Miss Moran, the elementary school principal, collected the weekly milk money on Thursdays.
Thursday was probably as good as any day for most of the kids in my class—like Vincent, whose father played first violin in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Valerie, whose father taught at MIT, or Mary Ellen, whose mother worked at a hospital and whose father owned a gas station.
For my family, however, Thursday was the day before my father’s payday, which meant there wasn’t much money left by then.
By Wednesday we were eating Campbell’s tomato soup for dinner. On Thursday we would have pancakes.
Our town was a bipolar Boston suburb. Some families were snug in middle-class predictability. Others, like us, yearned to escape the working-class tightrope.
On Wednesday nights my mother gathered up change to put in the milk-money envelope. There were five of us siblings at the elementary school, with a baby still at home. As the oldest, I handed in the milk money for the entire family.
I loved milk time at school.
Mr. Strong, the school janitor, brought in the cases of milk cartons while we were lining up to file into school in the morning, kindergarteners in the front, sixth graders in the back. (Yes, his name really was Mr. Strong.) He must have put those little six-ounce milk cartons in a giant refrigerator set at a very low temperature, because the milk was always freezing cold even though the cartons looked like they were sweating when we opened them around 10:30 a.m. (We had not yet learned about condensation.)
With our carton of milk we each got two perfect squares of graham crackers set on brown paper towels. The sweet of the crackers and the creamy cold of the milk calmed and soothed me like little blankets do for babies.
Milk time was a time-out, filling our growling stomachs and giving us a break during which we could think about nothing, except maybe why milk tasted so much better at school than it did at home.
One Wednesday night we didn’t have enough change to put in the milk-money envelope. My father wasn’t home. My mother and I knew that he was out drinking beer paid for with what would have been the milk money.
My mother asked me to come down to the basement and help her. She went through the laundry, emptying my father’s olive-green work pants and looking in them for change. I stuck my pixie-cut head into the clothes dryer and felt around the inside of it for coins.
Anxious when we couldn’t find any loose change, I tried to stay calm. I needed to be calm so my mother wouldn’t get more upset. As part of my role as responsible oldest child, I said to my mother, “How about St. Anthony?” Before she could say anything, I started chanting, “Dear St. Anthony, look around. Something has been lost and needs to be found. Dear St. Anthony, look around. Something has been lost and needs to be found.”
We found no coins that night, and I dreaded going to school the next day. If we didn’t have milk money, would the teacher pass out cartons of milk to everyone but me? What would happen to my sisters and brothers? The shame of being the only one eating a graham cracker without a carton of milk would be worse than not being able to play softball last spring because there hadn’t been money to buy new sneakers that fit. You didn’t have to show up for softball, but we’d have to show up for school no matter what.
Almost as bad as imagining this possible humiliation was seeing the sadness on my beautiful young mother’s face the next morning as we ate our Cheerios and she made the five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our lunch boxes. She worked as efficiently as she always did, but the radio was off. She told us she had a headache and there would be no dessert in our lunches today.
In the end, my mother had to write a note to Miss Moran, telling her that we didn’t have the milk money and promising that she would send it in on Monday.
I can’t imagine how painful it was for my hard-working, proud mother to write that note. I do know how hard it was for me to ask my teacher, Mrs. Brown, for permission to deliver the note to Miss Moran, the principal.
I stood in Miss Moran’s office while she read the note. She looked up after reading it and said, “Tell your mother not to worry. I know what a good family you are.”
Taciturn, high-standards Miss Moran never gave compliments. Her acknowledgement that my family was good—despite not having enough milk money that week—was like a special blessing.
Miss Moran saved me that day. We were poor, but we weren’t losers.