A Half-Empty Mayonnaise Jar

Carl Winderl

© Copyright 2014 by Carl Winderl

2015 Biographical Nonfiction Winner


Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

A half-empty mayonnaise jar sits on the top of my chest of drawers in my bedroom. In it, about to the halfway point, coins nestle together and up against the glass.

Taped to the glass, on the outside, a small rectangular piece of white notebook paper with blue lines bears one hand-printed word: “Mom.”

Every other day or so, I drop coins into that jar, on days I’ve not exclusively used my credit card. Later, when I’m readying for bed and the day is done, all the change in my pocket I add to the slowly mounting level of coins in the coffer.

Day in and day out the jar sits there, as a reminder: of my mom, and of the various mayonnaise and occasional pickle jars that sat on the shelf in her bedroom’s doorless closet when I was a kid growing up in our small single-parent home in Pompano Beach, Florida, in the early 60’s.

But I remember in particular those dark difficult days during my senior year at Pompano Beach Senior High school: that hardest of many hard years to forget.

She was a waitress and the sole, and soul, means of support for us – me and my two younger sisters.

Our father, the eternal alcoholic rarely lived with us. And we liked it that way. Not at 1st, but eventually we came to prefer living without an abusive dipsomaniacal father-figure.

Usually he lived at far away reaches of the country for months and then years on end. Only very infrequently returning for a month or 2, or 3, maybe only once for 3 months in a row. Til he’d drink and scream and curse and throw and break and smash things and fight with and beat mom, and us sometimes, then take off for long and then longer stretches of time. Until finally he never came back again. If we’d only known that last time he left was The Last Time he’d ever leave, it would’ve made those following years waiting for the other shoe to drop a lot less fearful.

And maybe easier to forget.

As it was, we grew up without him, and Mom soldiered on waiting tables, and as Blanche DuBois voiced in her lament, she “always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

For us, the tips that Mom “waited for” from strangers kept us going, and dependent.

Thus, the mayonnaise and occasional pickle jars.

They stood, in a row along the front edge of Mom’s closet shelf, each with a piece of paper scotch-taped to its front. And written there in my mother’s neat, controlled, award-winning schoolgirl penmanship when she was maybe our age, I suppose, in elementary school or about to enter junior high. In her flowing perfect script we could easily read: “Rent,” “Electric,” “Water,” “Car Payment,” “Car Insurance,” “Hospitalization,” “Groceries,” “School Clothes & Supplies,” . . . and “Christmas Club.” And there too was the “Emergency” jar, home of the infrequent dollar bill, and the “Misc.” jar, usually the repository of pennies.

Beneath each of the jars, however, in smaller mom writing: a dollar amount. Except for the “Emergency” and “Misc.” jars, those had no dollar amount: they were ghostly blank.

But that wasn’t the half of it. Just seeing them there. And knowing they were there. Standing there, as if on guard for all our future. Or at least until the first of the month.

No, the real other half of it was the daily ritual of the tip counting, coin rolling, and hoisting down the jar or jars with the most urgent, pressing date on it.

That too was written in mom-font: the day of the month that the jar was emptied. To be paid, in full. Ideally.

It was a 6-days-a-week ritual. Sometimes, 7 days, especially in the off-season when the snow birds had flocked northward.

She’d come home mid-afternoonish or so, after her breakfast and lunch shift. Always with her purse over one shoulder, and in the same armhand would be her green apron, weighted down in its corner pocket with her cache of coins, her accumulated tips.

We’d greet her with hugs and hand-holds, she with pats and caresses on the head or a frequent sideways hug back. Then we’d follow her down the tile hallway to her bedroom where she’d step out of her white work shoes, drop to the bed to sit, and let us fight, no, struggle, over who got to be the one to dump out her day’s work onto the whitish chenille bedspread.

Then, like good little Silas Marners we’d dig into the pile, spreading it out looking for quarters and the highly prized half-dollars, our Scrooge-in-training fingers clutching at their fulsome touch, truly heavy metal. And at the rarest of all – a silver dollar – we’d squeal with Klondike delight. Thrilled with our daily hoard.

But we’d always oooh and ahhh with amazement when the few and rarer dollar bills fluttered out to land atop the coins.

Usually one of my sisters would exclaim, “Look-it how many people left you a whole dollar!?!”

A princely sum we thought then for a mere pancake & eggs breakfast or a burger & fries lunch, both staples at the Dutch Oven Diner on Federal Highway, Route U.S. 1. Just a mile or so north of us up in Deerfield Beach, and only a couple thousand yards away from Deerfield Beach Junior High School, where I biked to and from each school day.

