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A Gift of Gold

It was the winter of 1937, just after Remember, if you have some now, you
Christmas. The Depression1 was still going won’t get your share at dinner.”
on, but I was in good spirits. At the end of This was a little game we played, always
January, I was going to graduate from with the same result. I would pester her
5 elementary school. I was just twelve – 50 until she swore that I was driving her to
younger than all the other boys in my class distraction. Then she’d give in and let me
and much smaller. My mother still dressed have a generous sample. I’d invariably get
me in shorts, and when the cold weather my full share at dinner.
came, I wore woolen knickers2and knee- This time, I didn’t put the game in motion.
10 high socks. Most of my classmates had 55 “Mom,” I said, “about graduation...”
given up wearing shorts, but even though “Yes?” she answered, shuffling the skillet3
they were older and taller than I was, they on the burner.
still wore knickers. Only a couple of the “They‘re going to give me the first-prize
taller fourteen-year-old fellows had medal,” I said.
15 moved on to long pants. 60 Still working over the stove, she looked
However, for the graduation ceremony, all over her shoulder at me and smiled
the boys were expected to dress the same broadly. “That’s wonderful, Babe. Dad and
way. They were supposed to wear white I will both be there, and we’ll be the
shirts, navy-blue knitted ties, and dark- proudest parents in the place.”
20 blue wool serge pants. When I asked one 65 She must have seen by the look of my
or two knickered kids what they were face that something was wrong. She
going to do, they said that they were turned her back to the stove and said,
going to show up on graduation day “So?”
wearing long pants. “So, I have to get long pants,” I said.
25 I waited until a week before graduation 70 It didn’t take long to get the answer I
before I told my mother. I figured I’d expected.
better break the news to her as gently as I “Babe, we don’t have the money for new
could. pants right now,” she said very quietly.
I remember that it was a cold Monday “You know that.”
30 afternoon. I had come home from school 75 “Okay,” I burst out. “Then I won’t go to
after crunching my way over the graduation. Plus, I’m running away from
treacherous streets and crosswalk. There home!”
were deep ruts and tracks cut into the I waited. My mother shook the pan
thick layers of melted and refrozen snow. several times and then turned over the
35 Inside the house it felt warm and 80 pieces of fish one by one. It was very quiet
comforting. I put my heavy coat away in except for the sound of melted butter
the hall closet, all the while inhaling the sizzling in the pan.
tantalizing smell of fish being fried in She turned to me. Her outstretched hand
butter. I went into the kitchen for a glass held the spatula on which she had
40 of milk, one of the few luxuries of life in 85 balanced a golden piece of sautéed fish.
our house. “Here,” she said. “Cut one of the rolls on
“Boy, Mom,” I said, “that smells good. I the table and make yourself a nice fish
love fish.” sandwich. And if I were you, I wouldn’t
“Don’t start bothering me for some now,” pack my bags just yet. We’ll solve the
45 she said, “the way you always do. 90 pants problem somehow.”
My mother watched me make the Zenger fitted me with what was surely the
sandwich. She continued to watch me eat greatest pair of 100 percent pure-wool
it, obviously amused by the way each bite 125 navy-blue serge trousers ever to be had in
was accompanied by moans of delight. the whole world.
95 “That ought to hold you,” she said. Mr. Zenger measured me for the inner
The following Saturday, when my mother seam length and then sewed the cuffs
said, “Let’s go shopping,” I knew that she while we waited. The cost was three
had solved the problem. 130 dollars and fifty cents, including the
Midmorning we bundled up4 against the alterations.
100 bitter cold that had settled over the city The new trousers were wrapped up in
and took the trolley that ran along brown paper and tied with string. I was
Westchester Avenue. We got off at holding the package tightly under my arm
Southern Boulevard, the best shopping 135 when my mother went to pay Mr. Zenger.
street in the East Bronx. Our clothing store I saw her take a tiny brown envelope from
105 was just a couple of blocks away. We had her purse, tear back the sealed flap, and
been getting my pants there from Mr. remove the contents. There were four
Zenger ever since I could remember. I brand-new one-dollar bills inside. She
liked Mr. Zenger, and I enjoyed hearing 140 carefully unfolded them and handed them
him say, as he always did, “Trust me, to Mr. Zenger. He rang up5 the sale and
110 sonny, I’ll give you the best, and with gave my mother the fifty cents change.
those pants, you’ll look like a million Sitting next to my mother on the trolley, I
dollars.” had the window seat and looked out for
But first we walked a short way down the 145 most of the ride. About halfway home,
boulevard and stopped at a place I had there wasn’t much to look at rattling over
115 never noticed before. the Bronx River Bridge, and as I shifted
My mother said, “Wait here.” around in my seat to face forward, I
She opened the door and entered a glanced down at my mother’s hands
storefront that looked a little like a bank. I 150 folded across her purse, which was resting
read the sign over the door: Home Thrift on her lap. It was then that I saw that the
120 and Loan. plain gold wedding band that had always
She came out about ten minutes later, and circled the ring finger on her left hand was
we went to the pants store. There Mr. no longer there.

