At 19, my mother worked as a bank teller. As a child, I imagined a bank that was lofty and large and full of threats. As an adult, I’ve driven by this bank, or at least banks just like it, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and I’ve caught myself disappointed by its simplicity.
At 19, my mother used to explain, she had nothing to lose. She did not have any children yet, though she would eventually have six, and she had not met my father yet, though she would eventually divorce him. When I was young, I believed this bit of information about having nothing to lose was a way to build suspense for me, the listener, who knew exactly the future she had to lose. Now I recognize that this was instead another example of my mother’s unwillingness to accept any act of heroism, a way to deny herself any right to feeling accomplished or fulfilled.
She always told the story the same way; she knew, she said, that something was going to happen that day. She knew it so strongly that when she saw the car pull into the lot, she claims she turned to her coworkers and said, “Lock everything up, we are about to get robbed.” At nine, I believed this fully. I had a decade ahead of me before I would reach the age of the story’s omniscient protagonist, and even if I never achieved that same impossible, magical knowledge, I simply assumed: it’s my mother, of course she knew, the same way she knows when one Oreo is missing from the pack in the pantry. Now, in my 20s, teaching students the same age my mother was then, I have doubts about this intuition. What she describes immediately after, though, I still believe.
The men entered the bank in masks, the same way I’d watched them enter the bank in countless movies, and they told everyone to get down except the manager. My mother always described herself, stone-still and crouched, watching as one of the men drew a gun on the manager and her protruding, pregnant belly. It was at this moment that my mother, who had no idea how to unlock anything in the bank, let alone a safe, burst up shouting, “You can’t hurt her! She’s pregnant! I’ll do it! I’ll unlock the safe!”
This was, to my knowledge, the first and last time anyone ever held a gun to my mother’s head. But they did, as they walked her over to the safe she had promised to unlock. As a child, time slowed for me at this part of the story while I tried to imagine the cold, hard gun pressed to my mother’s head, her fluff of red curls flattened by something deadly. I tried to imagine, already fascinated with the gruesome, my mother’s own image in her head of the trigger being pulled and the quick, sharp pain of a bullet ripping through her skull. My mother says that she fumbled desperately with the safe while the men repeatedly warned her to hurry up. My mother, with a gun to her head, yelled, “Jesus, please help me!”
According to my mother, this jarred the men. The possibility of Something Powerful was enough to spook them, and they ran, stopping to grab as many coin rolls as they could carry—pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters—as if saying “Jesus” made him suddenly real, suddenly watching. I know, deep down, my mother believed that God saved her that day, and I know, deep down, the only thing that saved her was another person’s panic.
And yet there was always some comfort in this—that my mother could believe so fully, at the moment her life depended on the pressure a person applied to their fingertips, in a God that I’d killed off in childhood. There was always comfort to me, a child who had learned to hate earlier than any clear memories begin, in my mother’s small prayer: “Jesus, please.”