My father bent down low and held two quarters out to me. He was looking stern in his perfectly pressed Brooks Brother’s suit. I rocked back and forth, heel to toe. “You will get one quarter a week,” Pop explained. “But only if you behave and do your chores as you’re told.” I nodded my head vigorously. “AND you will put half of your allowance into the bank every month.” Again, I nodded my head vigorously up and down. “Now then. Since this is the second week of the month you will be paid one quarter retroactively and the other is for this last week.” I didn’t know what retroactively meant. But if it meant I was getting an extra quarter, I was all for it.
In a motion resembling that of first communion, I accepted these two quarters and cradled them carefully in the palm of my chubby outstretched four-year-old hands. My mother was instructed to take me to the bank and open a savings account. He then gave her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek, turned crisply, and headed out the door to the bank where he worked.
It was a big day. My first allowance AND my first savings account.
My little legs pumped up and down with excitement as Mom shushed me down the hall to get ready. One quarter was carefully dropped into an old jam jar, the other placed into my coat pocket. The year was 1964, a time when we all dressed up in our best to go on excursions, even if it was just shopping and to the bank. Mother wore spike-heeled shoes and a pillbox hat. Her dress was a winter knit and she carefully tucked a pair of white gloves neatly over her fingers after we settled into the car. I was dressed in my “Sunday best,” complete with white ankle socks, black shiny patent leather Mary Jane’s, and my good wool coat over a stiff and scratchy dress.
“Can I sit in the way-back?” I asked. The “way-back” was how my brother and I referred to the big open area at the rear of the station wagon where we would sprawl out on long trips. Mom shook her head firmly. “No, you’re wearing your good clothes. You’re staying up front with me.” I slumped back in my seat.
“Are we going to the BIG bank?” I asked. The BIG bank was the large office building where Pop worked in downtown Seattle (See Addle was how the word rolled in my mind. I always wanted to See Addle and was perpetually disappointed when we never did). “No, we’re just going to the little bank,” explained mom. This was the local branch in the tiny city center of our town, Mercer Island. I was actually kind of scared of the BIG bank, so was glad to hear this news.
At the bank I had to stand on my tippy-toes just to place the quarter up on the counter. I couldn’t see the clerk’s face but I could smell her floral perfume as a wave of it wafted across my face. It hurt my nose. Moments later an arm stretched over the counter and handed me the much coveted savings book. It was dark blue with shiny gold letters and the bank’s logo embossed on the cover. My legs took on a life of their own again as they pumped up and down like little pistons while I protectively clutched MY savings book in both hands. In addition to the single treasured quarter neatly noted in the book there was also $5 of birthday money deposited that day.
Unfortunately, the first blush of receiving an allowance wore off all too quickly. I soon discovered that there were many obstacles to leap over in order to earn that allowance. The slightest infraction seemed to be an excuse for having it revoked each week.
Saturday was allowance day and was viewed with a mixture of anxiety, dread, and anticipation. Pop’s rule was that we had to “ask” for our allowance each week. So every Saturday my older brother (the worldly age of eight) and I went through the same ritual that invariably began with the two of us conferencing in some remote corner of the house on how to make “the ask.” We tallied up our infractions for the week and agreed on our excuses. The usual infractions were counting up how often we missed doing our daily chores. These included bringing in the milk each morning, feeding the dog, making our beds, helping Mom with the dishes, or during the summer helping Pop with yard work (we were his fetch and carry caddies). The worst infractions were talking back to our Mother, breaking something we were told not to touch, or entering into mischief with the neighborhood kids.
My brother sometimes negotiated with me to swap chores (and then not do mine). He also had a habit of frequently “forgetting” to do his. “Oh! I forgot!” would become the running gag that chased him through adulthood.
