Yesterday I burst into tears on the way to the bank. Now, banking does not normally elicit such strong emotions from me. I’m don’t wail when signing the back of a check or scream for joy when I withdraw cash. But yesterday was different.
Held tightly to my chest yesterday afternoon was a simple Priority Mail envelope containing everything my parents had ever worked for. Every nail my carpenter dad had ever pounded into a wall, each piece of roofing he put on while the sun burned his strong arms, all the days—and it was every day—that he came home tired and smelling like sawdust.
The envelope also contained my mom’s brave decision to begin driving when she was in her fifties so she could have a job of her own. That gave the envelope the faraway scent of old books that my mom restocked on the shelves day after day at our local school library using the Dewey Decimal System.
It was summer camps and dance lessons (yes, my itty bitty town had a small ballet studio) that my friends went to that were never even discussed in my house; it just wasn’t an option. It was vacations my parents didn’t take, movies they never went to see, and meals at nice restaurants that they never tasted. It was the clothes my mother made for herself and me out of inexpensive fabric.
It was college (and in my brother’s case, medical school) that my brother and I would have to finance on our own. This was something we knew going into the application process, something we accepted as necessary to get the education we both wanted.
Yet, somehow, this envelope also reminded me of Christmases filled with gifts and homemade cookies and the ever-present German stollen. It brought back memories of the beautiful house in which I grew up—not a mansion, but a simple house always kept perfectly neat and made magnificent by my mom’s love of flowers and my dad’s immaculately tended lawn.
My parents were German immigrants who came to America shortly after World War II. They came with nothing but a truck of clothes, my mother’s sewing machine, and my brother, who was seven months old at the time. They came to America not to become rich or famous, but to create a new life, a better life, for my brother and, as it would turn out later, me. I don’t know how they did what they did—making something out of almost nothing—but they did it without complaint, or lament, or help.
As I hugged the envelope closer, those memories overcame me as I realized the magnitude of what I was holding: checks from the final bank accounts my parents had. It was my duty to open an estate account and deposit these checks. It was my duty to take good care of their legacy.
Most people would not consider the amount in those two checks a lot of money. Then again, I don’t know what most people consider to be a lot of money. As for me, I was holding Fort Knox.