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AFTER OUR FATHER’S DEATH, our older brother began working when he was ten years old to supplement the family income. His salary was only one dollar and a half per week, but it was a great financial help to my mother, especially during the summer.
My brother worked in an office building uptown which is now the site of one of the city’s largest stores. This spot was owned by a prosperous, far-sighted member of the Jewish race. He was very kind to my brother. Although my brother was extremely young, this employer entrusted him to collect his bills, rents, and do many things that an older person would ordinarily do.
My brother was often met with an attitude of resentment from some tenants who rented from his boss and sometimes from office boys who worked in the uptown area. My brother was indistinguishable in appearance from an Anglo-Saxon youth, and on first contact with many individuals, he would be treated as one. However, the attitude of these same individuals would often change when they learned that he was a member of the colored race. Sometimes this prejudiced thinking led to unhappy and unpleasant experiences.
But racial identity meant nothing to my brother’s Jewish employer. He liked and trusted Nat as he called him, and he soon made it clear to any inquisitive or dissatisfied individual that when he sent Nat out to do a job for him, he meant for all concerned to act in accordance with the directions he had given. My brother’s pockets were often bulging with money when he returned from one of his rent collection trips on the first of every month.
Gradually, most of the resentment died away because of the unbiased and unprejudiced support given my brother by his employer. As I remember seeing this man, he was short in stature, had a ruddy complexion and snow-white hair. He looked to me as if he could have passed for a small-sized edition of Santa Claus with his jolly face and twinkling eyes.
He had come to this country years before, poor and unknown, as an immigrant from the old world. He must have had a natural penchant for accumulating worldly goods. He worked hard at various jobs, peddled goods at times, saved his money and became one of the city’s financial powers.
My brother was often left in charge of his employer’s office. One day, he felt the urge to act as if he was the real boss so he sat in the boss’s chair and propped his feet up on his desk just as he had seen him do. Unexpectedly the boss came in and saw him. Of course this somewhat non-plussed my brother and he half expected to be scolded. His boss, knowing the antics of young boys, only laughed and went on his way.
My brother was very fond of pies. Mother liked to make him pies, particularly deep apple pies or thin ones laced with strips of criss-crossed pastry. When my brother walked home for dinner, usually a juicy pie would be ready for a part of his dinner. If he didn’t get to come home, my sister and I would take him his dinner although we were only seven or eight years old. Mother packed it neatly in a little basket or pail, and together we walked the mile uptown and back to carry our brother’s dinner. We thought nothing of taking the walk uptown. Just knowing the way seemed to make us more important. Of course, the streetcars were running, but we didn’t always have carfare. Even if we did, we would have been tempted to keep it.
Most of my brother’s small salary went to help out with the family’s living expenses, but there was one thing that he indulged in every payday. He would stop by the grocery store and invest in a big bag of ginger snaps as a family treat.
We were always glad for Saturday evening to come because we were eagerly awaiting our cookies. These ginger snaps were the old-fashioned kind that the grocer kept in a big tin box. It seems to me that they were larger and spicier than the ones we buy today. Every Saturday evening, we were all eyes watching for Nat to come in and give each one his fair share of ginger snaps from the paper bag. To ensure the continuation of peace and tranquillity, the ginger snaps were carefully counted as they were apportioned in the hands of each individual.
My brother worked for his first employer for several years. A strong friendship existed between this warm-hearted old man and my brother. It was severed by the sudden death of this friend.
My brother, who was a successful dentist, remembers with gratitude the many hours of profitable association spent with his kindly Jewish employer. He learned many lessons of worth from him. One that aided him greatly was the notion that one should save money and try to accumulate some worldly goods.
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996