Yet, for some reason, my brother would often get his allowance no matter what chores he “forgot” to do that week. But my allowance was frequently withheld. There was one particular time when Pop reminded me about behaving badly that week, which in point of fact, was something my brother had done. I stood defiantly, hands on hips and matching my dad’s stare blink for blink, I boldly told him that JOHN had done that which was wrong. Pop was never one to admit his faults, so retorted with, “Well, I’m certain you did SOMETHING wrong that I don’t know about, so you’ve lost it on principal!” This statement was punctuated with a thrusting of his finger above his head.
Then there was the watchful eye over the savings book to make sure I was, indeed, saving half of every quarter I earned. Pop was dismayed at my lack of progress and I had to keep reminding him that if he actually gave me my allowance I could save more. My jam jar of coins seemed impossible to fill.
During the same year as my first allowance the musical film Mary Poppins debuted. My mother announced that she would be taking us to the movie. Going to the movies was an enormous treat that required careful planning, much anticipation, and numerous lectures about proper public behavior. Watching that movie was an epiphany of senses. The big screen, richly colorful scenery, booming music, and fantastical magic, all culminating in a moment that became forever engraved in my mind. It was the scene with the father taking his children on an “outing,” where they wound up at his place of work. The impact of that lonely walk Jane and Michael took – tuppence clutched firmly in hand to deposit into the Fiduciary Bank – is forever recorded in my memory. It was as though I was watching my very own life unfold across the screen. Like Mr. Banks in the film, my own father worked for a bank. They both wore suits and both expected high standards of their children. And they both expected us to deposit our allowance into the bank. Unbelievable! All the other father’s on our block seemed to work for a place called Boeing. Except one dad who was a teacher. To see a film about a banker dad was – in my mind – quite an extraordinary thing. But on a more wistful level, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps there might be a real Mary Poppins and a real Chimney Sweep who would teach my father how to fly a kite. Somehow, I doubted it. Just as I doubted one could really fly with an umbrella (though my best friend and I practiced for hours one windy afternoon with no success – other than to break the umbrella, which caused my allowance to be revoked that week).
When I was about eight, my mother decided to give me a new opportunity to earn the allowance I never seemed to get. She handed me a broom and said she would pay me a quarter for each deck I swept. We had two wooden decks from the back of the house – one upper and one lower. If I did this every week without being told, she would pay me every week. I eagerly took on the task. My first job of deck sweeping passed her careful inspection and two quarters were plucked from her coin purse and handed to me. “Remember, half must go into savings.”
“Yes, mom,” I promised.
As I stood there toying with the quarters a thought occurred to me.
“Mom?” I tugged at her dress. We were in the kitchen where she was unpacking groceries.
“I’m busy, what is it?”
“Well,” I ventured, “I was just wondering…if I swept the front walk, could I have another quarter?”
I was careful not to give direct eye-contact and instead focused on my fingers.
Mom let out a long steady sigh. Then agreed. But this was the last chore for which she would pay me.
Three quarters now burned in my pocket and a childhood rhyme hummed in my head: “Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar.” I wanted more. Well, at least ONE more. Then I’d have a dollar.
Grabbing the broom, I headed next door. The neighbor lady was Mrs. Evans, a cheerful woman with a big rosy face. Her son was my brother’s age and her husband always reminded me of Jackie Gleason from the TV show. Mr. Evans was a big man and was often sitting on their sofa nursing a glass of scotch. I half expected him to lift it to me and say, “How sweeeeet it is!”
I asked Mrs. Evans if she wanted her driveway swept. I charged a quarter. Her dimpled face lit up with a giggle. “You know, I was just standing here thinking how that driveway needed to be swept but I’m just too busy today.” She hired me on the spot. My first foray into the sales world gave me a taste of “yes” and thus launched my brief career as the official neighborhood driveway sweeper. I had several clients who paid me weekly to sweep their sidewalks and driveways that summer. I no longer worried about the quarter my father promised me every week. I was now earning more than a dollar sweeping the neighborhood and my little jam jar of coins was finally nearly full.
