I was somewhat younger than my father then. He had come down from the Maine farm to seek his fortune in Boston, and in his modest rise to riches had become a mass transportation expert for the Boston Elevated Railway system. He had married my mother-to-be, and they had found a second-floor flat in Brighton, where he centered his business. He was a conductor on the Brighton-Newton-Watertown trolley cars, running from Watertown to the Park Street subway station under Boston Common, the all-change place.
If you rode his line, he took your nickel - that being the fare - he'd pull a cord that worked an overhead register, and at the end of the day would turn in, at the car barn, as many nickels as the register had recorded. For this he was paid a pittance, and in good Boston principle was expected to steal money to live on. Once he asked for a raise, and the super asked him why he didn't help himself, "as everybody else does!"
My mother, just lately wed, had on her shelf a copper-luster cream jug that was a wedding gift from a well-heeled cousin. It was a beautiful thing; any housewife would treasure one like it.
We never knew poverty, but we skated near the edge, and many times my mother's cream jug was our family ace in the hole. It began with the gas meter. Every so often the gas would shut itself off, and a quarter had to be inserted in the basement meter to start things going again. It seemed that every time my mother had something to bake, the previous quarter would run out and she'd have to find another. She needed a supply of quarters handy.
Meantime, my father struggled with his conscience and economics back and forth from Watertown to Park Street. He found some pleasure that his work took him by both Fenway Park and Braves Field, and he got acquainted with the baseball players of both leagues as they stood on the back platform and rode to work. But he wasn't always happy about the public.
One trip he asked a sweet little lady in an R. H. Sterns Beacon Hill hat for her nickel, and she was indignant about it. She said, "I never pay!"
My dad quoted an old down-Maine saying, attributed to Chief Sockalexis of the Sabbatis Tribe, "If you don't paddle, you don't ride!" The lady said, "I'll have your buttons, young man! I'm Judge Skelton's cook!"
When my father asked his super for advice about this, the super said, "Well, she is the judge's cook." But now back to the luster-ware cream jug:
While my mother was forever needing quarters to feed into the gas meter, my father would find handfuls of quarters in his daily buckets of nickels. So he'd save four or eight, put back one or two dollar bills of his own money, and he'd bring the quarters home and put them in Mother's luster jug as a gas fund. That problem was solved.
As time ran along, Dad gained and the kitty in the jug increased as Mom didn't use the quarters as fast as Dad brought them. Also, Mom would have a spare coin now and again and she'd drop it in. The cream jug became a savings bank for casual needs.
My best cream-jug story concerns the lady next door.
When my father spaded a garden behind the tenement house, rare in the city limits, Mother sold a few vegetables now and then in the neighborhood. She'd get 2 cents for a cucumber, 3 for a tomato, maybe 5 for a head of lettuce, and this would go into the jug.
Then this Mrs. So-and-so moved in on the corner, and shortly she came to ask if she might buy a nice, fresh cucumber? Mother had one in the ice-chest, and said that would be 2 cents. The lady fumbled in her purse and said, "I do believe I've come away with no small coins. Can you change a $20?" Mother said she thought not, and to let it go until next time.
Mrs. So-and-so became a good customer, and each time she pulled the $20-bill stunt. The day she came for two tomatoes and two ears of corn she peaked at 13 cents, and my mother said, "Why, yes, I believe I can."
From her luster cream jug she brought the lady her change from a $20, all in one-cent coins.
I have that only from hearsay, but I do remember the day I started high school. This was in l922, and boys in high school wore neckties. Yes, they did. As I was leaving the house that morning, Mother looked me over and said, "I guess you're all right except for a necktie." She went to her luster jug and brought me a quarter and two nickels. "Stop," she said, "at the Curtis clothing store and have Mr. Curtis show you how to tie a four-in-hand."
Mom boxed my ear with ceremonial affection, I kissed her, Mr. Curtis obliged, and I started high school.
I mention this not so much to tell how handsome I was in a new necktie as to emphasize that in 1922 you could get a durable tie for 35 cents. I wore that one through high school and college, and then it began to fray.
My mother's luster cream jug was far more than a backlog of useful coins. It was full of precepts about thrift and frugality. Don't buy what you can't afford. Always pay cash and take your discount. Don't be extravagant. And one thing more: As you grow older, you get better and better.
The little luster creamer will soon have its centennial, and you should see the antique dealers as they admire it and drool! You may look at it if you wish. It's in our china hutch. Come by appointment and drop in a coin.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society