With demonetization/currency crunch/banks/ATMs and stories like schoolchildren from Hardoi sharing the contents of their piggy banks et al dominating our daily lives for the past couple of weeks, it was natural for me to remember Mama’s Bank Account, that wonderful children’s book by Kathryn Hodges and read it — yet again.
It has remained a great favourite with me since I had fished it out of a pile of books from a Delhi footpath secondhand shop. I had never heard of the book before, but something about the cover attracted me and the blurb decided the purchase. I must have read it hundreds of time since then in its entirety and the number of times I have read select passages is countless.
It has inspired a movie and a successful TV series – both named I Remember Mama. Being about an immigrant family, there is little wonder about its success with millions of such families going through similar experiences at the time it was written.
Mama’s Bank Account, is based on the story of an immigrant Norwegian family, which is struggling to integrate into the American society while trying to make ends meet and retain its cultural identity. The children have their own battle at school where they are taunted because of their foreign origin. The story is narrated by the second child Katrin, an aspiring writer. She has one elder brother Nels and three younger sisters Christine, Dagmar and baby Karen.
Mama is resourceful when it comes to finding financial solutions. After all, she had two banks, didn’t she? There was the small bank – a colourful painted tin box where she put whatever little was left over after setting aside money for the rent and other regular expenses. And then there was the big Bank downtown. Between them, Mama and her two banks made the children feel secure about their finances.
The challenge was to avoid going down to the big Bank for any expected and unexpected expense that might and did crop up – Nel’s high school expenses, Christine’s fracture, Dagmar’s tonsil operation….
At such times, Mama just took down the small bank and emptied the contents on the table. If it was insufficient she wondered aloud if they would have to go to the Bank downtown after all. This simple statement galvanized the whole family into action and everyone pitched in – delivering paper, babysitting, working at the store, and even Papa giving up tobacco…till the money was raised and the children sighed in relief at not having to go the big Bank after all! The small bank came to the rescue even when there was a strike at Papa’s workplace. And Mama simply said, ‘Is good.’
“And always, in the background, was the comforting knowledge that should we fail, we still had the Bank to depend upon.”
It was 20 years later that a stunned Katrin learnt the truth about the Bank. When she gave to her Mama the first cheque she got after selling her story, she looked lost.
“Is no account,” she said. In all my life, I never been inside a Bank.” And when her daughter looked bewildered, she continued, “Is not good little ones to be afraid – to not feel secure.”
Isn’t it wonderful the way she manages the finances, without ever having a bank account, all so that her children felt secure? Haven’t we all in the past weeks realised how little money we actually need for daily expenses, if we simply lived mindfully without splurging or going for impulse buys? This was another reason for me to write this post.
Oh, I love this Mama. She is the omnipresent and omnipotent woman who runs and manages her family which includes her four sisters, a bachelor uncle and a maiden aunt. She is the steadying force and unifying factor of this large and disparate family.
For one, she had her priorities right in place. When their boarder Mr. Kruper gave them a bad cheque after months of boarding with them, her elder sister Jenny scolded her for being so naive. But Mama firmly told her sister as she put the cheque into the fire, ‘He owes us nothing,’ — for he had not only read to them from the classics every evening but had left his entire collection of books behind. For Mama it meant more that her family had been exposed to fine literature than getting the money he had owed them.
Apart from finding a way out of small problems, she could also deal with big ones like the time they bought a chicken farm but couldn’t run it and had to start life all over again back in the city — swapping their farm with the large house of the couple who wanted to buy the farm so badly — and then gradually turning it into a boarding house.
There are so many things one can learn from her – about sacrifices to be made for others, about honesty, about forgiveness, about love and above all, fixing things that look seemingly hopeless.
I especially love how she handled the avaricious wife of the specialist who was to do Papa’s brain surgery.
All the contents of the small bank and contributions from her sisters raised $225, which was still $75 short of the fees the Madame Beauchamp demanded. All pleas from Mama failed to move her. Mama noticed that the woman was cribbing about not being able to get good workmen to fix up her new home and suddenly has a brainwave. She promises to send a man to do her work free of charge if she let the operation go on. Happy to have struck a bargain, the lady agrees, only to find to her consternation that the workman is the patient being wheeled in to the operation theatre – Papa! Even Dr.Beauchamp had to smile at Mama’s ingenuity.
I like her too for her gentle, yet firm way in handling any small misdemeanors by her children. When Katrin is called a thief by Mrs. Schiller after she is caught for eating up boxes full of chocolates while working at the drugstore, she confesses to her mother, sobbing that she is a thief and a bad girl. Mama’s reply should be read and imbibed by every mother of an adolescent:
“This is important my Katrin.…….you must not ever feel here – in your heart that you are what you said. A – a thief. A bad girl. Katrin, believe me, you are not a thief. You are a good girl.”
She takes great pains to impress upon Katrin that what she did was wrong and also pay for the chocolates It was good to feel ashamed, she said, but one has to learn to laugh too “…unless you cripple something inside of you.”
What a beautiful way to teach one’s child to be honest but at the same time be gentle on oneself to avoid permanent scarring of the soul!
Again, when Katrin refuses to have her Mama’s silver brooch for a graduation present, insisting on a fancy dresser she has set her heart on, knowing fully well they can’t afford it, Mama quietly exchanges her brooch for the dresser. Modern day readers (especially the adults) might call this martyring oneself and so a bad example for young children, but it taught Katrin and generations of children reading the book, a valuable lesson in selfless love.
The yellowed little book is one of the two favourite children’s books in my collection, the other one being The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton, about which I had written here. The reason I love these two books is because of the values they impart – of family, sacrifice, honesty and hard work through a well told story with lots of drama and emotional appeal.
So it is easy to see why Mama’s Bank Account has been a classic of children’s literature. Don’t take my word for it, for I am clearly biased 🙂 Read it for yourself.
Note: While reading Mama’s Bank Account and The Outsiders, please keep in mind the time periods when they were written and refrain from comparing the situations with today’s times, otherwise it would take away all the charm of the said books!