Reclamation: Memories from a New Orleans Girlhood by Eva Augustin Rumpf is set in the 1940s and 50s in America’s most “foreign” city. It takes the reader through World War II blackouts, Mardi Gras celebrations, sex myths, race relations, shotgun houses, shrimp boils, summers on the front porch, polio and whooping cough epidemics and hurricanes. A lost age is evoked of drugstore soda fountains, sidewalk games, street vendors, 78 rpm records, orange biographies, tepee motels, Woolworth stores, radio dramas, cod liver oil, party lines, the iceman, starched clothes and double features at the movies. Through childhood and adolescence we follow the author’s struggle to overcome the deprivations and limitations of her lower-middle-class life and her need to find identity and freedom amid her large extended family. Rumpf explores why she felt compelled to leave New Orleans and build a life away from her family and the city of her birth. It was only after the floods of Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of New Orleans and scattered her family that she realized how much had been lost. Through her memoir, she seeks to reclaim her personal past, even as the city continues its reclamation efforts years after the disaster.
Excerpt from Chapter 6, “The Silver Dollar”
As a 7-year-old, I didn’t know anything about investment strategies. But I learned that having a coin bank paid off. Mine was a tall tin can, designed to look like a round, red-brick chimney, with a slot on top for depositing coins. When I shook the bank, the coins inside made a loud rattle, proclaiming my wealth to all within earshot. I made sure my whole family knew about my chimney bank. When relatives would visit, I would bring it out and not so subtly coax visiting aunts and uncles to drop in a few pennies, or a nickel or two. Birthdays or other special occasions might bring forth a quarter. To a child growing up in the 1940s, a handful of change seemed like a fortune.
But a windfall I had not imagined came from my grandfather one day in the form of three silver dollars. Three dollars! I had never before received such a gift. I held them in my hand, feeling their heaviness. I rubbed my fingers over the raised face of Lady Liberty on each coin and the eagle on the other side. I was awed not only by the beauty of the large, shiny coins, but also by the thought of all they could buy.
However, my frugal mother, schooled by the hardships of the Great Depression, made it clear that this gift was not to be spent. “You have to save it for the future,” she declared. So the three silver dollars went into my chimney bank, adding considerably to its weight and noise value. Over time, my assets rose and fell. Nickels and pennies often found their way to the corner grocery store to buy a pack of Juicy Fruit gum or candy cigarettes. A quarter might be spent for a Mother’s Day present or a new box of crayons. But the sacred silver dollars remained unspent, nestled in the bottom of my chimney bank, as secure as the gold in Fort Knox. Occasionally, I would take them out, turn them over in my hands, and contemplate their power and unleashed potential. The desire to spend my treasure was growing inside me like an infectious disease, uncontrollable and consuming. And it was fed by the pressures of the outside world.
When the lunch bell rang each day at my public grammar school, Frank T. Howard #2, my first-grade classmates and I would join the other students and trot down the well-worn wooden steps to the cafeteria. We’d line up along the wall and slowly snake our way to the serving window, where, for a few nickels, we’d get a hot lunch and a small carton of milk. Like most school lunches, the food was pretty ordinary. But after enduring the bland meat loaf or greasy chicken leg, lucky kids with extra money headed for the ice cream window. There, treats like crunchy Drumsticks, chilly Fudgesicles and luscious ice cream sandwiches were placed into eager hands.
I was not one of the lucky ones. To my mother, ice cream for lunch was an extravagance. She gave me only enough money for hot lunch and milk, and I carried the coins to school, tied in a corner of my handkerchief. As I watched the other students eating their treats, I longed to be a part of this privileged group. I wondered how many chocolate-covered Eskimo bars or orange Dreamsicles a silver dollar would buy. I began to plan my crime.
My chimney bank was kept on the bottom shelf of the big sideboard that stood against one wall of the dining room in the camelback house on Laurel Street that our extended family shared. I picked a morning when the room was empty, my father and grandfather having left for work, my hard-of-hearing grandmother busy in the kitchen, and my mother still asleep upstairs.
I slip quietly into the room, open the lower door to the sideboard, and lift out the bank. I pry open the removable lid and slowly tip the bank, sliding the silver dollars into my palm. I hesitate for a moment, considering the enormity of what I’m about to do. My parents will be horrified if they find out. I take one of the coins and drop it into my dress pocket. I return the other two to the bank, being careful not to let them clang on the bottom.
All morning at school, I think about the treasure I carry. From time to time, I slip my hand into my pocket and run my fingers over the silver dollar, savoring my secret. At last the lunch bell rings. I rush through my meal, return my tray to the counter, and walk up to the ice cream window. I hold power and prestige in my hand. The world is at my command.
I order a Drumstick, a crunchy waffle cone filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with a chocolate coating and chopped nuts, the most expensive treat in the cafeteria’s selection. I lay my silver dollar on the counter. When the Negro cafeteria worker sees the coin, she looks directly at me. I see surprise in her eyes, and I feel her reproach. Guilt battles with gratification. But it’s too late to undo the crime. In an instant, my silver dollar is gone forever. I leave the ice cream window with my prize in one hand and an assortment of ordinary coins in the other. I sit alone at a table in the cafeteria and try to enjoy my ice cream cone.
When I got home from school that day, I furtively returned the change to my chimney bank. The small coins looked meager beside the two remaining silver dollars. I never told anyone about how I squandered my grandfather’s gift, and over time my parents must have forgotten about the remaining dollars in my bank. But the feelings of loss and guilt created by my childhood indiscretion stayed with me for a long time. Well into my adult years, whenever I was tempted to buy something I felt I deserved, a struggle waged in my soul between the forces of desire and self denial.
Eva Augustin Rumpf grew up in New Orleans, attended college in the Midwest and eventually settled in Wisconsin. She is the author of the satiric novel Prot U (Booklocker.com 2004) and co-author of the self-help book Till Divorce Do Us Part (Glenbridge Publishing 1996). A former reporter and university journalism instructor, she currently lives in Milwaukee.