My mother’s frugality is legendary. Our cabinets were always stocked with generic food–the plain white labels declaring “coffee,” “chocolate syrup,” and “whiskey.”
My theory: her obsession with money stemmed from losing her father. When she was ten, my grandfather was rear-ended by another car. He hopped out with an offer to fix the other driver’s bumper. While they talked, a drunk driver plowed into the two men, killing my grandfather.
When he was alive, my grandparents stepped out every weekend, going to Broadway shows and fancy dinners. After he died, it all stopped. My mother believed her family had lost all their money, as well as my grandfather.
At five-foot-four, Linda Lynwander weighs about one hundred and ten pounds, and her short brown hair varies between a page boy and a spiky pixie cut. Her uniform is a tank top and shorts in the summer, and a long sleeved t-shirt and sweats in the winter. Holes, stains, and lack of fashion don’t bother her. The first time my boyfriend, now husband, Charles, visited me in New Jersey, he drove past a lady power-walking down Route 17 in a neon orange sweatshirt with a tire track mark running up one side.
“I just saw this crazy woman on the highway,” he said, unloading his car.
“Um, yeah. That was probably my mother.”
When I was nine, we moved from Trumbull, Connecticut, to affluent Ridgewood, New Jersey. Trumbull was a rural town with a slow pace. Ridgewood, just thirty minutes outside of Manhattan, seemed like a sea of blond-haired, blue-eyed catalog models wearing the latest Jordache designer jeans. My “Royal Flush” jeans from the Bradlees discount department store and my “poodle” haircut assured me a hard transition.
Not everyone in my family fared poorly with the move. My father had a better engineering job, the proximity to New York helped my sister sneak off to clubs, and my mother discovered a whole new MO that fit in perfectly with her money saving ways. Finding things on the ground.
Facing the endless sidewalks of suburbia, my mother started walking for exercise. Exercise, not healthy eating, has always kept her thin. A typical dinner might be Velveeta cheese on nacho chips, heated in the microwave.
When Linda started walking, she picked up anything in her path, keeping track of the cash. Was this a reaction to her childhood?
“It was never about the money. It’s a game. I would rather find coins than paper money. They’re shinier and prettier.”
My mother has a sixth sense for coins. She can spot a nickel in a pile of leaves—a quarter hidden under a layer of grime. Let me be clear, she sees coins that you and I would never see, that a trained dog would never find.
“I think I just see round shapes in my subconscious,” she explains, “You can train yourself. It’s in my DNA.”
When I was younger, trips with my mother made me anxious, wondering when she’d veer off course to snatch a penny from under a teenager’s foot, or run into the middle of the road, holding up traffic to get a nickel.
Nothing else matters when she spots a coin. My brother-in-law recounted a recent trip to an ice cream parlor. My sister and father ordered. He and my mother were outside with my parents’ big white bulldog. One minute they were speaking, and the next she lunged, dog in hand, toward a bench with a few kids on it. The kids scattered like a flock of pigeons, and my mother crawled under the bench. She emerged triumphantly, brown eyes sparkling, with a smile on her face and three dark pennies in her outstretched hand.
My mother supplied my grandmother with pennies for her weekly Gin Rummy game, but Gram grumbled about their appearance. Many were misshapen after being run over multiple times, their metal rubbed off. Others had deep grooves, like they were pulled from an animal’s mouth. When she refused all deformed pennies, my mother solved this by taking the offending coins to stores to trade them in. One time, thinking we were stopping for cough medicine at the local Rite Aid, I followed her to a counter with a teenaged clerk. She shook five mangled pennies into her palm.
“I’d like to exchange these for regular pennies,” she said. The clerk managed to look both confused and snide. Seeing his hesitation, she explained, “You see, these have been run over. I want regular ones.” They stared at each other. Finally, the clerk pressed a button and the cash drawer sprung open. Without a word, he took her pennies and replaced them with ones of the correct color and shape.
Other people were less surprised. My mother joined a gym and befriended many oversized men in the weight room. One of her beefy cohorts asked her if she had been out walking on the west side of town. (If you walk five, six miles a day down the same streets, people will notice you.) When she answered yes, he crowed, “I’d know that ass anywhere.” That ass was bending all over town, and finding more than just money.