My brother and I collaborated on the next money-earning scheme. He had gotten a magic kit for Christmas, which had been cast aside in favor of other toys. But in the heat and boredom of summer the magic kit was now much more enticing. We decided to put on a magic show. I would be his assistant. We would charge a nickel. After practicing our ‘act’ we couldn’t help but wonder, though, if this was truly worth a nickel. We sat cross-legged in the front yard plucking blades of grass as we contemplated our choices. We finally agreed to a plan. The magic show would take place in the front yard. We would then move everyone to the back yard for a puppet show and Kool-Aid. Now that would certainly be worth a nickel!
So we ran through the neighborhood informing everyone on the block of two great shows and Kool-Aid – all for the price of one nickel. We soon had kids showing up with jars of pennies and asking if that was enough to see the show. Sure! We then changed the fee to “pay what you can,” and discovered that the kids were willing to hand over quite a bit more than a nickel. Our burgeoning ethical code didn’t even flinch as we enthusiastically collected their penny jars.
So, the show went on. All three magic tricks. Everyone moved to the back yard as designed and we put on an un-rehearsed sock-puppet show. The hit of the afternoon was the much promised Kool-Aid. It was during refreshments that our Mother discovered we had charged money for this sorry string of events. When she saw the amount of coins we had collected she was furious and made us give it all back. She then charged us for the Kool-Aid we had used and the paper cups we had taken from her cupboard. We experienced our first debt: ten-cents each. The collaboration was not a success.
About this same year my parents were remodeling the house. There were two carpenters who came by daily to work on the addition that eventually expanded the dining room upstairs and created a bicycle storage room for the basement.
Throughout the construction process I noticed that quite a few nails were appearing on the ground from their work. Most of them were used, a bit rusty and bent. I had gotten a hammer for Easter (it was my request of the Easter Bunny that year) and decided to try and straighten some of the nails. I set up my nail-straightening operation on the front stoop. I did a pretty good job of hand hammering the crook out of the nails. They weren’t exactly straight, but looked good to me. After carefully handcrafting these nails I offered them up for sale to the neighborhood boys who were building a “boys only” fort for their clubhouse. Undaunted by the failure of the magic show, I charged a nickel a nail. They were, after all, hand crafted.
Sales were going briskly, despite complaints that the boys were having trouble using them on their fort. From across the street the father of one of the boys marched over with his son in tow and asked who was selling the nails. “I am!” My excitement building as I sensed another sale warming up. “Her? You’re buying the nails from a little girl?” Mr. Schatzel bellowed at his boy. “Well, ummmm…yeah,” he shrugged. Mr. Schatzel’s face was twisted in disbelief. “Did you know you could get an entire bag full of BRAND NEW NAILS for that much?” (I sat quietly on the front stoop. Uummm…really? I wondered to myself. Perhaps I needed to rethink this operation a bit.)
The front door opened behind me and I turned. Squinting my eyes against the sunlight, I saw my mother standing there. She was a dark silhouette against the doorframe, but I could see she was wearing her house coat and holding a wooden spoon, which she shook at me as she talked.
“Cindy…clean this mess up now and then give everyone back their money.”
That night over dinner Mom informed Pop about how angry Mr. Schatzel had been. My dad laughed and my spirits lifted (ever hopeful of squeezing past trouble). Pop’s voice even seemed tinged with pride as he informed me that my allowance would be revoked that week.
In my early teens I came across a poster that was an illustrated portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It was inscribed with these words: “Four Score and Seven Years Ago…Was the Last Time You Gave Me My Allowance.” This poster was mounted unceremoniously on my bedroom wall with no apologies to my father. At family gatherings we still laugh over the awful truth of it.
Having my allowance seemingly forever just out of reach became an instrument of inventiveness as I struggled to fill my childhood coin jars. It was an act of defiance – to fill that jar. Old habits die hard and perhaps in my case not at all. As an adult I still get a thrill filling a coin jar. I’m the one you’ll see, even under the weight of a heavy rainfall, stopping short to turn back and pick up a coin left stranded on the pavement.
If it’s a quarter, I’ll smile and slip it into my coin stash until all my bits add up to a dollar. Still very much the banker’s daughter.