I had looked for pop bottles. That’s what we called them back then. They were glass.
And they had a little indentation at the bottom, and that meant there was a deposit. Glass bottles were returned, cleaned, and re-used. It wasn’t much. The deposit was two cents.
But if you found five bottles you could go to any grocery store, that’s what we called them back then…and the man at the counter would give you a dime.
We didn’t have dipsy dumpsters. We had garbage cans. Some people would save their bottles, but just like today, some people would throw them away. One of the best places to find bottles was by the railroad tracks. I never knew why.
I had gone to the dime store. That’s what we called them. It was like a miniature Walmart with everything from toothpaste and purses, to costume jewelry and perfume. This was where we went to buy almost every gift that needed to be given. It was where we found our pencils and plastic boxes, and cotton underwear, and hankies, and Sen-Sen, for fresh breath.
Blue Waltz perfume in the heart shaped bottle was ten cents. Lady Esther hand cream was twenty-five cents, and Ponds cold cream was only fifteen cents. You could buy two No. 2 lead pencils for a nickel. Mamma still had Evening in Paris perfume from Christmas and Valentines Day. That’s what my dad got her for every occasion. I decided I would not buy her the perfume.
It was still three days until Mother’s day. I was at the dime store, and on the shelves in the back were ceramic figurines. There were ducks, and dogs, and cats, and baskets, and silly ladies in long dresses. I was careful not to touch. As I walked around the shelves, I saw it. Black; sleek – with emerald stone eyes. It was a panther. It had to be almost a foot long, and the claws were gleaming metallic gold. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Surely this was what the Hollywood movie stars had on their tables. And in those days everyone wanted to look like Hollywood.
I couldn’t pick it up. We were told not to touch. So I took a deep breath and approached a lady who was arranging little plastic coin purses on a table.
"Excuse, me, ma’am." I was scared to death. She was obviously very important. She was wearing a dress, and high heeled shoes, and pearl earrings.
"Yes, is there something you want?" Her voice was soft and she smelled like the vanilla and clove of Blue Waltz.
"Yes, please. There’s a black panther on the glass shelf over there, and I need to know how much it would cost to buy it."
"Well, let’s have a look, shall we?" She took my hand, and we walked to the back of the store again. Her hands were warm and soft. I decided she must use Lady Esther. She picked up the panther with both hands and turned it over. There was a hole in the belly, and by the hole was a little white sticker.
"It says here, that it’s one dollar. Did you want to buy this?"
"Yes, ma’am, but I have to go get more money. Thank you."
I left the store wondering if I had enough money. I had been collecting pop bottles for over three weeks. I even saved my allowance, I got a nickel a week for taking out the garbage, and drying the dishes. I put all my money into a sock and stuffed it in my galoshes. I had already decided on the way home that I would do whatever it took to get enough money to by the panther for my mom.
I went directly to my room after dinner that night and counted my money. I had seven dimes, two nickels and four pennies.
The next morning, I begged my mother to let me walk to school. "Please, mamma, please. I’ll be really careful; I won’t talk to anyone; I’ll look both ways when I cross the street, and I won’t stop at the railroad tracks." My heart started beating hard. I knew I was lying.
"Well, alright. But you do just as you said, and you leave early so you don’t be late for school."
Mamma bent down to kiss me on the cheek, and I wrapped my arms around her neck. "Thank you, mamma. I’ll be good I promise." Her brown bobby-pin curls smelled like Evening in Paris.
I almost ran out the door. I waited until I was a block away and I started looking in the garbage cans. In my excitement I had forgotten what I would do with the bottles if I found them. I found four right away. That’s all I could carry. Stores didn’t open until nine and it was barely eight.
I knew exactly what to do. I held the bottles tightly and turned the corner and walked toward the railroad tracks. There was lots of brush and trash. I saw a crumpled cardboard box behind the mustard flowers. I hid the four bottles behind the box.
I was smiling and singing all the way to school. The morning had yielded eight cents. I only needed eight more pennies. During recess I searched all around the school grounds, and behind the small building where we had our classes. I couldn’t believe it! I found another bottle. I only needed six cents. I’m sure you’ve guessed. By Saturday morning, I had $1.00
I was so excited I skipped all the way to the dime store. The pretty lady was still there.
"I wondered where you have been. Do you still want the Panther?"
"Yes, "ma’am. I brought all my money."
She picked up the black treasure with, I was certain, genuine emerald eyes. I followed her to a big brass cash register. She set the panther on the counter. I opened my sock and dumped all my coins – a month’s worth of work – on the counter.
"98, 99 and 100. Now all you need is a penny, for tax."
"A penny? I though it was only a dollar. I don’t have any tax." I tried not to cry. "This is the first real mother’s day present I’ve ever given my mom." I wiped my eyes, and said, "What time do you close today?"
The good smelling lady, leaned forward and said, " We close at five. But don’t you worry, honey. I will pay the penny."
It was only a penny. That penny might just as well have been a hundred dollars.
I wrapped the figure in plain tissue paper, and tied an old ribbon around it.
My mom was thrilled. Instead of the cheap perfume, the handmade crumb scraper made out of paper plates, or the bookmark, she got a real present.
Dad bought her Evening in Paris. He always forgot until the last minute. And the drug stores were there to rescue him. It was an after thought. It made her feel like an afterthought. Mom’s important day was a throw away.
I’m sure that good smelling, important-looking lady had no idea what an impact that one penny made on my life, and on my mother’s.
For all the years after that, everytime we moved, my mom would pack the panther. And the first thing she would place on the coffee table would be the panther. We moved a lot. Mom became an alcoholic.
It wasn’t until years after her divorce that she became sober.
Mom’s gone now. It was hard getting rid of all her stuff. And she had a lot of stuff. We had an estate sale (actually it was a garage sale).
All the memories of the misery, my mom’s drunkenness, her attempted suicide, and dad’s lack of care, and violence faded into shadows, when I saw a little girl approach the panther. The shiny black figure looked like a strong silent guardian on a table full of delicate knick-knacks.
"Mommy, look at the black cat – it has green diamond eyes."
"It’s a panther, Heather."
"Well, I like it, and I want to buy it for you. Would you like it, Mommy?"
"Heather, if you want to get it for me, I will love it!"
The little girl picked it up and held it as if it was newborn baby. She brought it to me, but wouldn’t let go of it.
"How much do you want for this panther?"
I smiled, struggling with wet eyes, and said, "One penny."