Photo by Joan Leotta

by Joan Leotta

When I was in third grade (in 1956), my school’s annual fundraising fair added an antiques table to the event. My mom was not able to go with me that year, making the fair an ideal time to shop for her upcoming birthday.

My best friend Dolores’s mother had agreed to take me. Before leaving the house, my mother pressed two one-dollar bills into my hand saying, “Have a good time, eat something besides candy for dinner.”

As Dolores and I entered the cafeteria, transformed with crepe paper into an indoor festival venue, I saw the “antiques” table by the door. Amid the many donated objects, my eye was drawn to a small glass cream pitcher. It was pink, rimmed with green. I wanted to stop, but Dolores pulled me ahead into the room toward the hot dog counter. “My mom says we have to eat first, then we can play games.”

I ordered a hot dog and a drink. While chatting with Dolores, I planned how to spend the rest of my money. Dinner had eaten up fifty cents. With my remaining funds, I could purchase gifts and buy ten-cent tickets for the ring toss and the cakewalk. I loved the cakewalk, a version of musical chairs where the person who stopped on a specially marked block won a homemade cake.

Dolores suggested doing the ring toss first. “I’ll be right over,” I told her. I wandered back to the antiques table. My favorite teacher, Sister Anne, was in charge. She had priced each item. I lingered by the table, imagining my mom pouring cream into her morning coffee from that pitcher. Then I noticed that the glass pitcher I admired sported a five-dollar tag. The pitcher cost more than I had even brought with me. I sighed. Sister Anne smiled.

“Is there something you like, dear?”

“Well, yes, Sister, but it costs more than I have with me.”

“I’m sorry.”

Before I could say anything else, a tall blonde woman came over and asked Sister about another item. I felt Dolores tug my sweater.

“Come on! We have to get tickets for the cakewalk. The first one’s starting now, and the prize is a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.

“Yum!” I turned away from the antique table and bought tickets for the next three cakewalks. Maybe I could win a cake for my mother. No luck. Then, at ten cents a try, I twice attempted to win my mom a stuffed animal by tossing a wooden ring over an empty coke bottle.

Now I had one dollar left. That second dollar seemed to beg to be spent. I paid fifty cents for a small sock monkey to bring home to my brother—a white monkey with a green-trimmed hat: Ursuline Academy colors. For thirty cents, I bought a pottery ashtray the art teacher had made—for Dad’s pipe.

Next, Dolores and I stood in line for the free games and racked up candy points at the geography and history booths. Then Dolores suggested one more try at the cakewalk. I agreed. Dolores won!

Her mom walked over to us and picked up the cake. “Very nice, dear. Time to go, girls. They’re starting to take down the booths.”

“Please, Mom, just another minute?”

Her mom smiled. “I’ll put the cake in the car and come back for you.”

“I’m going to do one more ring toss. Come on,” Dolores said.

“No, I have one dime left, but I think I’ll just keep it. I’ll just go wait for your mom by the door.”

Dolores ran to the game booth. I walked back to the antiques table by the door. Sister Anne was packing up unsold items. I surveyed the table.

“It’s still here!”

“What’s still here, dear?”

I pointed to the pitcher. “Does it cost less now, since we’re at the end of the fair? I wanted to buy it for my mom. But I didn’t have five dollars. Remember?”

Sister Anne looked down at me. She smiled. “How much money do you have now, dear?”

“Ten cents.” I held out my hand with the dime in it.

“Why, that’s exactly the end-of-fair price.”

I happily handed over that last dime.

Sister carefully wrapped the little pitcher and put it into a bag.

Dolores walked over. “Mom says we should go now. Are you ready?”

I looked up. I waved good-bye to Sister Anne.

Once home, I showed my mother the delicate glass pitcher. “It’s for you, Mom. To pour cream for your morning coffee.”

“It’s lovely, thank you—this is such a wonderful pitcher. Depression glass. I’ll treasure it always.”

Then my mother promptly set the pitcher on her knick-knack shelf in the dining room. Over the succeeding years, I don’t think she used it more than once or twice. However, she often told anyone who admired the little glass pitcher the story of how proud she was that I had spent my last dime to buy it for her at a school fair.

“It’s too special to use every day,” she told me, when I asked her why she did not use it more often.

Years later, after my father died, Mom sold off most of her things before moving to an apartment. But she kept that pitcher. On my birthday, a year or so later, she gave it to me. “To put cream in your morning coffee,” she announced.

I do use the pitcher, though not as often as I probably should. Pouring from it—even just looking at it—reminds me of her. And I think of Sister Anne, the woman who taught me that the true value of any object is the amount of love in the heart of the giver, the kind teacher who made it possible for eight-year-old me to buy an antique glass pitcher for just ten cents.