One of his favorite stories to tell, and which he insisted every word of was true, was an incident that occurred when he was about ten years old. It was at the height of the depression and his parents, like so many others, were struggling to feed their family. My dad was the eldest of four children, was expected to do his part by working in the garden, feeding his baby sister and running errands for his mother.
“Robert, go next door to the Steinberg’s and get some eggs,” his mother said, handing him a precious dime.
“How many shall I get?” he asked, knowing a dozen cost fifteen cents.
“We need a dozen for supper and breakfast tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mommy.” But confused, he hesitated, squeezing the dime in the palm of his hand.
She handed him a wicker basket. “Ask for the cracked ones.” She opened the screen door and nudged him out.
The Steinbergs were an elderly couple, who made ends meet by keeping chickens in their basement. Dad both feared and admired his stern neighbors, having watched Mr. Steinberg whack the head off a chicken with a single swipe of a hatchet.
As he recited the story, he changed to a pitch perfect Yiddish accent as he quoted Mrs. Steinberg answering the door that day. “Robert Enerson, you are a sight. Have you brought back my cookie tin?”
“No ma’am.” He stared at his scuffed brown shoes.
“Then what is it, boy, I haven’t all day.”
He opened his palm and held out the dime. “I’d like some eggs, please.”
“Come in, young man.” She took the basket and the dime. “You want eight eggs, then?”
“A dozen please.” He looked up at her raised eyebrows and quickly added, “but only the cracked ones.”
“Sit yourself down, have a Saltine,” she waved him toward a sofa as she headed to a door that led to the basement.
“Saul!” he heard her shout down the stairs. “Little Robert is here. He needs a dozen cracked eggs.”
“I haven’t any cracked ones.” Came the distant reply.
“I said I need a dozen cracked eggs,” she said, a bit more sternly. My young dad got off the sofa and crept closer to hear.
“I haven’t got any cracked eggs, I tell you.”
Sotto voce, she replied, “Then crack some.”
The story of course, was about charity and dignity, for you can’t really give one without the other. I wonder if, in our ever-increasing efforts to ameliorate poverty with masses of government programs, we haven’t lost two important things: one, a sense of satisfaction by personally giving to others in need, and two, the dignity of taking only the assistance necessary to live, for the shortest time possible, and graciously accepting cast-offs to that end.
My Dad is long gone, but the memory of him–eyebrows waggling and the sound of his voice telling tales of long ago–will be with me always. Now I understand the stories weren’t merely for entertainment, but for enlightenment as well.
© 2014 Tracey Enerson Wood. All rights reserved.