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February 05, 2007

The Crumpled $20 Bill Game: My Favorite Family Tradition

Dear Uncle Jack:

You might think 80 years looks better on a bottle of Scotch than on you right now, but I for one am grateful to have had this long to reflect on a fitting way to say Happy Birthday and Thank You to you.

This has been an eventful year for you no doubt– broken hip, yes, but finally the selling of a business, a business that helped launch my first career about 25 of your 80 years ago.

I can’t comment too much on the first 40 years or so years of your life, because, well, I wasn’t there. But I wanted to share with you my strongest, defining memory – and the one that I will still remember when I turn 80.

The memory is a simple one: It’s a crumpled $20 bill.

A sweaty, crumpled $20 bill, clutched in my tiny hand, shoved deep into my pocket along with some dryer lint and maybe a piece of Bazooka bubblegum.  Let me explain.

First, as all of us in this family know, I was raised by a proud single mom who did an excellent job as far as I’m concerned and who was creative beyond belief at stretching a modest income to extraordinary lengths in raising my brother and me. So Mom, I salute you and don’t worry, we’ll go way more into detail on how awesome you are at your 80th birthday. This is about Jack. Anyway, despite all the efforts, there were definitely times when we three needed a little extra help to get by and everybody in this room has been there for us. 

Sometimes it came in the form of grand gestures – I remember my other aunt and uncle delivering a washer & dryer to our little rental house after we had to move from our family home one day unexpectedly and I’ll never forget the weekend that your son took me “window shopping” at a local futon store when I was getting out of college and making a whopping salary of $14k. By the following Monday he had built from scratch a wooden futon platform and a matching side table for my one room $375/month apartment – I otherwise would have been sleeping on the floor while starting my first so-called professional job in journalism.  I used that set for years.

At nearly every family gathering whether over at my grandparents or one of the many gatherings we’ve had at your and Aunt Minnie’s home, there would be a time at the end of the afternoon or evening when the dishes would be cleared and everyone would be gathering up their purses or jackets and rounding up the kids – and the $20 bill game would start.

It went something like this:

The first hand off went directly to my mom, who 50% of the time would accept it graciously, the other 50% of the time would flatly refuse. You’d say, “Here’s just a little something for the week, don’t you have that thing to take the children to” or “Just take it in case on an emergency.”

If she had refused, then perhaps she would discover on the way to the car that it had been tucked sneakily into her threadworn change purse - you know that little leather kind with a snap-tight metallic seal that ladies used to carry around. She'd discover that crumpled $20 bill, and if feeling up to it would walk right back into the house and smack it back down on the table with drama and say “Jack, you don’t have to do that! We’re fine, really.”  And right as she would spin around to exit you would hastily snatch the twenty off the table and thrust it into my pocket carefully instructing me: “Wait until she calms down and then put it in her purse.” 

Probably unrealized by all you adults – this was my most memorable family tradition to date.

So as my brother and I got a little older - old enough to understand how money works, or doesn't for some folks as it turns out, thus began the crumpled $20 bill hand-off. I was young enough to make my own dinner at age 5 with my 7-year-old brother, so by age 6, I became keenly aware that I was a key participant in this game of complicated maneuvers.

As for me, I was so afraid I might lose it, I’d always clutch it tight in my palm inside my pocket until the “moment’ was right to sneak it into my mom’s change purse.  My brother, who we know is a lot different than me handled it his own way. As I recall he would often keep if for the day to flash it at friends or just wave it in the air to himself. Nonetheless, it always ended up where it needed to go.

Over the second 40 years of your life those crumpled 20s turned into other gestures of kindness that helped define for me what family was all about. They became a high school internship for me at the radio station where you worked – introducing me to the VIPs and making me feel very grown up – not to mention free room and board all summer and a pool to boot!

Later, the gesture was a role in your food trade newspaper – which gave me some hands on newspaper experience that served me well when interviewing for jobs after graduation.  And perhaps just the greatest treasure for me – getting to know you as an adult when you and Aunt Minnie have visited me over the years – and watching you develop as a character among my children who still refer to you as “Apple Jack” as Zachary first did 6 years ago, when not quite able to say “Uncle”.

So, I have a little gift for you that you can open now. Look in your shirt pocket. You’ll find a crumpled $20 bill I left in there for you when I visited you last with Zoe. It’s not much,  but as you always taught me good things come in small packages; that way they can be carried with you throughout your entire life.

Happy Birthday, Apple Jack!

Love, Your  Niece, Pamela