Then the sorting, stacking, counting, and rolling would begin. The 4 of us sitting or kneeling on her double bed, like pirates with their booty, greedily amassing it, to be buried in the treasure jars on the closet shelf.

That’d be the first time of the day we’d see our mom, 6 days a week. Sometimes 7 days in a row. And sometimes we’d go even a whole month not ever seeing our mom till 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon, depending on when she finished her afternoon sidework.

To be at work ready to have her morning sidework completed for the diner’s opening at 5:30 a.m., she’d have to leave the house at 4:50. Which meant getting up at 4 a.m. – or 3:45 if she’d been too tired to pack our lunches the night before.

The 1st evidence we’d see in the morning that we had a mom were the 3 brown paper sacks with our lunches inside. Side-by-side on the counter they’d be sitting there, each with the crisp clean fold-overs to keep them closed, and pencilled on each in true mom font, our names: Carlie, Lynne, and Chris.

And on Fridays, there’d be a dime in front of Lynne and Chris’ sacks: for an ice cream sandwich after lunch. Their one treat for the week, to be able to buy something like all the other kids.

For a while she’d leave a dime – or sometimes a quarter for me, once I entered junior high – I’d leave it there on the counter untouched though. I said I didn’t like the ice cream sandwiches, fudge-cicles, the nutty-buddies, or any of the other freezer-burned confectionaries. I said I preferred always her home-made cookies instead. And I did. But I’m pretty sure she understood why the coins were always still there on the counter Friday afternoons. Until finally she stopped leaving them for me to leave there for her.

When I started attending senior high, as a sophomore, I still carried my lunch, even though she insisted I buy my lunch, like all the rest of the kids, but I protested, saying I’d miss her home-made cookies, and her surprise sandwiches – swiss cheese and brown mustard oddly enough became my favorite – or the leftovers she carefully, cleverly, and creatively wrapped in wax paper.

At school all through my sophomore year, I tried my best to slip unobtrusively into sophomore lunch and consume my sandwich surprise or creative leftovers and her prized cookies, if it was a good day. Or maybe on an off-day a piece of crumb cake I bolted with little or no fanfare. Sometimes with it, sometimes without it.

But I survived, passably through that difficult and long sophomore year of trying adjustments.

Junior year too day in and day out I carried my lunch. All year long. But I was a little less concerned about carrying my brown paper bag into the junior lunch room. I even started carrying it around the period before lunch, and by year’s end I’d sometimes carry it around 2 or 3 periods beforehand.

Mom tried to reason with me that 55¢ a day for lunch was something we could afford. That she wanted me to buy my lunch like all the other kids.

But 55¢ to me was 2 quarters and a nickel a day. 10 quarters and 5 nickels a week.

And I knew how hard she worked to earn a 55¢ tip in those days.

Plus, I knew that 10 quarters was 1-4th of a roll and 5 nickels 1-8th. I wasn’t necessarily a math whiz, but I knew what it took to put a roll of coins in a mayonnaise jar.

My senior year I still carried my brown paper bag to lunch. I might have even been a little obnoxious about it, actually. We’d read Crane’s Red Badge of Courage in Honors English early in the fall, and so of course I quite fancied myself in some weird way the Henry Fleming of Pompano Beach Senior High School, with my little brown knapsack.

Of course we’d also read The Scarlet Letter as our last book in the spring of junior English so I should have at least sub-consciously known that symbols paraded around can be negative as well as positive. But consciously I recalled that the ‘scarlet letter’ at the end of the novel didn’t have the same meaning as it did in the beginning.

Nonetheless, I felt that I had come by my badge honestly. Just as I’d honestly earn my varsity letter in basketball my senior year.

Possibly because I was the starting guard on the varsity basketball team after the 1st game of the year and would be the team’s second leading scorer during what would be a very successful senior season, my brown bag was far less noticeable to others than to me.

Even so, I knew the value of a quarter, and when my teammates usually bellied up to the vending machine after practice outside the gymnasium, no quarter left my pocket to bring forth a Coke or a Sprite, a Fresca, or a fruit-juicy Hawaiian Punch. Not that I even had a quarter often in those days. No, I took long draughts from the water fountain outside the locker room and during practice was sure to down more than my share of what was then an early form of Gatorade.

