Of Bait and Banks

10-year-old Naomi on the dock that hosted her bait business

10-year-old Naomi on the dock that hosted her bait business

A growing awareness of mortality, the first-time sense that she’s OLD, and most of all, the failing eyesight that banishes her from the books she loves: All of these weights are combining to sink my 93-year-old grandmother’s spirits. She was home alone most of the day yesterday, her solitude only interrupted by a visit from my son, husband, and me, and she had plenty of time to brood about the contrast between her current loneliness and the festive family get-togethers of past Independence Days.

I desperately wished there was something I could do, but lacking the power to restore eyesight, I came up short. The one idea I had that seemed to cheer her up at least somewhat was my proposal to resume our “Naomi’s Story” project; I’ve taken notes on her answers to all the “Grandma, Tell Me Your Memories” questions, but I confess I’ve let the project lapse lately.

The thought of sharing her story seemed to brighten her mood, though, so I’m determined to pursue the project. Here goes…

My grandmother, Naomi Kimball, grew up with many siblings but little money. Her family often struggled to get enough to eat, and many were the days when they relied on moldy lunchmeat and wormy flour for sustenance. What she did have, though, was a set of 40 Harvard Classics that, unlike much of the furniture, her mother never burned for heat.

She also had access to the ocean—an inlet of which was literally across the street from her childhood home—a minnow trap, and a keen entrepreneurial spirit.

She used the latter three assets to form a bait business; she and her younger brother Jimmy sold quarts of minnows for a quarter each. What avid fisherman could resist the combination of fresh, cheap minnows and Jimmy’s winsome little face? Even some wealthy patrons of the neighboring yacht club, who hardly needed to skimp on bait spending, became customers of the little Kimballs’ fledgling enterprise.

Though the business was necessarily seasonal and never made them rich, it did allow Naomi and Jimmy to have some rare money of their very own. Jimmy, prodigal little thing that he was, promptly spent his share. Naomi, however, was prudent. Although she allowed herself the occasional luxury—a bunch of grapes or a 25 cent Bobbsey Twins book—the bulk of her earnings went into her own personal bank. Not a real bank, of course; this was the Depression era, and real banks were hardly the most reliable storehouses for hard-earned income. She needed to find a place that was safe and secret, a place where her bills could remain securely hidden. And she found it.

Literature plays an important role in our lives: It instructs, inspires, and connects. It dissolves the barriers between person and person, past and present, real and unreal. It changes lives. It also makes a handy place to store your money.

Naomi stored her money between the pages of one of the Harvard Classics, but not just ANY random book. Which one did she choose?

The Wealth of Nations by economist Adam Smith.

I think he would have approved.