83: Back to the Bank

83: Back to the Bank

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Back to the Bank

To bring up a child in the way he should go—travel that way yourself.

~Josh Billings

“Why are we going back to the bank?” I asked my mother. The five of us—my mother, three brothers, and I—had just returned home from a morning of running errands. Packages were mailed, utility bills were paid and cash withdrawn from the bank. Trapped in the car with my younger brothers all morning was torture anyway, and besides that, it was a hot, humid day and the car’s torn seats were itchy and uncomfortable. Our little house, with the white bed linens hanging from the clothesline in the back yard, was a welcomed sight.

As a reward for good behavior all morning, my mother had promised to take us to our aunt’s pool for an afternoon of swimming. My brothers and I had bolted from the old black station wagon toward the house when we were brought to a halt by our mother’s voice. “Everyone back in the car,” she said. “We are going back to the bank.”

I had only two things on my twelve-year-old mind—lunch and swimming. Although my aunt and uncle lived down the street, it was rare that we were invited over for a swim. Since pools in this part of the country were a novelty, this was an opportunity not to be missed. I couldn’t wait to get in the water to work on what I called my water ballet moves and maybe get up some courage to dive off the diving board. All we had to do was eat a quick sandwich, wrestle on our bathing suits, grab our beach towels and go. And now, we had to get back in the car?

We lived in a small, rural town in New England. We drove nearly an hour on narrow, curved roads and routes to the services and businesses we had visited in the morning. I calculated the timeline in my head. This could take at least two hours, not counting the time in the bank. I pleaded with my mother. “Can’t we go back tomorrow? We can’t go today. Please? We want to go swim. Please?” My mother replied calmly, “We are going back to the bank.”

My mother herded us back into the hot, stuffy car. She brought some snacks—apples, cheese, and a rare treat—chilled bottles of Coca-Cola. I would have none of it. I sat in the back seat with my arms crossed tightly against my chest. I stared out the window, seeing nothing. I resisted the urge to physically communicate to my tired, noisy brothers how much their whining irritated me. My mother was driving and singing along to a Chet Atkins song, as if on a leisurely Sunday drive on a spring day.

My mother parked the station wagon in front of the bank. The bank was a grand two-story building constructed of granite blocks. Four tall columns flanked the brass-framed, glass door entrance. The brood tumbled out of the car and up the granite stairs. The polished stone floors and vaulted, painted and gilded ceiling echoed our noisy entrance into the bank. I stayed close to my mother’s side as we approached the tellers’ windows and then my mother paused. She looked from one teller to the next, and then with assurance she approached a teller standing behind the window at the end of the long, marble and mahogany counter.

The teller was a pretty and petite woman who looked nervous and tense. My mother told the young woman that she was the customer who had come to the bank in the morning and this woman had given my mother the cash she had withdrawn. Talking to this young woman in a kind, soft voice, my mother explained that she had returned to the bank to correct an error that had occurred earlier.

A worried look quickly replaced the teller’s smile. My mother reached into her purse with the broken clasp and pulled something out. Then, I saw my mother slide a one-hundred-dollar bill over the marble countertop to the teller. “You gave me one hundred dollars too much,” my mother said.

Trying to hold back the tears, the teller leaned forward and whispered, “I’m so sorry. I’m worried and upset and I have made several errors. I was told this morning that if I made one more error, I would lose my job. You see, my husband left me this week. I have two small children to support. Thank you so much for returning this money. I can’t thank you enough. Not many people would have returned this money. Thank you so much.” My mother simply said, “You’re welcome.” And gently patting the teller’s hand, she said, “Good luck to you.”

We filed out of the grandiose bank and into our dirty, rundown station wagon. It was raining now. Any hope of swimming today, or for the rest of the summer for that matter, was lost. As my mother drove the country roads for the second time that day, she said little. She treated this event as business as usual, nothing special. But I knew that something important had happened on that disappointing, swim-less day, though I could not have told you what it was at the time.

But fifty years later, I can tell you what happened on that one summer day. I had been taught, by my mother’s humble act, the lessons of honesty, integrity and kindness. Throughout my life, whenever I have been faced with the inevitable what-is-the-right-thing-to-do dilemma, the choice has been made easy thanks to my mother. I simply recall my mother’s voice and hear her say, “We are going back to the bank.”

~Elizabeth Greenhill

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