Monday, March 09, 2009


by Gina Sestak

Last time I posted about my father's paper-hanger job. In the interest of equal time, I decided to write today about my mother.

My mother was a bookkeeper. [Don't you just love that word, the way letters keep repeating?] This was in the olden days, before computerized financial records. Her job involved filling out big wide pages called ledger sheets, with a pencil for easy corrections, and adding columns of numbers. I always thought that if I had a job like that -- filling in numbers all day long and spending hours adding and comparing -- I would have to shoot myself within a year or two. I really didn't think that I could stand it. My mother, on the other hand, appeared to find it fascinating.

Throughout most of my school years she worked for a money order company. Does anybody remember money orders?

You can still buy them, but they are not nearly as used as they once were. When I was growing up, few poor people had checking accounts. To pay bills, they would go to a local store and buy a money order. Say you wanted to sent $50 to the electric company. You would pay $50 plus an additional fee, and get a $50 money order, which the electric company could deposit just like a check. USN Company, my mother's employer, provided the money orders to the stores and paid when they were cashed.

There was some excitement in her job. Sometimes the stores would be robbed, losing the money they'd received for money orders. At other times, the store owners would steal that money themselves. It's tough to run a business and hard to resist temptation when the bills are coming due and there's a pile of cash waiting for the money order company's collector to come by. Yes, they really did send people to pick up the cash -- not an armored car, but just a guy on his own who might pick up thousands of dollars from a dozen or more stores each day. The Pennsylvania Lottery didn't exist yet, so most small neighborhood stores took numbers, an illegal form of gambling controlled by the mob. If for some reason a store owner hadn't turned in the numbers receipts and a customer hit (won), the store owner might dip into the money order receipts to pay off the bet. I remember hearing about a gun-wielding customer who went to the store owner's home demanding his winnings. The store owner paid him out of USN Company's money.

What did your mother do when you were growing up? Have you used that profession in your writing?


Annette said...

Gina, once again you have come up with a wealth of story potential here.

Anonymous said...

Gina, very interesting. I have used money orders to pay for items purchased on ebay on the rare occasions when the seller didn't accept Paypal. Even today, they only cost 69 cents, so that's a pretty good deal, I think.

My mother was a registered nurse, but I inherited my father's weak stomach, so I never imagined for an instant I would want to follow in her footsteps and have to contend with the blood, puke, poop, etc., of strangers on a daily basis. Nor have I used anything from her work in my writing that I can think of.

I did, however, take bookkeeping in high school, and I enjoyed it so much that I started college as a business major, planning to become an accountant. But then the other business classes bored me so much that I changed my major to journalism and never looked back. I am certain writing was the right career choice for me, but I still like the black-and-whiteness of accounting -- how if you do it right, it balances, and if you don't, you just have to find and correct the error to make it balance. No shades of gray there! :-)

Anonymous said...

Lisa -
I took computer science as my undergraduate minor for the same reason you liked bookkeeping -- to balance out my Anthropology major that was too full of shades of gray, I needed something concrete that had discoverable right answers.