By John Unger Zussman

My grandfather loved horses and gambling more than he loved my grandmother, so he spent a lot of time at the racetrack. From time to time a small envelope would appear in our mail addressed to me, bearing the elegant raised blue return address of his butcher shop. Inside, I would find a brief note; a crisp, new hundred-dollar bill; and a clipping from the Racing Form with the winning horse circled. Its name would inevitably be Big John, or John Henry, or Johnny Diablo, or some other variant of my name.

I treasured these little missives, even though my mom always whisked the bill away immediately, to be applied to my college fund or piano lessons or the furnace repair. I liked that I received these winnings more often than my brother or sister—and not just because horses named John were more common than ones named Rick or Marcy. I liked that the money simply arrived, without my having to make my bed or earn an A or give a recital. I liked that my name alone was enough to bring my grandfather luck.

My grandfather has been gone almost forty years. Which might explain why a few years ago, when I first slipped a crisp, new hundred-dollar bill into my sister’s birthday card, she broke into tears.

Copyright © 2014, John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.
This essay was written in response to a “Readers Write” prompt in The Sun literary magazine. An edited version was published in the April 2014 issue.

4 thoughts on “Cash

  1. My story is similar. My grandfather had a small farm and among other things he raised cattle. Every herd he had had one named Janet. When he sold that cow, half the proceeds were sent to my parents. I know that that money was all used towards the down payment for their first house, for times were tight. But like you, it was the thought. What made the gift more meaningful was the discovery later of just how poor they were. During the Depression my grandmother had no blank paper. They nearly lost the farm because they owed $11 in back taxes.

    On my father’s maternal side was the gambler in the family. The story is that he lost his substantial inheritance during one or more poker games.

    Yet my memories of my grandparents were of weeks of unconditional love during vacations at their home. Great food. And I never heard my grandmother complain about what she didn’t have. Her father was rich when she was a child. Now they grew all of their own food. New clothes were unheard of. How many of us could be like that?


  2. Thanks for your kind words, thoughts, and for reblogging. Janet, I love your story and can tell how much you meant to your grandparents (and they to you). I felt that same unconditional love from my grandfather.

    And I can just picture a line of cows named Janet! In fact, I can match that story. My grandfather was a butcher and entrepreneur — he owned three meat markets in the Chicago area. He used to sell his own private-label brand of eggs, and when I was about two he put a toddler photo of me on the box and called them “Johnny U Eggs.” A few years later he did the same for my sister. (By the time my brother came along, he must have been out of the egg business.) I’d give a lot to get hold of one of those egg cartons.


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