Most people aren't fond of pennies. In my household pennies get relegated into an old candy jar. I knew someone who absolutely hated change in the form of coins, and whenever he would get change he would toss it in the tip jar or on public property, like the parking lot or the curbside. The change of choice for me is the quarter, because in Los Angeles quarters allow me to function. Certain parking meters here, for example, only take quarters, and laundry machines become big hunks of metal in the yellowing light when quarters aren't involved.
My childhood involved pennies. It all began at the grocery store. I was seven and my sister was five, and my mom decides that the time has come for us to begin receiving an allowance of a penny a day. I still remember the excited feeling I got: you mean we get to have money and spend it any way we want? So in one-hundred days I will have one whole dollar!
When we get home we search the house for empty jars. We pick big pickle jars because we're ready to get rich. We wait every day for my mom and dad to give us a penny, and I especially get a kick out of hearing the pitch of the penny rolling around in the jar. Along with our twelve stuffed animals willed to life by our imagination, and beginning with Kip the Kangaroo, we line the animals up on the bed and give each of them a penny as allowance for being the well-behaved stuffed animals that they are.
Two months ago, I needed a break so I went to Northern California to visit my friends as well as my sister. After a day in Napa Valley wine tasting and dreaming about one day becoming a Napa Valley Wedding Photographer, we go grocery shopping for food. We line up behind a woman who then proceeds to spill the contents of her coin purse onto the counter. Pennies roll around on the countertop, and my sister and I stand there, silent, watching her count out ninety-six pennies. Time is standing still like air on a muggy day, and the cashier purses her lips as the lady counts. She probably wants to be run over with a bus by now.
Another customer behind us yells-- GOD WHY IS THIS LINE TAKING SO LONG loud enough to make sure the penny lady hears her. The lady behind us kicks her shopping basket over to the other line. The cashier profusely thanks us for being so patient, and we pay for our groceries by credit card and leave the store.
My sister, as she starts the engine: "Know why I didn't say anything when that lady took forever?"
Me, kind of glad that we're in the car now: "Yeah"
We are thinking the same thing. That's what happens when you have a sister that is only two years apart.
Here's what we remember: Mom takes us to the grocery store after high school and she's counting pennies too, maybe twelve of them, enough to make us squirm. We remember looking around, embarrassed. Only my mom does these kind of things. We notice the lady behind me looking at my mom with an are you kidding look. We look away and pretend nothing is happening.
Of course my mom notices and calls us out on it in the car.
In my family I am always the first to get yelled at because I am the oldest, and it has been decided by my mother that I always set the example for my sister. What I do, my younger sister does.
Mom does her usual five miles below the speed limit driving in a large minivan and raises her voice too--"You have a bad attitude. Who do you think you are? You have no respect for your own mother. Are you so American now that you are ashamed to be with your own mother? You act like some crime was committed. We're not rich, you know. One penny less than what it costs and you will not be able to buy it!"
From then on, we devise ways of running away whenever my mom would pay for something at the grocery store. We read magazines in the next aisle until my mom finishes, dithering elsewhere until the groceries are bagged.
My sister and I were teenagers, and we just wanted to be like everyone else. Get the groceries, buy name-brand stuff, pay with whole bills, and get on with our lives. This is what other people did, so why can't we do it too? But my mom, she did things differently, and I realize how much I disrespected her, because she did everything for us. She cooked and she cleaned. She took the money that my dad earned and she made sure it was providing us with the necessities.
When that lady was counting pennies, we were much older and we understood. We didn't read magazines and pretend that nothing was happening, but we remembered our mom and what she did for us when we were growing up.
My mom knew that spending money, including pennies, matter because she was saving up for us so we could go to college. Sometimes, before we go to bed, I would talk to my husband and we would talk about what our theoretical children might be like, and I can't help but think that maybe there was a time when my parents were just married and before they went to bed they would talk and imagine future children also.
Do you think she will have your eyes? Maybe she will be be taller than the both of us. Maybe they talked about one day having children who would do way better in this country of opportunity and become typically American in that sense.
I'll never completely understand what it is like to settle into a new country, but at least I try to wrangle stories out of my parents. My children though, may never understand at all what it means to struggle with a foreign language and understand a culture through trial and error.
But that's how it has always been--the most successful stories of immigration are ones that are, in a sense, forgotten. In the end, immigration accounts at their maturity end with children who accustom themselves to the American life and accomplish the dreams that their parents would have accomplished themselves, had they not busied themselves with the enormous undertaking of coming to America.