In my seventh year, Mama was teaching me about giving. It was one of her specialties. Nothing gave her more joy than watching someone’s face as they opened a birthday or Christmas gift. She’d sing as she happily prepared sumptuous meals for our family or cleaned our house. If she heard of someone who was without the essentials of life, she did what she could to help. Back then, there wasn’t a great deal of extra money, but she would always do something: bake a casserole for the neighbor who just had surgery, save newspapers to donate to the paper drive we had at my elementary school, buy a gift for a child who’s name she had gotten from an Angel Tree at the mall.
All summer and fall Mama had given me little chores: washing dishes perched on a chair, dusting the low furniture with lemon-scented Pledge, folding towels still warm from the dryer. For each of these tasks, she would add a few coins to the Mason jar on my desk. I would look at it each day and wonder how much money I had saved so far. I was thrilled to watch the coins mounding up in there.
Occasionally, I would beg to spend the money on some toy I had seen advertised during Saturday morning cartoons. Mama would remind me that the money in the jar was my Christmas money and that I could only spend it on my friends and family. I would say, “Oh, yeah, I forgot,” with a long face.
Mama would get out the Sear’s catalog and say, “Here, why don’t you look in here and see what you can find that Curtis or your dad might want for Christmas?” I would soon be engrossed in dreaming of what I would buy everyone with my shiny coins.
One Friday in early December Mom picked me up from the babysitter’s. I carried my school books into my room and put them on my desk. With horror, I saw that my Christmas money jar was gone. I ran into the kitchen and said, “Mama! Mama! Someone stole my Christmas money!”
She smiled and said, “Oh, no, they didn’t. It’s right here.” She pulled out a bank envelope and handed it to me. I looked inside. It was packed with more bills than I had ever seen. I pulled them out and counted seventeen crisp one dollar bills. (This was 1972, when seventeen dollars was a pretty good amount of money.)
I shrieked with delight, “Seventeen dollars! Wow!”
I went immediately to the Sears catalog and spread it out on my lap. “I can get Curtis this! Oh, Daddy would like that!”
“We’ll all go to the store tomorrow and you can buy your Christmas gifts for everybody and see Santa,” Mama said. I put my money into my favorite pocketbook – a suede circle with a darker suede smiley face on the front and a long strap. I couldn’t sleep that night I was so excited.’
We were one of the first families in the store that day. Curtis and Dad went off to buy gifts for me and Mama. I couldn’t wait to go to the hardware section for Daddy’s gift or the sports section for Curtis’s. Knowing I’d been too excited later, Mama said, “Let’s go to the shoe department first. We need to get you some shoes to wear with your Christmas outfit.” Reluctantly, I followed her to the up escalator and sat through the process, which was never easy, of finding shoes narrow enough for my slender feet. Finally, a pair was decided on and we were off! I pulled Mama by the hand to the down escalator and we headed to the basement hardware section. With the help of a salesman, we found the tool I had selected from the catalog for Daddy. The salesman rang it up and said, “That will be $4.95, little lady.”
I reached for my pocketbook, feeling so grown up, and it wasn’t there! Stricken, I looked at Mama with tears in my eyes. Panicked, I said, “I don’t have my pocketbook!”
“Oh, no!” Mama said. “Are you sure you brought it in the store?”
I nodded, tears already pooling in my eyes.
“You must have left it in the shoe department!” she said, quickly paying my tab and dashing back to the escalator and up two flights to the shoe department. We hurried to the chairs where we had sat and, to my great shock, there was no pocketbook in sight! Mama went up to the salesman and asked if anyone had found it and turned it in. Nope.
Realizing that all of my Christmas money was gone was devastating. I had lost things before, sure, but this was somehow different. I had so looked forward to buying the gifts I had picked out for everyone with my own money. I began to cry uncontrollably. Mama tried to console me. She offered to pay for the gifts I had chosen. I shook my head and continued crying. Somehow she located Curtis and Daddy and we left the store. I cried all the way home. I was inconsolable.
That night as I lay in bed I could hear Mama and Daddy talking in the kitchen. “It makes me so mad that she worked so hard to earn that money and some jerk just stole it!” Mama said.
A lightbulb went off in my head. All that time I had been crying because I thought I had lost my money. It had never occurred to me that someone took my money! Somehow I felt better and worse at the same time.
Days passed and I felt a little less devastated as I started to save money again. Mama was paying me with larger coins for my little tasks, realizing that I had to earn the money for my gifts with very little time left until Christmas. I wasn’t going to be happy if she just bought them for me outright.
Taking a break on the next Saturday afternoon, I went next door to the house of my best friend. Her mother was reading the newspaper as LuAnne and I played jacks on the floor at her feet. “Well, would you look at this!” she said, calling us to her. On the Letters to the Editor page, was the following letter:
NOT ALL PEOPLE ARE HONEST
I would like to personally “thank” the thief who stole a little seven-year-old girl’s Christmas money on Dec. 2. He or she taught this little girl a lesson she will remember the rest of her life: That not all people are decent, honest people. – Mrs. J. Cartner, Huntersville
Mama was not far off. It took me a few years to see the larger lesson in this experience, which was that I should always be decent and honest because I knew the pain of being on the other end of indecent and dishonest behavior. I learned that stealing really hurt the person who lost something valuable to them. Mama’s outraged and indignant response to the thief who stole my Christmas money really made an impression on me. I’ve always hoped that the thief read their Charlotte Observer Letters to the Editor that day, and that they felt ashamed of taking advantage of a little girl’s youth and innocence. It was probably wishful thinking on Mama’s part and my own. After all, when you’d steal a child-sized smiley face pocketbook, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t have much of a conscience.