2. Pornography and Sex Toys
Linda saw a long, pale cucumber-shaped item lying in the grass. It was a dildo, chewed on one end. She didn’t hesitate to pick it up. I picture my mother walking along, swinging her dildo, waving to the neighbors.
My mother is no stranger to pornography. A freelance writer and editor, she once landed a gig with Penthouse magazine, editing the Letters to the Editor for grammar, not content, soon after we moved to Ridgewood.
She remembered thinking that ‘c-u-m’ was a spelling mistake and correcting it. She only lasted a month at that job.
When my mom would later find a dirty magazine on her route, she brought it home.
“Why did you take it?” I asked.
“I wanted to show your father,” she answered.
I concluded the interview.
Of course, once she had the magazine, getting rid of it was a problem. Linda didn’t want the garbage men to see it, so she wrapped it in another magazine and put it in the middle of the recycling.
My mother had other questionable habits.
In the late 1990s, my parents vacationed in Florida. When they returned, my mother emailed me. About two-thirds of the way through, after I was caught up on the neighbors’ doings, and which supermarkets were having specials that day, etc. etc., she casually mentioned that she had found some pot in Florida and had saved it for me and Charles.
I read the paragraph a couple of times before it sank in. My mother traveled across the state with pot, took it on an airplane, planned to drive it to Baltimore, and this piece of news didn’t even make it above the fold?
I called her up, and she explained: while she and my father were in line for their rental car in the Miami airport, she scanned the ground. No money, but she saw a small packet close to the foot of one of the couples ahead of them. As she got closer to the counter, Linda stretched out her leg and kicked the baggie to the side, and then grabbed it and put it in her pocket. When my parents reached the parking lot, she showed my father and asked him if he thought it was marijuana. Since he was “a nerd” and didn’t know, she held on to it. Once home, my mother brought it to the gym to show her friends in law enforcement, and they confirmed that it was cannabis. Strangely, they didn’t take it away from her, so she crossed state lines again and brought it to us on their next visit.
We smoked the rental car pot together. My mother pulled the smoke into her lungs and stood ramrod straight, cheeks puffed out, face up to the ceiling, arms out in a T. My father’s technique was a little better, but he claimed not to feel anything. Finally we called it quits, and my father tried to watch the basketball game, but he couldn’t stop staring at the remote control. I took my hyper mother to visit neighbors who stared at us from their door as she broke records for speed talking.
4. Stolen Goods
Despite my mother’s antics, not much really happened in our quiet neighborhood, one of those suburban enclaves where people walked dogs, and kids rode bikes around and around the block. The lawns: perfectly green. So when the lady across the street set a fire in the middle of the road, it caught my parents’ attention.
The woman had just thrown her husband out of the house. She dragged his belongings out into the street and lit them on fire. My mother saw opportunity. Like a firefighting hero, she ran into the blaze again and again to grab the lady’s stuff. She rescued boxes of albums to sell at the record store. My father scored a slightly too large leather bomber jacket. I got a Dracula cape.
My mother and I have a running joke that whenever she does something embarrassing, the first words out of her mouth are, “I’m Amy’s mother!” Back in the Rite Aid, watching her go head-to-head with the teenaged clerk, it hit me that my mom’s issues are not my own. If she was not embarrassed, why should I be? Today, I’m able to laugh at my kids, who’ve been prepped to pick up pennies since they could walk. Even I pick them up in deference to my mother.
My father never seemed bothered by Linda’s behavior. One time, making conversation, I asked him if he liked screwball comedies. He gave my mother a sidelong look, “What do you think?”
My sister, Julie, is also blessed with Linda’s lack of shame. She once worked at a Hooters knock-off called “Moonshiner Jugs.” And she has no problem searching under barstools at nightclubs for jewelry and money.
Recently, my mother found a make-up case in the stands at a local ball field. She grabbed sixty dollars out of it, and left the rest. When my father insisted she call the police, the cops confiscated the cash after finding joints in the bag.
“Why didn’t you get the pot?” I asked.
“I didn’t see it!” she said, annoyed. “If I saw it, I would have taken it.”