By John Keith, San Jose, California


From: True Tales of American Life, London, Faber and Faber, 2001

Glossary
1
the Depression: period when there was not much business activity and not many jobs in the 1930s

2
knickers: same as knickerbockers – boys’ knee trousers popular in the early 20th century.

3
skillet: frying pan

4
to bundle up: to dress warmly

5
to ring up something: to enter the price of goods on a cash register
It was the winter of 1937, just after Christmas. The Depression was still going on, but I was in good
spirits. At the end of January, I was going to graduate from elementary school. I was just twelve –
younger than all the other boys in my class and much smaller. My mother still dressed me in shorts,
and when the cold weather came, I wore woolen knickers and knee-high socks. Most of my
classmates had given up wearing shorts, but even though they were older and taller than I was, they
still wore knickers. Only a couple of the taller fourteen-year-old fellows had moved on to long pants.

However, for the graduation ceremony, all the boys were expected to dress the same way. They
were supposed to wear white shirts, navy-blue knitted ties, and dark-blue wool serge pants. When I
asked one or two knickered kids what they were going to do, they said that they were going to show
up on graduation day wearing long pants.
I waited until a week before graduation before I told my mother. I figured I’d better break the news
to her as gently as I could.

I remember that it was a cold Monday afternoon. I had come home from school after crunching my
way over the treacherous streets and crosswalk. There were deep ruts and tracks cut into the thick
layers of melted and refrozen snow. Inside the house it felt warm and comforting. I put my heavy
coat away in the hall closet, all the while inhaling the tantalizing smell of fish being fried in butter. I
went into the kitchen for a glass of milk, one of the few luxuries of life in our house.
“Boy, Mom,” I said, “that smells good. I love fish.”

“Don’t start bothering me for some now,” she said, “the way you always do. Remember, if you have
some now, you won’t get your share at dinner.”
This was a little game we played, always with the same result. I would pester her until she swore that
I was driving her to distraction. Then she’d give in and let me have a generous sample. I’d invariably
get my full share at dinner.

This time, I didn’t put the game in motion.


“Mom,” I said, “about graduation...”
“Yes?” she answered, shuffling the skillet on the burner.
“They‘re going to give me the first-prize medal,” I said.
Still working over the stove, she looked over her shoulder at me and smiled broadly. “That’s
wonderful, Babe. Dad and I will both be there, and we’ll be the proudest parents in the place.”
She must have seen by the look of my face that something was wrong. She turned her back to the
stove and said, “So?”
“So, I have to get long pants,” I said.
It didn’t take long to get the answer I expected.
“Babe, we don’t have the money for new pants right now,” she said very quietly. “You know that.”
“Okay,” I burst out. “Then I won’t go to graduation. Plus, I’m running away from home!”
I waited. My mother shook the pan several times and then turned over the pieces of fish one by one.
It was very quiet except for the sound of melted butter sizzling in the pan.
She turned to me. Her outstretched hand held the spatula on which she had balanced a golden piece
of sautéed fish.
“Here,” she said. “Cut one of the rolls on the table and make yourself a nice fish sandwich. And if I
were you, I wouldn’t pack my bags just yet. We’ll solve the pants problem somehow.”
My mother watched me make the sandwich. She continued to watch me eat it, obviously amused by
the way each bite was accompanied by moans of delight. “That ought to hold you,” she said.
The following Saturday, when my mother said, “Let’s go shopping,” I knew that she had solved the
problem.

Midmorning we bundled up against the bitter cold that had settled over the city and took the trolley
that ran along Westchester Avenue. We got off at Southern Boulevard, the best shopping street in
the East Bronx. Our clothing store was just a couple of blocks away. We had been getting my pants
there from Mr. Zenger ever since I could remember. I liked Mr. Zenger, and I enjoyed hearing him
say, as he always did, “Trust me, sonny, I’ll give you the best, and with those pants, you’ll look like a
million dollars.”

