When I was growing up Saturday was a very big deal. My brothers and I arose at what seemed like the crack of dawn and we watched cartoons and kid programs while our mother slept late. Once she woke up and had her morning coffee it was time to begin our house cleaning tasks. We were all quite busy during the school week with lessons and activities so we generally let the house go to seed from Monday through Friday. We didn’t worry a great deal about mounds of clothes on the floor or dust covering the furniture. We knew that come Saturday we would get things back in tip top order.
Mama turned on music while we worked and we often made up stories even as we took out trash, swept and put new linens on the beds. I became as expert at cleaning the bathroom as a private on latrine duty. I cleaned under the rim and all around the base of the toilet. I scrubbed the sink and the bathtub until they gleamed. I hung new towels and finished by mopping the blue tile until it shone. My mother was quite the critic when it came to the examination of our efforts. A drill sergeant would not have expected more effort from us. We learned how to create sharp crisp corners on our sheets and made certain not to miss a single crumb on the floor. With four of us working frantically it rarely took more than an hour or so to have the whole place looking like new. That’s when the real fun began.
Mama made weekly runs to the grocery store. Back then our favorite markets were located inside a mall. That meant that we would be able to enjoy a bit of shopping before getting down to business planning the meals for the coming week. I loved going to Palm Center more than any other place. Mama always gave us any where from a nickel to a quarter to spend and we knew that our funds went a long way at the Woolworth’s there.
It took a great deal of concentration to spend our treasure wisely. There were so many items in our price range. We had to decide if we wanted a tiny gun with a big roll of caps or perhaps a balsa wood airplane. I sometimes selected small remnants of cloth to create fashions for my dolls. Of course a coloring book was always a big favorite with me. I remember thinking that I was in nirvana as I slowly went up and down the aisles weighing the pros and cons of this purchase or that. Nothing that I have bought since those days has given me the same thrill as I felt back then.
Most people who weren’t alive in the fifties and sixties can’t believe that it was truly possible to find wonderful items for five, ten or twenty five cents. Little candies were a penny. Crayons were a dime. Paper dolls were always a possibility. In our minds not even the greatest toy store held such wonderful things. We took our time to decide and bore the demeanor and seriousness of a professional buyer. Our experience in retail taught us how to add and subtract and compare prices and value. We had to decide whether to get instant gratification or to save our coins for a future date and a much more expensive item. It was the best possible form of instruction in consumer math.
Our mom often followed up our shopping extravaganza with lunch. Being typical kids we most loved the hot dogs from Woolworth’s or the waffles from One’s a Meal. If it was one of the last Saturdays in the month we didn’t usually eat out but during the early days after she was paid her bank account was flush and so we enjoyed a bit of epicurean adventure. She preferred the Thornhill Cafeteria and gave us strict ordering instructions whenever we dined there. We were allowed one meat and either two vegetables or a vegetable and a dessert. Our only rule was to never ever choose something that we were not going to finish. Mama didn’t mind a bit of waste at home but when she was paying good money in a restaurant she didn’t want to see leftovers on our plates. I invariably chose fried fish and macaroni and cheese with different variations for my third item depending on my appetite. I especially liked the pecan pie there so it was often my go to option.
We rarely did any shopping in the clothing shops at the mall. Their goods were a bit too pricey for Mama’s taste. Instead we finished our adventure inside the grocery store. In those days we frequented Lewis and Coker or Weingarten’s more than any others. Once in a great while we went to an A&P or a Piggly Wiggly but they tended to be a bit pricier and inconvenient. Mama selected the food items as carefully as we had done with our little toys. She liked to purchase a roast for Sunday that would eventually contribute to other meals like sandwiches or hash. The featured sale items of the week most often determined what would be on our plates during the coming days. We never had any kind of soda in the house but our mother bought gallons and gallons of milk for us. My brothers drank it like it was going out of style. If we were quite lucky she might place a package of cookies in the cart or gather the ingredients for banana pudding.
It was always exciting to ride home with all of our booty. We laughed and celebrated our good fortune. Mama had a rule that we were only to partake of the food when she offered it to us. Snack time on our own terms was an unknown ritual in our house. Everything had a specific purpose for a specific time. It was up to our mother to determine when and how our food was consumed.
Saturday nights were always as much fun as the rest of the day had been. Mama actually let us eat in front of the television on that day only. The rest of the time we sat at the kitchen table and exchanged stories but on Saturday there were so many good programs to watch that we carefully balanced plates on our laps as we laughed at Jackie Gleason or listened to Lawrence Welk and his orchestra. As the daylight faded we sat in the dark with only the glow of the tiny television screen lighting our living room. Later we put on our pajamas and brought our pillows to lie on as our viewing marathon continued. Mama sometimes made popcorn or surprised us with three cookies and some milk. We usually stayed up past midnight watching old black and white movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Day the Earth Stood Still.
When I think of my childhood Saturdays I am filled with the most exquisite happiness. I remember thinking that I was quite possibly the luckiest girl in the world. Somehow my mother always found a way to make our weekend special even when the money was tight. Fifteen cents split between three children went a long way back then. I have to admit to feeling badly that today’s kids can’t have a similar experience without spending a small fortune. A day of shopping at a toy store, eating out and buying groceries would no doubt cost well over a hundred dollars even for a frugal soul. Back then a dime store was exactly what it purported to be and a loaf of bread rarely cost more than a quarter. Not too many remember such times but I’ll bet that friends my age do. Those were happy days not so much because of the things that we got but because of the simple fun and pleasure that we shared together.