Freshman year I had been cut from the freshman basketball team, so I had no excuse to miss the afternoon coin-counting and rolling-ritual up through 9th grade. Making the jayvee team as a sophomore gave me an official excuse to not be present and accounted for. And of course my junior and senior years on the varsity provided the perfect alibi because of afternoon practices during the season and pre- and post-season workouts as well.

But I lost my appetite for the ritual in January of my ninth grade year. I still felt like I had to attend those sessions even though I tried to weasel my way out, so my sisters shamed me into still participating, and my mom cajoled and entreated me to still take part, even though I think she knew my heart wasn’t in it.

I lost heart one day in mid-January when I’d biked home from junior high and found my sisters, a 4th- and a 1st-grader then, home from school early I thought, and both in a much more carefree, maybe even festive mood, than usual. Especially since we were in the doldrums of a damp chilly Florida January after what had been a darker and bleaker December since mom had been sick and had to miss considerable days of work between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

So on that dreary mid-January day I had to ask them why all the delight and happiness.

They skipped and danced their way down the tile hallway to mom’s bedroom. “Come see, come see,” they chanted in unison, when they reached her bedroom door and saw me still standing in the kitchen.

I dutifully complied, wary of their excessive merriment.

When I stepped cautiously into mom’s bedroom, they danced in place pointing up at the mayonnaise jar shelf. “Look-it, Look-it!” they sang out pointing up beyond their reach.

“What?” I probably sighed with overly dramatic exasperation. I didn’t need any joyous reminders that some of the half-empty jars would soon be completely empty again.

“No, no – not there. Here, here – ” Lynne waved her hand deliriously, but let her index finger lead my eyes.

“Yeah, Carlie – look-it the Christmas Club Jar! Look-it, Look-it!!” Chrissie grabbed my hand to point it for me.

“Yeah, yeah, – I see it. So what,” giving it a cursory glance, not wanting to be reminded that some of the Christmas Club money had been sacrificed for other more “urgent” jars because of mom’s numerous sick days.

“No! Look at it!” Lynne demanded.

I did, but didn’t really see the joy.

Finally, Chrissie announced, “Carlie – Mommy changed the dollars!”

“What?” I stepped closer.

Next Lynne pronounced, “Mommy’s putting in 2 dollars a week for each of us for next Christmas. Not just 1 dollar – ”

“2 whole dollars, Carlie!” Chrissie gleefully clapped her hands. “Mommy’s gonna spend twice as much on us than last year!”

“That’s a hundred dollars, Carlie – A Hundred Dollars! Yippee, Carlie – Yippie!!” as Lynne grasped Chrissie’s clapping hands in hers and together they did a little semi-circle dance skipping in place between mom’s bed and her closet.

I remember I tried to smile, and I did. I must have cause they looked so happy at me. And so expectant, happy I suppose that they got to tell me.

And I was happy, for them. But inside I wanted to cry. That such a little difference to the world, could effect such a huge change in them and their expectations of the coming year. Especially after the lean Christmas we’d just barely scraped through.

They skipped out of the bedroom, down the hallway, their zorries flapping on the tile floor, as they skipped back to me then back down the hall into the kitchen. I see them skipping still, hand in hand, down the tile hallway.

And I see them as they rushed mom when she trudged through the front door that afternoon, bone-tired and world-weary from her day on her feet, up since 3:45, cause I noticed she’d gone to bed before our lunches were made.

But she had enough energy to offer my sisters a wan smile as they hugged her and hugged her some more amid their cries of delight and thank you, thank you, mommy and their promises of being the best behaved daughters and sisters they could ever be, all year long, til even after next Christmas, into next year too, mommy.

Mom gamely made her way down the hallway with a daughter skipping on either side of her, and as she passed me, still in the kitchen doorway, she patted me on the arm and smiled a real smile, the one she said she always saved for her only son, and her favorite son, which always made me smile back. And still does.

Then I too trudged down the hall after them, to join in on the coin-counting and rolling-ritual. Although that was the first time I felt and knew my heart wasn’t really in it.

But despite my mom’s best intentions, that year did not let 2 dollars a week for each of us kids go clink into the Christmas Club Jar. In the summer, work was so slow, tourists so few, and 7-day weeks so common, that during 1 stretch in that long hot summer, all we as a family had to eat was potato soup, 3 meals a day, for 3 days straight. Cause all we had in the house was the end of a bag of flour and a small bag of potatoes. A little milk for the soup base mom brought home 3 days in a row from Dutch Oven. The owner would have given her more and some food too, if mom had let on to him how tight things really were at home. But her pride wouldn’t let her ask, for any more or anything else. Or let on how bad things truly were.

