born I asked Peter how he had decided on her name, thinking this was perhaps a close approximation of a Chinese name.  He answered me, “She has no Chinese name.  We’re Americans, so she has an American name.  Besides, I like Doris Day and her movies.  She seems very nice and very happy.  I want my daughter to be very nice and very happy.”

Every Saturday between noon and twelve fifteen I would show up at Chan’s, armed with a bundle of soiled clothes and some wire hangers which I was returning so they could be reused and would pick up my clothes that had been expertly cleaned.  It got to the point when Mei was so used to my schedule that she always had my clothing up front shortly before noon so that I didn’t have to wait for her to find them among all the hanging clothes that were ready and waiting for pick up.

When my mother passed away, I left Chicago and spent four weeks in New York, dealing with all the things one has to do after a family death.  Needless to say, my last load of clothing languished in Chan’s until I returned to the Windy City.

When I came in that next Saturday, Mei sighed as though in relief and said, “I worry about you, Missee Juwanna.  I thinkee maybe something happen you – no see for long time.”  I explained what had occurred and the reason for my absence.  A look of great concern and sadness came over Mei’s face.

“You fatha die and now you motha die.  You orphan now.”

With that statement, Mei raised the wooden hinged board in the front counter that allowed access to the back of the store, came over to me and gave me a big hug.  “I be you motha now,” she said as the tears welled up in both our eyes.

After a few minutes in this embrace, Mei released me and before giving me my clothes which I could see waiting in their usual place, she said, “You waitee here.”  She went in the back of the store and I could hear oil sizzling in a wok.  About ten minutes later she came to the front of the store with a little plastic lined white Chinese food takeout box and presented me with my lunch.

I thought that was extremely sweet but was completely taken by surprise when the following Saturday I was again presented with a take out container.  That continued  every Saturday for the next twenty years.  This loving woman had voluntarily taken on this responsibility and never failed to deliver on her commitment.  When she finally returned to Taiwan at the age of 78 to take care of an older brother who’s wife had passed away, I could tell that Mei was concerned that I would be able to carry on without her.  But I assured her that I would be okay – and she hesitantly seemed to believe me.

About five years after Mei began making my Saturday meals, I walked in as usual and could see that she was very upset.  I asked her why she was so distraught.  She said, “Man come in and wavee gun at me – steal money.”  I was so angered that someone had stolen the little amount of money this woman had and who worked so hard to earn it, I was determined to do whatever I could to see that he was apprehended.

I asked Mei, “Was he tall or short; fat or thin; black or white?”  If I happened to see him while doing my Saturday shopping, I wanted to be able to flag down one of the police cars that regularly cruised the neighborhood.

Mei looked at me and said, “Missee Juwanna.  All you black and white people lookee same to me.”  I had to bite my cheek to prevent an involuntary smile from spreading across my face.  I did not want her to mistake my genuine amusement at her statement to be mis-interpreted for minimizing the seriousness of what had happened.

I thought about Mei and Chan’s Chinese Laundry & Dry Cleaning the other day because of what has been happening in Ferguson, MO.  I wondered to myself whether Ferguson had a Chinese laundry there.  And I asked myself, “If they did have a Chinese laundry in Ferguson, after all the protests, looting and rioting, is it still standing?”

THE CHANGE PURSE

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.

THE BUTTON BOX

It held a quiet place of honor in our apartment, subtly nestled on one of the lower bookshelves in the living room, quietly waiting its time to be called to service.

The button box was a cube, approximately twenty inches on each side, crafted out of a smooth, dark green cloth material.  It had three drawers filled with all sorts of threads, wrapped tightly on their wooden spools, threads in a myriad of colors.  There were orange and fuchsia and blue spools, each of the same size though some had less thread on them than others as they had previously been used to repair various garments.  The largest spools held white and black thread – those colors being used most frequently.

In addition in the drawers filled with thread, a special place was reserved where there were sewing scissors and needles of all sorts of thicknesses and several simple thimbles, one made of brass, the other of silver.  But the top of the button box was where the true treasure existed.  It was a large hoard of buttons that had been painstakingly removed from garments that had been retired from service after long years of use.

Before old clothes were turned into rags with the pinking shears inside the button box, each button was carefully severed and added to the collection.  Of course, many of the buttons which came from my father’s shirts were simple white ones, but they had their own personality and individuality.  Some were pure white and as simple as they were, the ones which had formerly been used to button the shirt front were larger than the ones that fastened the collar.  Even among the white buttons there was variation.  Some had two holes for sewing and others had four.  And while some were resplendently devoid of color white, others were more of a bone shade.  The truth of this dispels the notion that, “All white buttons look alike.”  They don’t.

One night after dinner, our little family sat in the living room to watch that week’s episode of “The Milton Berle Show.”  Dad swung the doors open on the cabinet which housed our Dumont television and turned the dial to on, waiting for the set to warm up and readying himself to fiddle with the rabbit ears antenna on the top should the picture need adjustment.  But after several minutes, the familiar sound of the tubes warming up, getting ready to do their job and bring us an evening of entertainment was singularly absent.

Dad clicked the set off, waited a few seconds and then turned it back on again.  Sadly, no line appeared on the television, letting us know that the set was sufficiently warmed up so that we could soon expect to see Mr. Berle in all his zany madness.  The set was dead.  My father made the pronouncement, much to all of our regret.  So we played a game of Monopoly instead and I got to be the banker.

