In 1948 my parents emigrated from Europe to the United States with six daughters in tow, ranging in ages from 6 months to 11 years old.
It was in September and, surprisingly, it snowed the day of our arrival in Los Angeles. My father’s uncle had sponsored our trip to the U.S. and, for a brief time, our family lived in his garage on a dirt floor, until my father was able to secure employment. Memories of that time are vague since I was the youngest of six, but I did visit my great uncle’s house many times with my family and had a chance to see the garage where we lived for our first year in the States.
Unfortunately, my fraternal sister died of pneumonia six months after we arrived.
Once my family was settled in our own home, we lacked most of the material things that others may take for granted, such as new toys, new clothes and going out to eat at a restaurant or fast-food eatery. For young children who had not experienced these common niceties, they were not missed until we entered into the public school system.
I became keenly aware of what my classmates were eating for lunch or wearing when I was in the fourth grade. We shared lockers, and I would always put my sandwich in there until lunchtime. When I opened the locker to retrieve my lunch, the smell of tuna or egg was more than overwhelming in the halls. Since I was reminded about the awful smell by everyone around me each time I opened up my locker, I made a practice of throwing away my lunch before entering the school.
My mom sewed all our clothes, but since I was the youngest, I wore all my sister’s hand-me-downs. The exception was Easter when Mom made a new dress for each of us. Whatever I wore to school, I wore it for the entire week.
My parents were hardworking and believed that nothing comes free, so I was drilled about not taking anything without paying for it. Since I was too young to earn any money, I saved the nickels and dimes that I collected from coupons and whatever I found on the streets. My goal was to save for a small purse to replace the paper bag I used to carry items I wanted to take to school.
It was around Halloween and as usual I was wearing my weekly outfit. The teacher had told us to wear a costume to school for Halloween, and I was the only one without one. I felt out of place standing in line.
The teacher opened up her closet and brought out an apron and bandanna and dressed me up as a little housemaid. Even though I was embarrassed, I was grateful to be included in the activity for that day.
What I noticed when she opened the closet was shelves that had various items on them, one of which was a small purse. When everyone was out at the playground, I walked back into the classroom and opened the unlocked closet. I picked up the little purse and put it away to take home later.
When I arrived home, my mother asked me where I got the purse. Upon hearing that I took it from the school supply closet, she made a point to take me back to school the next day and return it to the teacher. Needless to say, I was embarrassed by having to confess to the teacher that I took it. I returned it to her with my mother standing by my side.
That lesson has remained with me even as an adult. Years later when I was working, I would often come across office stationery that would have been easy to take home but always felt a whisper of the past that stopped me. Even when no one was around, I would leave my money for the postage stamps that I used at the office. These days I can afford to buy any size purse; but whenever I see a little purse, it always reminds me of the lesson my mother instilled in me as a young girl.
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