Bedroom Banking

Steve Regis looks fondly at the roots of his will to save

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Giving my grandmother money “to hold” is an institution in my family. It is our rite of passage from unemployment to employment — when we grow from “freeloader” standard into wage-earner.

I observed this ritual time after time as a child. There wasn’t great preamble or fuss involved — only a short exchange. “Mammy hold this for mih.” She would reply: “Okay.” Then a blue wad of bills was extended to Mammy’s “safe hands”. It wasn’t checked by either party. It was just declared to Mammy how much the sum was.

It probably was overly sentimental in my family for a new wage-earner to say thanks to Mammy. It wasn’t necessary anyway — it was Mammy. Trust wasn’t an issue either — it was Mammy. Your money was safe.

The ritual, however, was not devoid of gratitude. Instead of thanks, a purple bill or a “blue note” ($100) was nonchalantly (as if to conceal the exultation and jubilation of the moment) passed to Mammy with the words: “This is yours, Mammy”. She would look at that bill the longest, the little wrinkles beneath her eyes stern and pensive. Then, without a word, she would take it gently. There was relief and fulfilment in the slight grin on the wage-earner’s face — a grin almost imperceptible, except at the edges of his mouth.

Both knew Mammy would most probably never spend this last offering. She would, it was almost certain, invest it in a “sou sou” in our neighborhood.

From the time I was a child I saw an unceasing procession of my kindred perform that ritual in Mammy’s bedroom — uncles, aunts, cousins. For years Mammy’s “bedroom bank” was the leading financial institution in my household. For years the family saw its money not locked away in cold bank vaults, but tucked safely into Mammy’s warm bosom — the same that she brought eight children to and more than twice that number of grandchildren. Yes, our money was close to her heart.

She would transfer it to a Book of Psalms and a Bible that lay at her bedhead, for long-term storage. When anyone returned to make a withdrawal, she would send me to retrieve money from the worn pages of scripture. Twenty dollars on the Book of Matthew . . . One hundred dollars on the 27th Psalm . . .. Our money was close to the Word.

And from that sum that was “for her” she would give sundry loans to a not so frugal wage-earner on a rainy day. She was our 24–hour banking facility. Moreover, she was the one who faced the cold, impersonal teller lines to deposit our meagre sums for long, long-term storage.

Recently, when it was my turn to perform the ritual, I did it down to the last detail. Yes, I couldn’t help noticing that the age of “bedroom banking” was passé. Most of the banking is now done directly with the big institutions out there — the family earnings had trickled away from Mammy’s bosom. There weren’t any bills really to be found in Mammy’s Bible or Book of Psalms anymore. At any rate, it is no longer safe to keep a large quantity of money at home, and Mammy no longer has the physical strength to continue her role of “Financial Comptroller”.

But still, I did not feel as I stood in Mammy’s hallowed bedroom, that I stood in the ruins of my family’s institution of savings. No, I stood in its beginnings — the place of its very genesis; its Nile. And the ritual was as real to me in its semblance of times-past as if I were among that first stream of wage-earners. I felt the man in me rarefying himself in my rite of passage, in Mammy’ s bedroom.

I emerged from Mammy’s bedroom confident and unintimidated, knowing that the roots of my will to save were planted in a most sacred and ancient tradition of my family. Now my pittance (that’s what it was) rested safely among the furrows of Mammy’s bosom and among the tattered pages of her Bible and Book of Psalms.

Moreover, I left prepared to face the indifferent teller-lines in town, knowing (hoping even) that I was not unique — that I stood before and behind many in the teller lines who had performed rites similar, at least in essence, to “bedroom banking”. And I remembered the warmth of Mammy’s bedroom when the air conditioning in the lobby became unbearably cold.