I wanted to share a short story I had written earlier this year that celebrates the spirit of the season. It has not been published before. Enjoy!
THE MOM ACCOUNT
by Joanna Celeste
It was that time of the year again. I stood by Mom as she piled the last of our stuff onto the checkout line at Wal-Mart. Between me and my little brother, Cooper, I estimated we had just bought about $580 worth of new sneakers, new clothes, and new school supplies. We shopped for the best deals, and we had a slew of hand-me-downs, but we kept growing out of things. The total rang up on the screen and I winced, glancing at Mom’s face. $600. A little over half the month’s rent. She didn’t flinch; I was probably the only one who could see the slight difference in her eyes, and the gentle turn of her mouth. But then she and I had always been that way, connected on a special level.
It stunk being eleven. I wasn’t allowed to get a proper job until I was sixteen—child labor laws and all that—and Cooper was only nine. All our money came from chores and allowance, which was really Mom’s money in disguise.
Thanksgiving––and Mom’s birthday––had come and gone without a single real present for her. We couldn’t afford to give her more than trinkets and handmade stuff. The birthday before last, Granny had gifted her money for the casino.
I grinned, bringing back that day. Mom had sailed through the door, beaming like the sun on a summer day, chattering excitedly about her fantastic luck. Then she had opened her purse and taken out a wad of bills, just like from the movies! Cooper and I had held the money in our hands, had taken pictures of it, and we had counted it—one thousand two hundred dollars, in hundred dollar bills. Cash.
Mom had thrown the cash around with abandon, and then she had let us follow suit. For fifteen minutes, we had been filthy rich. We had thrown the money off the staircase of the second floor, watching the cash flutter to the living room, over our Goodwill sofa. We had thrown it over our heads, dancing in the cash snowstorm. Then we had carefully picked it all up and counted it again. But the best thing had been Mom’s expression. She had been happy in so many ways it had spilled out of her like a supernova. I had suspected people on our block had even smiled to themselves, without knowing why.
“Vanessa,” Mom squeezed my shoulder. “Honey, it’s time to go.”
I nodded and followed her out of the store to our car. We stuffed the twelve shopping bags into the trunk and seats. I held one in my lap. Mom had spent every dime of that special birthday money on bills. On things for the house. I had never seen her buy anything for herself, and she had said—when she had thought no one could hear—that she couldn’t remember the last time she had bought something just for her.
By the time we got home, I had a Plan.
Coop and I thanked our mom and dashed upstairs to unpack our goodies. Our rooms were separated by a curtain, so I could take out my secret piggy bank while he unpacked.
Mom had taught us that if we always kept money hidden, not to be used ever, then we could win at Monopoly because just when the other guy thought we were toast, we could whip out our savings. I wasn’t great with that many games, but I owned Monopoly, so I kept a real-life stash of money, not to be used ever. But this was important.
I poured everything out and counted—twenty-four dollars and sixteen cents in change and loose bills. I had learned one thing from Dad, before he had moved away, and that was that pennies could really add up to something. He used to have jars and jars of pennies, in his crowded tiny apartment.
I frowned at my stash. It wasn’t going to be enough for my Plan.
“Coop,” I wiggled the curtain to ask permission to cross into his room.
“Yeah, I’m going downstairs to play Super Mario,” the door opened and I whipped the curtain aside.
“Wait! I want to call a Secret Meeting. I have a Plan.”
Cooper paused, one foot over the threshold. He scowled, as if debating whether this was worth interrupting him from tackling Level Five, but he tilted his head. “What is it?”
I outlined the steps, and a grin spread over his face. “Yeah. Let’s do it!”
We shook hands on it, and Cooper brought out his secret stash, from socks and paperclip boxes and even his collection of special quarters, laying everything out on his mattress. I added my pile from my room.
“Let’s count it,” Cooper suggested.
“Okay, I’ll do this half and you do that half,” I waved my hand down the middle.
We worked in silence.
“Twenty-two dollars and eight cents,” Cooper announced.
I counted the last few pennies. “Nineteen dollars and forty-six cents.”
Coop frowned. He hated uneven numbers. “We should make it fifty. That’s a lot.”
“If we include our allowances, we could add another eight dollars.”
“And I bet you have change in your room,” Coop dove through the curtain, rummaging. I would have protested, but I did have change in lots of weird little places.
“Ha! Forty-six cents!” He brandished a fist, coming back into his room. “That’s fifty.”
We shared our special smile and ran downstairs to get ready for dinner.
Eight days later, we held a Secret Meeting to wrap our presents. Christmas was fourteen hours away. I was a big pack rat so I had boxes, bags and tissue paper. Coop had toilet paper rolls and two ring boxes. We carefully laid everything out, with scissors and tape.
