Joan Wickersham

One of those moments when you see life whole

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29: A man walks through Manhattan's financial district on September 29, 2017 in New York City. President Donald Trump released details on his long-awaited tax plan yesterday. According to a recent report, America's largest banks could see profits rise by $6.4 billion under Trump's tax plan. Additionally, the corporate tax rate would be cut to 20% from 35%. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

‘Are you employed?” the banker asked me.


“What kind of work do you do?”


Was this for a form? Was it small talk? He was tapping away at his computer; but he knew I was peeved, and maybe he was just trying to smooth things with a little chit-chat.

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I had come in to get at my safe deposit box, and now it was 40 minutes later and he was still searching through a database that had no record of me, even though I have been doing my banking here for several decades. Yet what does “here” mean, when the bank has merged and been acquired and changed its name four times since my husband and I first opened our accounts?

The banker was a tall young man in a dark suit, very neat, very nervous. When I’d said, “But I don’t understand what the problem is,” he had flinched, and I could tell he was thinking, “Difficult customer, irate,” and his finding me difficult had made me feel guilty and, well, a little irate.

“I’m a writer,” I answered, expecting him to continue with further bank-like questions.

But “What do you write?” he asked; and when I told him — fiction, memoir, essays — he told me wistfully that he used to write poetry.


“Why did you stop?”

“Oh, well. . . . ” and he shrugged and looked around, the shrug and the look encompassing the bank, the job, the suit.

And then we talked. I found out he spoke four languages and liked to read religious books, and that he’d only been at the bank for eight months.

“I’m sorry I was grumpy,” I said, remembering suddenly that my first job out of college had been at a bank and I’d been unhappy and awkward.

Finally he told me I was all set. We shook hands, and he said to ask for him if I ever needed anything at the bank and I blurted out that I hoped he might go back to writing poems.


As I walked home I thought about my mother who, in middle age, used to make a certain kind of scene when we were shopping. “I’d like to speak to the manager,” she would say, to some trembling or sleepy sales clerk who had, in her eyes, failed; and I would squirm and mutter, “Ma, it’s all right, please, let’s just drop it.” It wasn’t that she was wrong. It was the size of her reaction, her haughtiness, her outrage. I didn’t think I’d been anywhere near that queen-dowager territory in asking the banker what the problem was and why it was taking so long to fix it, but who knew? There’s a reason why women are always making anxious jokes about not wanting to turn into their mothers.

I had come in to get at my safe deposit box, and now it was 40 minutes later and he was still searching through a database that had no record of me.

And I thought about a woman I knew who turned 86 a few years ago. To everyone who congratulated her she gave the same jaunty reply: “Well, you know what they say: 86 is the new 85.” But she said something privately to me that I’ve never forgotten: “Every morning I get up and wash my face and clean my teeth and think that the world has completed a full revolution since I did those things yesterday morning, and I am aware that something terrible and inexorable is happening.”

Walking home from the bank I had one of those rare moments when you see life whole — when you understand, viscerally, that yesterday’s awkward young professional is today’s middle-aged indignant customer is tomorrow’s old lady, and that you are on a train that is always moving, even when it seems to be standing still. The young man at the bank knows this but doesn’t know it. The old lady can’t forget it. And I’m in the middle, knowing some of it, but knowing, too, that I have a lot more still to learn.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.