The following morning my mother called Gerhardt Schrader, the TV repairman.  I had only seen Mr. Schrader twice before when he had previously come by to fix our set.  He was a very pleasant man who seemed to know his craft quite well.  I liked him but I was particularly fascinated by the large mole which he had on his lower left jaw.  Mother told me, “Don’t stare at Mr. Schrader’s mole,” which only made my eyes gravitate towards it more anxiously.  In any event, he was booked up much of that day and asked if he could stop by between seven o’clock and seven-thirty or if that would interrupt our dinner.  (We normally ate at six so mom said that would be very convenient).

True to his word, our downstairs buzzer rang just at seven and we buzzed Mr. Schrader and his tool boxes in.  He promptly arrived at our apartment and headed directly for the set.

Like a skilled surgeon, he gently swiveled the cabinet away from the wall, pulled out a screwdriver and removed the pressed wood backing which protected all the tubes from exposure, set it aside and began examining the tubes in the rear of this most wonderful piece of entertainment.  He quickly identified the tube that was at fault, pulled it from the set, went into his tube box and found a replacement and swapped this new tube for the one that had burned out.  Before reattaching the rear panel to the back he switched on the set and much to our delight, the picture came on and everything was right as rain once again.

While Mr. Schrader was engaged in his surgical procedure, Grandma had gone into the kitchen, cut a large slice of the apple pie she had made earlier that day and returned with it and a cup of coffee to give Mr. Schrader as a special extra, “Thank you.”  Mr. Schrader apparently liked apple and other pies as well since he had quite a little extra belly on him.  And as she offered him and he gratefully accepted this treat, Grandma noticed that one of the buttons on his blue shirt, just above the navel, had been lost.  Through his pale blue shirt, Mr. Schrader’s undershirt was quite visible.

Grandma asked him, “Mr. Schrader, are you still a bachelor?”  He said that he was.  “Well, no wonder you have a button missing on your shirt.  No woman at home to take care of you.  You can’t go around like that.”  With that admonition, Grandma went into her clothes basket which contained the day’s load of clean wash, awaiting ironing, and pulled out a white terry cloth bathrobe.  She handed it to Mr. Schrader with the admonition that he was to go into our bathroom, change into the robe and hand her his blue shirt for repair.  Mr. Schrader didn’t have a moment to object before Grandma commanded him, “Now go.  Go.”    Mr. Schrader, sensing that this old woman meant business, dutifully took the bathrobe and I showed him the door to our bathroom.  He exited a few moments later, decently attired in the robe with his shirt in his hand.  Only then was he permitted to enjoy his pie and coffee.

While Mr. Schrader was changing, Grandma had whisked the button box from its resting place.  She had opened the lid and had assembled an army of white buttons so that she could commence her repair job as soon as the patient was presented to her.  Mr. Schrader handed her his shirt and she immediately began sorting through the buttons she had assembled, diligently looking to find an exact match.

After discarding a few she found one that was perfect and she began threading her needle.  On went the brass thimble and in no time at all she had fixed Mr. Schrader’s shirt, faster than he had been able to eat his pie or drink his coffee.  As I looked at Grandma I saw a sigh of contentment come over her.  It was as though she was relieved that she had been able to right an irreparable wrong and that gave her a great sense of peace.  Mr. Schrader finished his desert and complimented Grandma on her pie.  He waived his normal charge for making a “house call” and only charged my father for the tube he had replaced and went on his way after changing back into his work shirt and returning the bathrobe to Grandma who promptly put it in the hamper with clothes that needed washing.

Several months later, one of my friends named Betty, the girl in the building next door, saw my mother on the street and asked if I would be allowed to join her family for an event that was being held at the Bierhaus about a half mile from our apartments.  There was a wonderful band that was coming all the way from Leipzig and her parents asked if I could join them for dinner and an evening of traditional German songs.  My mother agreed – knowing that these were very nice people – and wanting me to experience music in its many expressions.

The night of the event came and I was all dressed up for the occasion.  Mom delivered me to the Knecht’s and Mr. and Mrs. Knecht, Betty and I began our fifteen minute walk to the Bierhaus.  It was a beautiful late September evening.

The Bierhaus was full of people – all speaking German.  I was glad that I had the Knechts as my guardians because I couldn’t understand a thing that people were saying, other than them.  And then, over in the corner, I spotted Mr. Schrader.  Like everyone there he seemed to be enjoying himself, actively engaged in a conversation with another man while he swung around his half full frosted beer stein, managing to keep all its contents inside.

I remembered my mother’s admonition, “Don’t stare at his mole.”  That turned out not to be difficult, because my eye was fixed elsewhere – on the missing button from his dress shirt under which I could plainly see his white undershirt.  It was in the same place as the missing button which Grandma had repaired.  I began to think, perhaps there’s something about Mr. Schrader’s shirt and his belly which just don’t get along.  I still hold that opinion.

Mr. Schrader came over to our little group.  Apparently he knew Mr. Knecht quite well.  As I later found out, the Knechts used Mr. Schrader when their television needed repair.  He was apparently the television repairman to the neighborhood.

The two men began speaking in German and having a very good laugh together.  Fortunately, Betty translated for me.  She told me that Mr. Schrader told the story about how Grandma had repaired his button when he had made his house call to us.  When he had finished telling Mr. Knecht the story, he turned to me, noticing that my eyes kept gravitating to the space where there had once been a button and said, “Please don’t tell your Grandmother about my missing button.  Let’s just keep this our little secret, okay?”  And I never did because I knew it would have broken her heart.

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