I regard my uncle as a great intellect and storyteller. A retired educator, he can go on for hours about opera, literature, art, languages, you name it. His undying quest to absorb and share facts is awe-inspiring.
My uncle is also a brother — to my mother. Just as he aced the role of eternal font of knowledge, he’s also a top-notch big bro. This means he can playfully jab at his younger sister for some chuckles. Both were born in the thick of the Great Depression, so the sibling banter has been going on for a while.
I had the pleasure of recently spending my mom’s birthday week with her, and witnessing the annual arrival of “The Card” from her dear brother. Every year, via ink (and of course verbally) he recounts a story from the time my mother turned 5. There was a particular incident he has kept alive, like one of those trick candles you can’t blow out. It involved an untimely recitation of a quaint, innocent birthday card poem, one that he faithfully inscribes on my mom’s birthday greetings.
Let’s take a trolley ride to Brooklyn in the early 1940s, a time when many Americans continued to struggle financially. My mother, the youngest of six, had just turned that sweet age of 5. She and her mom, my grandmother, were taking the local streetcar for a visit or errand somewhere. Knowing my grandmother, they were probably going to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, perhaps to find a pocket of joy.
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Back then, kids under 5 would ride trolleys free. Being a mother of six who was still gasping from the Great Depression, my grandmother was well aware of this bargain. God rest her soul, she was a woman of great faith. She managed to raise brilliant, talented, loving children. Every one of them. I often wonder how she survived so many challenges in her personal life — all mixed in with the backdrop of serious world events.
Perhaps it was because my grandmother was a realist. Rumor has it when the going got tough, she would double down. She applied that philosophy when necessary. Even on trolley rides. Pennies had to be pinched. Precious money had to be saved.
The plan was, on that day, my mother would still be “under” 5. Because sheesh, what’s a few days? Only my mother, who has always been blessed with a sharp ear and keen observation skills, was not informed of the money-saving scheme.
So as they boarded, the trolley driver looked at my mother. She has always been tall. He asked, probably with an arched eyebrow, if she was indeed under 5.
It seemed the discussion of a person’s “fiveness” channeled my mom’s thoughts to a greeting card poem she had recently received and memorized. As the grownups bickered, my mom wanted to share her accomplishment with the general public. She began to recite aloud:
“Goodness gracious sakes alive,”
Perhaps the driver’s eyebrow remained frozen in its upward position. My grandmother insisted that, yes, her daughter was below the cut-off age.
“Are you really truly five?”
I imagine at that point my grandmother panicked about the remaining words that were about to spout from her little poet. She might have squeezed my mom’s hand, which probably made my mom louder. According to my uncle, as the poem recitation progressed, so did the awkwardness.
“Yes you are, there’s no mistake.”
I never learned if my grandmother had to pay a fare for my mom, but if she had to, storywise alone, it was worth every nickel:
“Five bright candles on your cake!”
Freelancer Denise Snodell writes alternate weeks.