From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

A Penny Saved

Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.

Benjamin Franklin

My mother used to say, “You cost me a pretty penny!” And I did. When both my brother and sister were grown and gone from home, my parents discovered that another baby was on the way. At the age of forty-three, in a small-town hospital in 1937, my mother gave birth—to me. The total bill came to a whopping forty-seven dollars back then. Can you imagine? Forty-seven dollars! A pretty penny indeed!

We were not people of means, but Mother was industrious and creative. “Waste not, want not” was her motto. Many evenings, I fell asleep to the rhythmic thump and whir of her treadle sewing machine. Crisp, polished cottons and sturdy, nubby woolens slid under the needle as she sewed into the quiet hours of the night, copying current styles so that I was well-dressed.

Mother scraped together funds to provide musical training. The house rang with noise—my fingers tripping over the piano keys, my bow grating across violin strings, screeching like a cat with its tail caught under a rocking chair.

Our voices harmonized in favorite songs. We were a barbershop quartet—minus two—when we sang “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” or “In the Good Old Summertime.” Sometimes we were the Andrew Sisters singing “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “Till We Meet Again.” Oh, and how we loved show hits like “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Tea for Two.”

Mother taught me to tell the truth. She taught me how to shift gears smoothly in our gray 1937 Packard motorcar that we christened “Eunice.” She taught me the value of working for the things you want.

Mother was as popular with my friends as she was with me. Each time we entered the kitchen, we were greeted with the aromas of mouth-watering fudge, piping hot potato donuts, juicy gooseberry pie or yeasty homemade bread. Those were welcoming smells. They meant comfort. They meant home.

During my college years in the 1950s, Mother and I maintained our close relationship by correspondence, sharing our thoughts, opinions and experiences. To save money on postage, we developed the unique talent of squeezing lots of words in the tiniest space on a penny postcard. Not an inch was wasted. After all, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

My five children were born during her late seventies, and she visited as frequently as possible. At age eighty-eight, Mother came to live with our family full-time.

We eagerly shuffled our household to accommodate her. She loved going everywhere with me, pushing grocery carts, going to lunch at her favorite restaurant,McDonald’s. As we drove, she would chant, “One for themoney, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go!”

Those were happy years. When little Matthew wanted attention, he knew just where to go to get it. He nestled next to Grandma’s lilac-scented plumpness. She was always good for a cuddle. And she would smooth his hair as she read his favorite book over and over and over again—without saying “Enough!” or leaving out any of the words. Grandma was never in a hurry.

To my twin daughters, Grandma was a soul mate. They paraded their wardrobes, friends and dates before her approving eyes. Grandma always gave her undivided attention.

My teenage boys aired their complaints to her. She knew when to tease, when to sympathize, when to listen. And Grandma always had time to listen.

But as the years slipped away, so did Mother. First it was a cane. Then a walker. Later, no more going up and down stairs. It hurt to see time catching up with her. Sagely, she said, “Poor health is like a bad penny; it’s bound to show up sooner or later.” Now it was my turn to care for her.

I carried all her meals upstairs, sat with her in my big bedroom, watching television, ironing, mending, doing my paperwork—keeping her company while she did needlework. We talked. We reminisced. We sang our old favorites, blissfully uncaring that—between the two of us—we still couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. I bought yarn, and she crocheted afghans. But one day she put down her crochet hook and never took it up again.

Mother was fading and so was her eyesight. Now it was an older Matthew who climbed the stairs. He nudged Grandma over, squeezed next to her in bed and took his turn reading to her. And he never left out any of the words.

When I massaged her frail body with lotion or powdered her soft skin, I kissed her velvety back. “You know, this spot doesn’t look ninety-five years old,” I teased.

As she slipped further away, new tasks were necessary. First, it was bathing and bathroom needs, then dressing, and finally, grinding food, spoon-feeding . . . diapering. Our roles changed. I felt that I was now her mother, she was my child, and we were both enduring to the end.

Six months before her ninety-eighth birthday, Mother peacefully passed away in the comfort of her own little bed, in her own little room . . . in my house. Downstairs in the kitchen, yeast bread was rising, filling the air with the scent of comfort, the scent of home.

As one last act of service, I chose to dress my mother’s sweet, aged body—this time for burial. And I felt our roles reverse a second time as once again I became the child, mourning the loss of my mother.

Now, most people don’t get to keep their mothers for ninety-seven years. I was blessed to have her, tend her, perhaps even repay her a little for her great sacrifices during my childhood. As I pore over her penny postcards that I’ve cherished through the years, I can only think: a pretty penny, indeed!

Carita Barlow
As told to Carol McAdoo Rehme

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