But first we walked a short way down the boulevard and stopped at a place I had never noticed
before.
My mother said, “Wait here.”
She opened the door and entered a storefront that looked a little like a bank. I read the sign over the
door: Home Thrift and Loan.

She came out about ten minutes later, and we went to the pants store. There Mr. Zenger fitted me
with what was surely the greatest pair of 100 percent pure-wool navy-blue serge trousers ever to be
had in the whole world.
Mr. Zenger measured me for the inner seam length and then sewed the cuffs while we waited. The
cost was three dollars and fifty cents, including the alterations.
The new trousers were wrapped up in brown paper and tied with string. I was holding the package
tightly under my arm when my mother went to pay Mr. Zenger. I saw her take a tiny brown envelope
from her purse, tear back the sealed flap, and remove the contents. There were four brand-new one-
dollar bills inside. She carefully unfolded them and handed them to Mr. Zenger. He rang up the sale
and gave my mother the fifty cents change.

Sitting next to my mother on the trolley, I had the window seat and looked out for most of the ride.
About halfway home, there wasn’t much to look at rattling over the Bronx River Bridge, and as I
shifted around in my seat to face forward, I glanced down at my mother’s hands folded across her
purse, which was resting on her lap. It was then that I saw that the plain gold wedding band that had
always circled the ring finger on her left hand was no longer there.
A Pre reading

1 Look at the pictures below. Make up a story based on them.

2 Have a look at the following phrases which were all taken from the story A Gift of Gold,
by John Keith.

At the end of January I was going to graduate.


Dad and I will both be there.
Cut one of the rolls on the table and make yourself a nice fish sandwich.
I’ll give you the best, and with those pants, you’ll look like a million dollars.

Speculate on
- how many characters there are
- what they look like
- how old they are
- what they do
- wthat the relationship between them is

3 The story you are going to read has been cut out into 10 strips of paper. In groups, move
the 10 strips of paper in order to get the correct sequence of the story.

B Reading

1 Read the story up to line 28, and answer:

a What news did the boy want to tell her mother about?
b Why do you think the boy was going to speak about that subject “as gently as I could”?
c What does he mean when he says “The Depression was still going on, but I was in good
spirits.”

ES Manuel Gomes de Almeida, Espinho


A gift of gold, original story by John Keith. Worksheet by Octávio Lima, September 2009
2 Go on reading up to line 77, and answer:

a How would you describe the relationship between the boy and his mother?
b What two reasons made the boy demand long trousers for himself? (Reread the
previous section of the story)
c How does the boy try to blackmail his mother into doing what he wants?
d What do you think of the boy’s attitude?

3 Go on reading up to line 98, and complete:

The boy managed to convince his mother because .................................................................

4 Finish your reading and answer:

a Why did the boy like Mr Zenger?


b How much time do you think it took Mr Zenger to fit the boy with the new trousers?
c How much did his mother pay?
d How did she get the money?

C After reading

1 Think about

a What did you like best in the story?


b What character did you like best?
c Did any of the characters remind you of people you know?
d How far do you sympathize with the narrator?
e What did you learn with this story?

2 Create an advertisement for Mr Zenger’s business. Use some of the following advertising
techniques:
- short and appealing sentences
- rhyme
- the imperative
- adjectives
- repetitions
- metaphors
- alliterations
- images/drawings
- eye-catching layout

ES Manuel Gomes de Almeida, Espinho


A gift of gold, original story by John Keith. Worksheet by Octávio Lima, September 2009
3 In groups, research the 1930s on themes like The Great Depression, fashion, music,
commercials and advertisements.

Suggestions
1937 Timeline
http://xroads.virginia.edu/%7E1930s2/Time/1937/1937fr.html

Advertising Slogans of the 1930s


http://xroads.virginia.edu/%7EMA04/hess/Slang/ads.html

Fashion in the 1930s


http://www.fashion-era.com/stylish_thirties.htm

D Language

1 Look at the following phrases. What do the underlined verbal forms express?

I went into the kitchen.


I had come home from school after crunching my way over the treacherous streets and
crosswalk
I would pester her.
We’ll be the proudest parents in the place
She must have seen by the look of my face that something was wrong.

- a finished past action


- an action in the future
- a piece of advice
- the first of two actions that happened in the past
- an unreal our unlikely action
- a past repeated action
- a deduction about something that has happened

2 Write down the infinitive forms of


wore
told
felt
swore
shook
knew
took
ran
saw
rang

ES Manuel Gomes de Almeida, Espinho


A gift of gold, original story by John Keith. Worksheet by Octávio Lima, September 2009