Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – March 4, 2004
Creepy Winters & 7 Cents
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – March 4, 2004 – My mother Mary Margaret White was born on April 8, 1907. She was raised by her mother’s sister, Delia in a rural Ontario town. In small towns, as opposed to larger, metropolitan centres everyone knows everyone else and it’s common knowledge amongst the town folk who has money, and which families are of lesser means.
Delia and Mary were lost somewhere well beneath the poverty line. There were days when she was hungry and I recall her telling me how they dried out the tea bags, so they could be used again throughout the week. In the winter she wrapped her feet in newspapers before putting them into her boots, because the souls of her galoshes were worn through in places.
She would have been seven years old when WWI broke out, and probably in grade two at school. The girls in her school who came from well-to-do families were well dressed, beautifully groomed and chummed around with other girls who had similar pedigrees. Like many children they could be cruel. My mother had very little in the way of clothing, shoes or toys, and the other girls never let her forget it. She didn’t have parents or siblings and she was poor. A perfect target for bullies. She lived in a small two storey house on the poor side of town, and spent a lot of time alone. I tend to think she was probably a shy, serious child.
The Harbour In Wiarton – Where My Mother Grew Up
When school resumed after the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in January of 1915, the teachers told the students that they were going to have a collection for the war effort and that everyone had to participate. If I remember correctly it was organized through The Red Cross. The kids were given two weeks to do odd jobs for their parents to earn extra money. They could also donate all or part of their weekly allowance. On the second Friday, all the money from the school would be collected and the principal would present the school’s donation to the town council, with a list of all the names of the children. My mother went home and told Delia about the project. Mary had no allowance, Delia had no money so she suggested that my mother do odd jobs for their neighbours to earn her share.
I’m not sure what a seven year old girl does to earn money, but Mary went about her mission with a vengeance. I know she shovelled snow, peeled apples and helped a lady across the street clean her windows. After a week she had earned four cents. Part way through the second week she had earned another penny. She desperately wanted to have a dime to donate.
All small towns have their ‘characters’ and my mother’s was no exception. An old man named Mr. Winters lived on the same street as my mother and he scared the neighbourhood kids to within an inch of their lives. The kids believed if they ever ventured down the lane to the house of Creepy Winters that they would disappear forever. Maybe cemented into a basement wall or hung up by their thumbs in the bush. Mary was deathly afraid of the old man – not because he had ever been unkind to her – but simply because the kids had convinced themselves that he was the devil incarnate. Delia suggested to Mary that she ask Mr. Winters if he had any after-school jobs.
Her desire to earn her ten cents was greater than her fear of him, and she trotted off down his lane and knocked on his door. He was an old man, gruff and grumpy, but not unkind. He gave Mary two cents to polish his Sunday shoes and his winter boots. She was on cloud nine. Mary hadn’t managed to earn a dime but she had her seven cents, thanks to Creepy Winters. She went off to school on the Friday morning aglow with accomplishment. Her money sealed in an envelope with her name and grade on the outside. She was beside herself with excitement.
When Mary got to school, she handed her envelope to her teacher on the way to her desk. The teacher announced to the class that at the end of the day she would tell the students how much money they had raised for the war effort. Many of the students had simply handed in money that their parents had given them. Mary knew this and she was inordinately proud of herself because she had worked for her donation.
To say that some people are unkind is an understatement, to know that it was a teacher who denigrated Mary’s effort is unconscionable. At the end of the day the teacher read out the names of all the students in the classroom followed by how much money they had donated. She started with the names of the children from the wealthiest families, who had given the most. “Louise has donated three dollars, Sam has given us two dollars, Martha has provided the war effort with four dollars, Billy’s donation was one dollar” – (actual names unknown).
She read out the whole class list and praised the efforts of the students. When she finally got to my mother’s name, which was the last on the list, she walked down the aisle and stood beside Mary’s desk and said, “Mary White has made a donation as well, but it’s only for seven cents – hardly worthy of the War Effort”.
Mary was devastated. Her pride and enthusiasm killed in that appallingly, cruel moment. She hung her head in shame, unable to face her peers. I remember her telling me this story when I was a teenager. The tears in her eyes revealed that it was still incredibly painful for her to recount it.
We’d been talking about being honourable and kind, always doing your best and caring about the feelings of others. She illustrated her point with that story from her childhood. I’ve always hoped that her deplorable teacher is still burning in some special circle in hell – right where she belongs. Kindness is such an easy task to commit to on a daily basis, and you have no idea how long another person will remember your generosity of spirit (or your calculated cruelty) probably for a lifetime!