The nature of money was something very mysterious to me when I was a four-year- old, possibly because I grew up during the Depression when there wasn't much of it around.
The mystery by which small metal disks could be converted into candy, or toys, or other things seemed utterly fascinating, but impenetrable.
I can remember asking myself a question one morning as I played with a toy car out in front of my house.
Why in the world would anybody trade candy for little pieces of metal?
It just didn't make any sense to me. Candy was wonderful stuff, sometimes sweet, sometimes tart, sometimes chewy or crisp, sometimes dark-colored and rich-tasting, but always delicious.
It was a thing to be sought out and enjoyed, not to be traded for little bits of metal.
Playing together with J.R. Goldman that morning in front of my house on Brook Street on Staten Island, the smallest of the five boroughs of New York City, I asked J.R. that question.
He didn't know why people traded good candy for bits of metal either.
We discussed it as we ran our toy cars up and down the dusty strip between the curb and the sidewalk.
A few years earlier, that dusty strip would have been a grassy verge, intended to add class to the neighborhood, but no grass grew along that strip now.
It was red soil turned to dust by kid erosion and hollowed out three inches below the level of the sidewalk by wind and rain, a place where kids dressed in patched corduroy knickers could be seen playing between asphalt street and cracked, slate sidewalk.
As we rolled our cars around, I told J.R. that I had some of the marvelous metal disks in my house, right in a drawer of an old bureau that was now a toy box.
We looked at each other and stopped rolling our cars, an idea having popped into both our heads at the same time.
We both liked candy. We knew where it was located on our block--right up the street in a narrow little store that was chock-a-block full of the stuff. I had been in there with Frankie, one of my older brothers, just the day before.
J.R. had been in there, too. It wasn't very far from the house.
It was on our side of the road. We wouldn't have to cross the street, which was forbidden. No one had ever said I couldn't go there.... Why not?
We hurried into my house and came back out a few minutes later with two fistfuls of small metal disks. Lots of them! All kinds of colors!
At the candy store we waited until the man behind the counter asked us what we wanted.
Then we put our pile of disks on the glass-topped counter and said we wanted candy for them.
He smiled. Buttons, he told us. Not money.
Outside the store, disappointed and confused, but determined to solve the riddle of the metal disks, we talked it over.
I told J. R. that I knew where my mother kept some disks that had to be the right ones, because she used them all the time.
Into the house I went again, emerging this time with a shiny silvery thing about the size of my thumbnail. Back we went to the candy store.
This time our disk worked.
We came out grinning from ear to ear and carrying a small brown paper bag loaded with licorice buttons, gumdrops, candy corn, root beer barrels, red whips, caramels and the like.
Halfway home we met up with Mom, who quietly shooed J.R. home, took me by the hand, and headed for our apartment.
I asked a lot of questions, but got no answers, and as we walked hand in hand I realized that something was wrong, very wrong in fact because Mom's voice was strangely different, sort of low and tired and husky-sounding, not at all like her usual soft, warm voice.
I kept quiet, wondering what was wrong.
When we got home, I saw tears in Mom's eyes. She began to cry, and I did, too, even though I had no idea why I was crying. We both cried until I thought my heart would break.
It was one of the saddest moments of my life, all the more so because Mom seemed so brokenhearted over something that had been so marvelously happy to me just a few minutes before.
I now know why Mom cried.
I know a lot of things I didn't know that morning.
I know how hard it is for a mother who loses her husband in the depths of the Depression and has to go to work scrubbing floors to feed and clothe four hungry boys.
I know what it's like to have to watch your two oldest sons drop out of high school and go to work to help make a few dollars a week.
I know what it's like to struggle to raise $16 to pay the rent on a small cold-water flat in a two-story apartment house with a furnace whose boiler froze and cracked the year there was no money for coal.
And, I know the value of a dime when it's the last one in your purse and was intended to buy ten cents worth of store cheese to make a macaroni dish to feed four hungry kids.
God bless you, Mom. God bless all the mothers and fathers everywhere who give so much for their children.