Friday, May 7, 2010

The Calculator: A Mother's Day Story

By Roy Ortega

As I slide past middle age and approach my golden years, I find myself taking time almost every day to stop and remember the woman who meant the most to me for so much of my life.

Of all the yearly observances, Mother’s Day is the one that tugs at my heartstrings the most.

I was 49 years old when she died in 2003 but I can imagine that losing your mom when you’re 49 can hurt just as much as losing her when you’re 9.

There are countless memories about my mother but there is one story about my mom that has special meaning to me. For most people, the story might seem odd.

I remember vividly the day she proudly handed me a box containing an item I so desperately needed for school. I was a 20-year old journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. Inside the box was a calculator.

In 1973, a sophisticated hand-held pocket calculator was an essential tool for a college student. For many months, I had been shopping around for an affordable calculator that suited my needs. But at an average cost of nearly $100, a new calculator was simply out of the question.

It’s amazing to think that in today's world, you can purchase a calculator that has a thousand times more computing power for just a few dollars. But this was 1973.

At the time, the development of pocket calculators was in its infancy. The first pocket calculators had appeared in the American market just three years earlier and almost all of them were manufactured in Japan.

Somehow, I managed to get through the semester without one. I usually borrowed one from a roommate or a classmate. But my mother knew I needed one badly.

No one was a bigger supporter of my educational ambitions than my mother. When she learned I had been accepted at the University of Texas, she was so happy she hugged me so tight I nearly passed out.

But she worried constantly about money. My parents were not wealthy. We lived in a comfortable home but there were six children to clothe, feed and shelter. Every nickel was stretched to the limit. My mother saved and scrimped to buy us books and school supplies. She also made frequent treks to the Joske’s store at Las Palmas Mall to buy me basics items like underwear, T-shirts and socks.

On the day she presented me with the box containing the calculator, I was extremely appreciative. But my first reaction was to decline it.

“No, Mom, regresalo a la tienda. Take it back to the store," I insisted. "We can’t afford it.” I knew the value of the calculator was more than $75. It was money we desperately needed for groceries.

She handed the box back to me and said, “Llevatelo. Tiene mas valor que dinero. Take it. It has more value than money.”

On my weekend visits home from school, I had remembered seeing stacks of booklets filled with S&H Green Stamps sitting on the kitchen counter. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, S&H Green Stamps were familiar to all of us. Every trip to Centeno's Super Mercado yielded a few stamps that could eventually be redeemed for merchandise from a catalog.

But I had never once given them a second thought until the day after she gave me the calculator. I noticed the stamps were gone.

At that moment, I was struck with emotion when I realized the significance of those green stamps.

My mother had spent an entire year saving S&H Green Stamps at the grocery store just to get me that calculator.

On this Mother’s Day 2010, that old calculator sits on my desk in the same place it has for the last several decades. Amazingly, it works as perfectly well as it did on the day my mom gave it to me in 1973.

To everyone else, it’s nothing more than old calculator. But to me, it is one of my most cherished possessions because tiene mas valor que dinero – It has more value than money.

Roy Ortega may be reached at