MY MOTHER RECENTLY BOUGHT ME A BLUEBERRY BAGEL, though she’s been dead for years. Let me explain.
I was running late for a physical therapy appointment in Somerville, so I rushed off without eating breakfast. As I sat in traffic, it hit me: I was madly hungry. Headache hungry. To my right was a Dunkin’ Donuts. I parked and reached in my pocket to check my wallet. But there was something wrong with my wallet pocket. There was no wallet in it. I’d left it at home.
I decided my fears about being arrested for driving without a license could wait. Right now, I just wanted enough coin to buy food. I dug into my other pocket. A lone nickel. I reached under my seat for loose change, to no avail. And then, without a prayer, I opened the cover of my car’s Naugahyde armrest and looked into the small compartment inside.
Since inheriting this 1990 Ford Probe from my mother, I had rarely used the hidden compartment. Yes, it was my car, yet using this space seemed akin to a posthumous invasion of privacy. The compartment was like a tiny museum exhibit of my mother’s life. There was a yellowed newspaper clipping listing all the NPR stations in the Northeast, so that she never had to be deprived of All Things Considered. An ID card listed blood type and allergies: AB positive; codeine and bee stings. There was an ancient ballpoint, a half-completed crossword puzzle, and a fake-leather coin purse, which I had already once opened. But upon holding the purse, I saw for the first time an extra little flap. I unsnapped it. And there, neatly folded in fourths, was a dollar bill. Yelping with pleasure, I rushed into Dunkin’ Donuts, purchased a blueberry bagel, jumped back in the car, and arrived at my appointment at Assembly Square on time. It seemed an elegant little miracle.
Wolfing down the bagel in the waiting room, I couldn’t resist the eerie thought that my mother had bought me the bagel from the grave. OK, maybe she wouldn’t have chosen blueberry. Garlic or onion was more her old-school style. But while eating, my spirit calmed and brightened. Even if nothing cosmic had taken place, the neat symmetry of the act was felicitous: My mother had placed that bill in the tiny purse for emergency use, and, many years later, in a time of need, I had retrieved it.
I began pondering that carefully folded dollar. What an odd choice of currency for emergency money! Coins could have been used for a phone call or to feed a meter. What use could a dollar bill serve? It was then that an old family story about “mad money” popped into my head.
In 1939, when she was 18, my mother began attending weekend dances with her girlfriends. Before she left her family’s apartment, all dolled up, her own mother would be sure to slip her some mad money. The money was meant to keep her safe. If she ever needed to escape the insistent clutches of a young man forcing unwanted familiarities, that is, a lout who provoked her anger, a dollar would pay her taxi fare home. Mad money was no moral judgment: It was merely a token of maternal concern. Of love. So is it any wonder that my mother would continue the practice, at least figuratively, into adulthood, and ultimately, old age? The only oddity was the tiny amount: As if it were still 1939, a lone dollar bill was deemed enough to ensure safe journey.
Sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist, I chewed on my blueberry bagel, the sugar coursing through my veins, and thought of my mom. Even agnostics like myself sometimes silently talk to the dead. And so, with a steady inner voice, I found myself thanking my mother for her latest gift to me.