She’d had to scrimp on Peter’s Groceries Jar to keep Paul’s Rent, Car Payment, and Electricity Jars from being half empty, or less.

Gradually though my heart led me back, somewhat, into the coin-counting and rolling-ritual. Once I’d played my last game as a Pompano Beach Senior High Golden Tornado, I no longer had practices nor some other air-tight alibi to excuse me from those afternoon huddles around the various coinage of kind strangers and those fewer but kinder regulars.

So there I was huddling on her bed again because we’d lost our last game of the season, eliminated in our run at a state title in the district semi-finals. My senior season was over at last. Not at all mercifully.

But that was not to be my last ballplaying.

Back in those days, the mid 60’s, nearly all scholarships for college hoop were offered and awarded after a player’s senior season. I’d heard there’d been some interest in me during the season, but nothing had come of it.

Then about 10 days after our unexpected and heart-breaking loss, I got the “call.” During Biochemistry, last period of the day, a voice interrupted class through the intercom, “Mrs. Reinhardt, would you please allow Carl Winderl to report to Mr. Walden’s Office for an important phone call.”

I had been called down to the Principal’s Office.

My 1st thought was Mom. Then of my sisters. Which 1. Or possibly my grandparents. But last on the list as I half-trotted to Mr. Walden’s Office was my dad. That thought slowed me to a walk. Then a hesitant shuffle. Which turned into a crawl. A snail probably could have beaten me. Or I could have tied it maybe.

But the call instead was from a basketball coach. Calling from somewhere in Illinois. He offered me a full-ride scholarship, he’d talked to my high school coach several times over the last couple days, and one of his scouts had seen me play, on the last night of our high school’s Statewide Christmas Tourney. I’d played a pretty good game that night, we won the game, and claimed the Tourney Crown in fact. And I was voted MVP of the Tournament.

Other offers would come later, a few, but that was the 1st.

When Mom stepped through the front door that same afternoon, sighing her tired but ready smile, I was the 1st to greet her.

I hugged her and whispered, “I’ve got some really good news.”

She leaned back from my hug, to still smile, but she was cautious, something a little like wonderment blended with gentle concern was in her eyes. She looked to my sisters, for a clue perhaps, or to know “what.”

For that reason, I’d not told them anything. Just that I had something to tell mommy about school.

That afternoon I took her noticeably lighter apron from her armhand and started down the hallway, calling out over my shoulder, “Come on – I’ll tell you on the bed.”

Lynne and Chris immediately skipped after me, while mom, as I recall, walked down the hall deliberately, cautiously, a little nervously maybe, and very expectantly, as she later told me.

I already sat on her bed, on the side over by the wall, and patted the bedspread, “Sit here, Mommy,” trying not to over-grin. I wanted, maybe needed to assure her, “it’s not just Good News, Mommy – it’s Great News, – I think.”

Lynne and Chris knew something was up, something Big; they’d not even insisted on dumping out the coins, or even tried to grab the apron out of my hands.

When mom was all settled in, shoes left on the oval throwrug in front of her dresser, I started, “Mommy, a college basketball coach from up in Illinois called me at school today, during last period – and he offered me . . . a full-ride basketball scholarship . . . ”

Instantly she threw her hands to her face, covering everything but her eyes. Which just as quickly filled with tears. Then she started sobbing, and saying, “Oh, Carlie – Oh, Carlie, -- Oh, Carlie – ” over and over through her sobs.

Lynne and Chris joined in almost immediately with their own crying, halting for air every other sob or so. Then I got in on the crying jag. Just like that, the 4 of us were crying out loud on her bed.

Then the hugging began. And the laughing.

Finally I pulled free of them to kneel and hold her apron high over my head to let the coins be a cascade in silver as a couple dollar bills fluttered to the bedspread.

My college plan had been, to that point, to probably just keep living at home, get some kind of mind-less part-time job, and attend Palm Beach Junior College, Broward Junior College, or Miami-Dade Junior College. My preference was Miami-Dade, because it was the farthest away, down in Miami, to the west, off of the new Florida Turnpike.

But on that day tears rained from all of our eyes, like the quality of mercy from heaven, because we knew there would not have to be any jars on her bedroom closet shelf, nor on mine, marked: “Tuition,” “Books,” “Fees, “Gas Money,” “Carlie’s Car Payment,” or “Carlie’s Car Insurance.”

All of a sudden my heart was for the most part back into the coin-counting and rolling-ritual. Especially because I knew that come September I’d be away at some college, with the perfect air-tight alibi.