We shared a grin and set to work packaging up the money in lots of ways, so as to spread the gift out more. When all was said and done, we had eleven little packages, and one big finale, all wrapped and ready to go under the tree.
Coop and I knew the truth about Santa Claus, so we waited until Mom had gone to sleep, having put her Santa presents under the tree. We crept down the stairs like ninjas, avoiding that stair that always squeaked. It was hard not to rustle the gifts against each other, but we managed not to wake Mom up.
This was the first time that we were both more excited about Mom’s reaction to what she would receive, than what we hoped to find for ourselves under the tree.
I gave Coop a thumbs-up to note everything was under the tree. We plunked down upon the sofa, admiring our handiwork. Our tree was decorated with multicolored lights and tinsel, so the reflections and shadows danced across our living room.
“Should we bother sleeping?” I whispered.
Cooper yawned. “Let’s make pancakes.”
Pancakes at 3am was never a bad idea. We tiptoed around the kitchen, arguing quietly over Mom’s secret recipe—which wasn’t a secret, but she always added something to make it extra tasty that she called “love”. We had our suspicions it was something else, like cinnamon or apple sauce—no matter how many times we had watched her make them. We settled on cinnamon and apple sauce, but in the end they still weren’t as yummy as hers.
We set aside a plate for her, so she could have breakfast when she woke up. I made her coffee, because I remembered how to do it, and Cooper made her grilled cheese. It wasn’t a proper brunch without bacon and grilled cheese, but we didn’t have bacon.
The kitchen was a mess when we had finally finished cooking and eating. Chicory, cheddar and cinnamon warred with each other in the air, overtaking the house.
The dawn gray light seeped through the windows. We cleaned up as quietly as we could.
At the stroke of 6am, we ran into Mom’s bedroom, jumping on the bed to wake her.
“We just gotta warm it up first,” Cooper grabbed her other arm, and we got her out of bed. “This is gonna be the best Christmas ever, you’ll see.”
I sighed, but Mom was too sleepy to notice the slip. We helped her down the stairs.
Once I had pressed a hot cup of coffee into her hands, and Cooper had warmed up the food just right, we all sat down to our Christmas celebration together.
“Thank you, this is delicious,” Mom murmured. “And you cleaned the kitchen?”
“It’s Christmas,” I gave her the first gift.
Mom unwrapped a tin with tissue paper separating six dollars, each bill taped to its own white sheet of tissue. She laughed as she inspected the gift. “Aw, thank you honey.”
Coop and I shared a secret smile, and we decided to bypass tradition and forgo our turns at getting presents to give Mom hers, all at once.
Cooper dove in, handing Mom a ring box, with a $5 bill neatly folded up. She had barely gotten over her puzzlement before I gave her a toilet paper roll with a $2 bill wrapped inside it. Mom examined the bill, the aw-my-kids-are-so-cute look morphing into wait-is-this-all-going-to-be-money?
Mom tore through the wrapping, forgoing her usual lovingly-slow process of opening presents by plucking off the tape on the ends. “Is this all for me?”
“Yup! And wait, there’s more!” I chortled. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
We gave her the remainder of the small presents—various change and dollar bills.
Then Cooper brought out The Big Box: an assortment of two fives and his special collection of quarters, all wrapped up with different colored tissue, thrown into a three-foot-squared box with peanuts.
Mom broke into laughter as she fished out the presents. “Oh, my goodness! More?”
Cooper stared, making sure every quarter was fished out. He nodded. “That’s it.”
Mom sat back on her haunches, heaving a sigh. “Wow. This-truly, it’s-amazing!”
“This is the Mom account,” I explained, bringing out a shoe box I had made into a piggy bank. “You put all your money in here, and you can only use it to buy yourself stuff.”
Cooper nodded solemnly. “You can’t use it on bills, or stuff for us; nothing like that.”
“What?” Mom looked over all the tissue-paper-taped coins and bills and toilet paper rolls. “I-” She burst into tears, and we hugged her from both sides. I found my brother’s hand and squeezed it. He returned the gesture. We both agreed: Best Christmas Ever.
Mom went shopping two days later. Coop and I waited in the living room, playing chess.
The door opened and Mom breezed in, beaming so widely she could have melted the polar ice caps with one smile. “Look what I got!” She brandished two shopping bags.
She showed us her things: A lipstick that came with its own Clinique sample kit, a long nightgown, and a book. I looked up at Mom’s expression. She traced her finger over every item, as if not sure if it was really hers. She was happy, and so beautiful.
Coop and I shared a smile. We’d get started right away on her next Mom Account.
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