Thursday, January 01, 2009

a fountain pen put in pledge

As you can see from my LibraryThing widget on the right, I'm currently reading a book by Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. It's a compilation of the set of five Massey Lectures which aired in 2008 on CBC. I'm a bit less than half way through and thinking about doing a book-review-in-progress.

While I let that thought jell, I thought I'd provide a story she gives which helps show the book's charm as well as her treatment of the main topic:
When my brother was born, in mid-February 1937 - in the depths of the Great Depression - there was a special Valentine's Day excursion price on the train from Nova Scotia to Montreal. It cost ten dollars. My aunt and a girlfriend scraped together the ten dollars each and went to Montreal to help out my mother with her new­born baby. When they got there, my mother was still in the hospital, because my father hadn't received his monthly paycheque and thus couldn't pay the bill and bail her out, hospitals at that time having a lot in common with debtors' prisons. My father was finally able to spring my mother, but paying the hospital bill - ninety­nine dollars, as I found from looking in my mother's account book - used up all of the paycheque.

My parents didn't have a bean at that time, so my father had no cash reserves, and he pawned his fountain pen in order to take my aunt out for a thank-you lunch. (The fact that he felt the need to do this shows that he understood the need for a gift of gratitude in return for a gift of care and service, which was what my aunt had bestowed.) When my aunt and her friend took the train back to Nova Scotia, they were also given two valuable going-away presents: a bunch of grapes and a small box of Laura Secord chocolates - and this is all they had to eat during the train ride. They had no berths, so they had to sit up the whole time, and this was uncomfortable; but a man was renting pillows for twenty-five cents each. Alas, they had only forty-eight cents between the two of them, but they offered the forty-eight cents and two of the chocolates - fluttering their eyelashes, said my aunt­ and their offer was accepted. Thus they slept in comfort.

When I heard this story as a child, I rejoiced at the successful securing of the pillows, and remembered the lesson of the haggling procedure: if you don't offer a deal, you won't get one. Later, having become interested in pens, I thought, What kind of fountain pen was it? And considering the fact that my parents didn't have a bean, how could my father have had a fountain pen that was expensive enough to pawn? Still later, I marvelled at the cheapness of the train trip - ten dollars would hardly get you a bottle of water and a few potato chips now - and the high value placed on the bunch of grapes.

But now I think, My father! That man of rectitude!

Going into a pawnshop! How incongruous! Indeed, this part of the story was told in a hushed but delighted tone, as if the pawnshop episode was disreputable - like sneaking into a girly show - and transgressive - some line had been crossed - but also courageous and self-sacrificing: look what my father was willing to put himself through in order to do the right thing!

- From Payback : debt and the shadow side of wealth
by Margaret Atwood; pages 52-53,
I've reproduced this excerpt by way of review with no intent to violate copyright or other reserved rights.

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