And there wouldn’t be any jars anywhere on anybody’s closet shelf with my name on them.

As it turned out, I did take the 1st scholarship I was offered. It included tuition, room & board, books, and all student fees. It also included a “gym job” – some nominal, sinecure position that would pay me $25 a month freshman year, and would increase $25 a year until I’d be making $100 a month my senior year, for doing little more than opening up the gym 2 nights a week for 2 hours for student “free play.”

Later, once on that college campus, I learned 1st-hand the term “slush fund.” I liked the sound of that. A lot. And it didn’t have anything to do with mayonnaise jars. Nor the clink of coins being dropped into 1.

At the time, I didn’t think of it, but eventually I realized that of the half dozen or so serious scholarship offers, I chose the 1 at the school the farthest from Pompano Beach, Florida: 1500 miles away.

But that fall, all those miles and 1-time zone away, I still knew the coin-counting and rolling-ritual was taking place unabated, even without me. About the same time I would stroll onto the floor at the start of practice. Far away as I was, that was one part of me I’d not forgotten. Nor wanted to, really.

It’d be there still at Christmas and Easter vacations when I returned. And it was there the next summer too.

Even so, once a month, in 1 of her weekly letters to me, Mom would enclose a 10-dollar bill, in case, as she’d write, I wanted or needed to get something all the other students were getting. She said she’d no idea how far my $25 a month would last.

She should’ve known – maybe she did – that I knew how to make $25 last all month long.

And the next year, $50 was even easier to make last through the month. Also with her monthly 10-dollar bill. Of course during the next 2 years the $25 increments made it even easier. And even though those last 2 years I told her not to send any more 10-dollar bills, to put them instead in some jar, maybe Lynne’s or Chris’s Christmas Club Jars, – evenso, she still sent me those 10’s.

So that now these days, not every afternoon, of course, but every month, or 2, or so, whenever I see the coins in my mayonnaise jar on my chest of drawers at about the halfway point, on some late afternoon I take it over to my double bed, and dump its loot onto the bedspread.

Sometimes I hold it at waist level. Sometimes at shoulder height. And sometimes, I hold it high over my head.

I’m never in any hurry these days. I leave time for contemplation. And reflection. Obviously.

I usually with 1 hand spread out flat all the coins, so I can see them in 1 layer on the bedspread.

With several fingers I spread them out a little more, and pause to look at them. And wonder where the half dollars are, and really know better than to even think I’ll ever again see a silver dollar.

And though I’m tempted to sometimes let a whole dollar bill, or 2, or 3 flutter from my upheld hand, I never do. It just wouldn’t ever be the same.

But I content myself with slowly, carefully, unhurriedly using an index finger to push the pennies into their piles, then the nickels into theirs, and the dimes, and finally the quarters into theirs.

Then I count them into mini-piles of 50, 40, 50, and 40 again.

I take the rubber band off the stack of wrappers and place the reddish, greenish, dark green, and orange wrappers one at a time on each appropriate mini-pile. Then I set about inserting the coins the way I always did: sliding the wrapper over the index finger on my left hand and slowly slipping the copper, nickel, and silver alloy discs into each wrapper. I fold over the excess paper at the ends and tamp them gently on the bedside table to give the folded over paper a clean crisp seal. Just like I was taught.

Any leftover coins, usually just a few or so, that didn’t make the cut at 50, 40, 50, and 40 go back into the jar. To ideally cover at least the bottom so it has a ‘start,’ before I dump them out again, the next time they appear to be about at the halfway point.

Eventually I take the rolled coins, with my account number clearly printed on each tube, to the bank and hand them over to a teller to be deposited. I think the tellers must think I’m quaint – or maybe even cute – but I never tell whoever handles my deposit what I’m up to. I’m not sure they’d understand. Or could relate.

Last of all, I write out a check for the amount of the deposit, write Betty R. Winderl on the payee line, and mail it to her where she now lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, retired after her years and years on her feet carrying plates of food to strangers, and their empty plates back to the kitchen.

I put the check in an envelope with a letter, and try to always say that I hope it helps her make it through to the end of the month. That I know her social security and her medicare and medicaid will only go so far.

Or maybe that she’d like to go buy something like all her friends are.

I know she probably doesn’t need that little bit of money I send her now and then. At least not near as much as I need to send it.

And count it, and roll it. And remember the ritual.

Because I didn’t know then what I do know now: my mom had to have seen all of those jars as half-full.

Otherwise, how else could she have gone on.

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