My mother handed me "the note."
Her name was Gertrude, but everyone called her Annie. She was a big-hearted, fun and caring person who often got the giggles in the wrong place, like a church service. If something struck her as funny at a funeral, she broke into uncontrolled, silent laughter with tears running down her cheeks.
It was 1947, I was 10 years old, and we lived a block from the beach in Venice, Calif. At age 10, with the Great War over, life could not have been better. My friends and I flew homemade kites, rode bikes and played ball all day long.
"The note" Mom handed me was really a grocery list. The day I turned 10 was the day she deemed me responsible enough to go to the grocery store alone. We went over the note in great detail.
One quart of milk, $0.19
One loaf of bread, $0.15
Dozen eggs, $0.66
Pound of "S" butter, $0.70
Pound of coffee, $0.81
3 cans of coke, $0.05 each, $0.15
Cereal, large box, $0.27
We read the list together to make sure I understood it. Coffee would be Maxwell House. Cereal would be Nabisco Grahams. She gave me $5 and said I needed to bring back the correct change. It would be all right if I spent 2 cents on candy. But I would need to return with $2.05.
The grocery store, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Applebaum, was two blocks from home. Mr. Applebaum was very tall with a long, thin nose. Mrs. Applebaum was 4 feet 7 inches in all directions, from top to bottom, front to back and side to side. Whenever they spoke to each other, it was to give directions. He would say, "Watch the front." She would say, "Sweep the floor." He would say, "Put out more eggs." She would say, "Take out the trash." I wondered if they talked like that when they were home alone.
I handed Mr. Applebaum the list. He squinted at the paper, first holding it close, then stretching his arm till he found the place he could read it. It looked like he was playing a trombone with the paper, his arm going back and forth. He placed the items on the counter: bread, coffee, milk.
"What is this?" he asked.
"That's butter," I said
"It says "S" butter."
"S" is for sweet."
"S" could be for salt," he said, looking at me with those piercing dark eyes, as if aiming them down his long, thin nose. The question hung in the air.
"Well, what is it boy?"
"Salt ... no, sweet ... no, salt."
"Son, I haven't got all day, make a decision."
I said "sweet" and gave him the $5. He counted out the correct change. I put two pennies in the candy machine and got two jawbreakers. After putting one in my mouth and the other in my sack, I looked down. There on the floor was a $20 bill. I looked around. No one was in the aisle. I put it in my pocket. On the walk home, I thought of all the things I could buy. A Roy Rogers cap-gun set with a cowboy hat and chaps. And a decoder ring. I could buy 2,000 jawbreakers. At one a day, it would take almost six years to devour them. I was rich.
When I got home, Mom and I unloaded the food. She laughed while I told her about the "S" butter. Of course, I got the wrong kind. An egg rolled off the counter and splattered. She got the giggles as we cleaned up the mess.
"Mom, look what I found!" I held up the $20.
A questioning look on her face: "Where did you find it?"
"At the grocery store."
"Inside the store?"
"Yeah, Mom, on the floor."
Something was wrong; I thought she would be happy.
"You know, honey, it belongs to someone else."
"No, it's mine; I found it."
"No, it's not yours. It could be someone's food money for the month. You don't want someone to go hungry do you?"
"Or it could belong to the Applebaums."
"But Mom," I pleaded.
"Did you earn it?
"Did you work for it?"
"Then why do you think you deserve it? Take the money back and tell Mr. Applebaum you found it in his store."
"But Mom! What if he just keeps it and doesn't give it to the person who lost it."
"Then the shame will be on his head, not on yours."
Over the years I've thought of that story often. My mother taught me how to shop, how to handle money and a moral lesson all in one day.
But I still think of those 2,000 jawbreakers every once in awhile.