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Steve Regis Looks Fondly At The Roots Of His Will To Save
Giving my grandmother money "to hold" is an institution in my family. It
is our rite of passage from unemployment to employment - when we grow from
"freeloader" standard into wage-earner.
I observed this ritual time after time as a child. There wasn't great
preamble or fuss involved - only a short exchange. "Mammy hold this for mih."
She would reply: "Okay." Then a blue wad of bills was extended to Mammy's "safe
hands". It wasn't checked by either party. It was just declared to Mammy how
much the sum was. It probably was overly sentimental in my family for a new
wage-earner to say thanks to Mammy. It wasn't necessary anyway - it was Mammy.
Trust wasn't an issue either - it was Mammy. Your money was safe.
The ritual, however, was not devoid of gratitude. Instead of thanks, a purple
bill or a "blue note" ($100) was nonchalantly (as if to conceal the exultation
and jubilation of the moment) passed to Mammy with the words: "This is yours,
Mammy". She would look at that bill the longest, the little wrinkles beneath her
eyes stern and pensive. Then, without a word, she would take it gently. There
was relief and fulfillment in the slight grin on the wage-earner's face - a grin
almost imperceptible, except at the edges of his mouth. Both knew Mammy would
most probably never spend this last offering. She would, it was almost certain,
invest it in a "sou sou" in our neighborhood.
From the time I was a child I saw an unceasing procession of my kindred
perform that ritual in Mammy's bedroom - uncles, aunts, cousins. For years
Mammy's "bedroom bank" was the leading financial institution in my household.
For years the family saw its money not locked away in cold bank vaults, but
tucked safely into Mammy's warm bosom - the same that she brought eight children
to and more than twice that number of grandchildren. Yes, our money was close to
her heart. She would transfer it to a Book of Psalms and a Bible that lay at her
bedhead, for long-term storage. When anyone returned to make a withdrawal, she
would send me to retrieve money from the worn pages of scripture. Twenty dollars
on the Book of Matthew . . . One hundred dollars on the 27th Psalm . . .. Our
money was close to the Word. And from that sum that was "for her" she would give
sundry loans to a not so frugal wage-earner on a rainy day. She was our 24-hour
banking facility. Moreover, she was the one who faced the cold, impersonal
teller lines to deposit our meager sums for long, long-term storage.
Recently, when it was my turn to perform the ritual, I did it down to the
last detail. Yes, I couldn't help noticing that the age of "bedroom banking" was
passé. Most of the banking is now done directly with the big institutions out
there - the family earnings had trickled away from Mammy's bosom. There weren't
any bills really to be found in Mammy's Bible or Book of Psalms anymore. At any
rate, it is no longer safe to keep a large quantity of money at home, and Mammy
no longer has the physical strength to continue her role of "Financial
But still, I did not feel as I stood in Mammy's hallowed bedroom, that I
stood in the ruins of my family's institution of savings. No, I stood in its
beginnings - the place of its very genesis; its Nile. And the ritual was as real
to me in its semblance of times-past as if I were among that first stream of
wage-earners. I felt the man in me rarefying himself in my rite of passage, in
Mammy' s bedroom. I emerged from Mammy's bedroom confident and unintimidated,
knowing that the roots of my will to save were planted in a most sacred and
ancient tradition of my family. Now my pittance (that's what it was) rested
safely among the furrows of Mammy's bosom and among the tattered pages of her
Bible and Book of Psalms.
Moreover, I left prepared to face the indifferent teller-lines in town,
knowing (hoping even) that I was not unique - that I stood before and behind
many in the teller lines who had performed rites similar, at least in essence,
to "bedroom banking". And I remembered the warmth of Mammy's bedroom when the
air conditioning in the lobby became unbearably cold.
“Bedroom Banking” is reprinted with permission from Caribbean
Beat March/April 1999 and as it first appeared in the Boston Carnival 1999