In this People's History Dorothea (Pfister) Nordstrand (1916-2011) reflects on the lessons learned while working at Seattle's Green Lake State Bank, where she worked for 10 years from the time she was 18 in 1934. Her essay is reprinted from The Seattle Times, where it appeared on January 9, 1994. In 2009 Dorothea Nordstrand was awarded AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Willard Jue Memorial Award for a Volunteer, for contributing these vivid reminiscences to various venues in our community, including HistoryLink.org's People's History library.
Lessons in Life
There are many memories from the time I worked at Green Lake State Bank; some funny, some sad, but all a precious legacy from that time, which started in 1934, when I was 18 years old. I also realize how many things I learned from being there.
One day, I was adding up a long column of figures on the old Burroughs adding machine that sat to the right of the wicket separating my teller cage from the lobby, when I felt a presence at the window. There were just three numbers left on my long list, so I politely murmured, "I'll be right with you," and completed the addition. As I pulled the handle that totaled the operation, I turned to greet my customer with a bright smile and a cheery "Good Morning!" and found myself looking into the hairy face of a Great Dane, who was standing on his hind legs, with his enormous front paws on my counter and his big, square, tongue-lolling face thrust through the opening in the wicket. I learned to laugh at myself. Might as well, everybody else was.
One day, I was waiting on a lady and I turned away to pick the money from my cash drawer to cash her check. I turned back, and she had vanished. Then, I realized she had fallen to the floor in front of my window and was writhing and making horrible noises. I rushed around the end of the bank of cages and reached her just as the bank president, Mr. Lear, came running across the lobby from his office.
"She's having an epileptic seizure," he said and did what he could to help her. I grabbed her skirt, which was flying around, and tried to keep her decently covered, and was rewarded with a hard knee on the chin. I hung on like a bulldog, knowing how helpless she was and how embarrassed I would be in her place. Later, she quietly thanked me and I wore my black-and-blue chin like a badge of valor. I learned about epilepsy.
One of my sad recollections is of an elderly lady who had added her son's name to her savings account ... "in case of emergency." The emergency came very soon, when he cleaned out her account, saying she was not competent to handle her own funds. We were outraged, but there was not a thing we could do. She had made the arrangement herself to make the account accessible to either of them. I'll never, ever, forget the look on her face when she came in to get her weekly living expenses from the account and found it closed. On that day, she really became OLD. Sadly, I learned about betrayal.
Another lady used to come in each week and cash a check and then ask whichever lady teller waited on her to accompany her to the ladies' room, where the two of them would safety-pin her money into her underclothes. She always left one dollar in her purse, so that if accosted on her way home, there wouldn't be reason to believe she had money, other than that one dollar. We used to kind of laugh about her foible, until the day she got knocked down on her way home and the thief took her dollar and ran. Pretty smart old cookie, we thought from then on. I learned it was better to be safe than sorry.
We had one wonderful old gentleman who came all the way from the Old Soldiers' Home at Retsil to take care of his banking. We all loved Joseph Warren. He was 104 and as lively as a cricket. His hair was scanty, wispy, and white, and his face was a mass of wrinkles, but his nearly-toothless smile was warm and his blue eyes twinkled with fun. He brought us flowers and candy and called us all "Honey." I learned that "old" can be beautiful.
Another favorite was Mr. Buzard, who was totally blind. He and his wife would come in together, but he would cash his own check and would fold each of the bills in such a fashion that he could tell its value by its shape. After his wife died, he continued to bank with us and we were all very careful to see that his bills were presented to him in little stacks, and we watched to see that he got them all folded properly before he left, with his white cane swinging and tapping to "see" his way. I was amazed at how self-sufficient he was with such a daunting handicap. I learned that strong people learn to live with adversity.
One of my favorite customers was a young man, probably a year younger than I was, who confided in me that he was saving money to buy his girl a diamond ring. I enthused with him over the way the little savings account grew. Week after week he made deposits in his small account of $2 or $3, until he had accumulated something like $200. He withdrew the money, and brought in a lovely diamond solitaire to show me. They were duly engaged. Then, one day, I was shocked when he came to my window and literally threw the ring on my counter, saying, "Here, you might as well have this. We had a quarrel and she says she doesn't want to see me again." I was heart-broken for him and told him that it would all blow over and he should put the ring away and I was sure things would be all right. He insisted that he wanted to give the ring to me, since he would never need it.
I got permission from Mr. Warren (our vice-president) to close my window temporarily, took the young man into our little conference room and tried to convince him that all would be well. I was a regular "Dear Abby," but it didn't work. He walked out, refusing to take the ring. I enclosed it in a tiny cash envelope and put it into our safe-keeping drawer in the vault. Sure enough, a few weeks later, he came and sheepishly asked if I would return the ring. The banker in me had him sign a receipt and they were married. I'm not sure what I learned from this episode, but it was very satisfying.
One personal thing happened shortly after I began to work at the bank. I had always been very near-sighted but had gone all through school without glasses, mostly by being very sure to sit in the front row of each class. Teachers assumed I chose that spot because I was too short to see over the heads of most of the other students, which was also true.
However, when I started my employment, one of the very first things I had to learn was to run a Burroughs bookkeeping machine to keep the ledger records for our checking accounts. The cumbersome machines required the operator to sit on or lean against a stool, lean over a two-foot-square bin and select the proper ledger sheet for the account to be worked on, insert it into the rollers of the machine and make the necessary entries. First, to enter the existing balance, which appeared as the last previous entry, then to subtract the amount of each check that had cleared. Next, it was necessary to move to the next column and enter and add any and all deposits from the day before, and, finally strike the new total.
All of this went on at a distance of about three feet from my face, which, with my short vision, might as well have been happening in Timbuktu. When I had completed all of the transactions for an account, it was necessary for near-sighted me to slide down from my stool and inspect the ledger sheet before I removed it from the machine and re-filed it in the bin. You can imagine how this slowed down the operation. I knew that, much as I hated the idea, glasses would be necessary.
My first reaction when I put them on was utter amazement. I could see the individual leaves on trees! I had always assumed that everyone saw them as I did ... big, soft-looking, green blurs. Now I could recognize people walking on the other side of the street. I could read house numbers and the name on our Green Lake streetcar before it got right up to me. It was a whole new world out there. I had not known what I was missing.
Now I knew why the school nurses had sent all those notices home with me over the years, notices which were always ignored. I don't know if, because I got good grades in school, my folks didn't really think I needed glasses, or if, in our impoverished household, with Daddy being an invalid, we simply couldn't afford them. We needed the little money we had just to live on. I understood and attached no blame, and I learned that the world was bigger than the two feet in front of my face, and that sometimes we all need "crutches."
I learned a lot of things while I worked for that little bank besides how to balance a check book. I grew up.