The town in which my mother grew up was about two blocks long in three of the four directions from the intersection that would one day — but not while she was there — have a caution light. The finest building in town was the bank. It was all stone and portico and pediments, the typical Classical Revival style that most banks built in the mid-20th century favored.
I remember the bank from my childhood visits to my grandparents’. It was empty by then, and, to my 10-year-old eyes, lonely and sad. I imagined what it was like in the days when tellers stood behind high counters and pushed money through slots to waiting customers. I wondered what it would be like to cross the marble threshold, to push open the heavy accordion door that I just knew hung at the entrance to the vault. Given my early — and continuing — tendency to wonder about just about everything, this is not surprising.
There is, though, a very specific reason why the bank in Collins fascinated me so and it has to do with an oft-repeated story about my mother.
Mama was, according to everyone who knew her as a child, free-spirited, creative and fearless. It was said by her father that she accepted every offer of a ride she ever received, asking where the driver of the car or wagon was going only after she was settled into a seat. She served as both funeral director and officiant for the funeral of all the deceased animals — pet or wildlife — in town. And, in a scene that has always made me think of “The Little Rascals,” she and a couple of her cousins, while hanging out at the train depot — as one does in a small town — climbed into one of the railroad cars and found a large bag of candy corn (Their assertion that the bag was already open when they found it has been questioned) from which they proceeded to take as much as they could eat.
One morning, my grandmother asked Mama to go buy some eggs. It was the 1940s and children could still safely wander around small towns doing things like buying eggs. Mama set out with a few coins and all the confidence in the world and proceeded to make her way to the bank, where she sauntered up to one of the teller windows and, when asked what it was the teller could do for her, replied, “I’d like to buy some eggs.”
That is the end of the story as it has always been recounted. A punch line, of sorts, but no big finish. I wasn’t smart enough to ask Mama what happened next, so I don’t know if the teller was helpful, if Mama was embarrassed. I don’t even know if she eventually got the eggs.
There are a couple of reasons why that particular story poked through into my conscious thoughts today. Tomorrow is the second anniversary of Mama’s death and my thoughts are heavy with that realization, but, also, I heard on a podcast this morning one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, say, “You can’t go to a hardware store to get bread.”
She was talking about accepting the fact that none of us ever gets everything we want from other people. She was talking about letting go of the idea that we can guilt, manipulate or even love people into doing what we want them to do. She was talking about forgiving people when you ask them for bread and all they have to offer is a screwdriver.
Tomorrow will be the second Sunday in Advent, the season in which we are admonished to wait, a paradoxical thought when one realizes that Christmas is approaching with the speed of a cheetah and with the same danger. Whether it’s cold or not, we will, all of us, be shivering with uncertainty about the world, the future. Every gathering, particularly those with family, will be charged with the memory of old injuries and the fear of not having, not being enough. Is it any surprise that all the best Christmas carols are written in a minor key?
We would do well, I think, as we hang the wreath and wrap the presents and produce more food than anyone can eat, to ask ourselves where we’ve been going to get something that isn’t there.
You can’t go to a hardware store to get bread. You can’t go to a bank to get eggs. But if we understand Christmas, we know where to go, not just for bread and eggs, but everything we need.