The One Time My Mom Won the Lottery

Crystal Martin, left; Jessica Silvester and her mom Phyllis, right. Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos Courtesy of Crystal G. Martin and Jessica Silvester

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

Longtime friends and writers Jessica Silvester and Crystal Martin recently started a project in which they write about their moms in different contexts, comparing memories and what lessons they learned. Here, that context is the lottery — which their moms both won (albeit very small amounts) — and how it taught them about hope and luck.

Crystal: ‘I was drawn to the lottery because my mother made it seem like a forbidden fruit.’

When I was a kid in the ’80s and saw people at the store picking lotto numbers — standing at counters I wasn’t tall enough to see over, filling in those little pieces of paper with those tiny pencils — it reminded me of playtime. I wanted in.

Mostly it was just about the pencils — the procedure, really — rather than the idea of gambling. I’ve always been careful with my money. Around 8, I had a crush on Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties and very much identified with his capitalist vibe. When I got my allowance, I’d methodically add coins to the Crown Royal bag full of change I inherited from my granddaddy when he died and hum that Calloway song: I want money / lots and lots of money.

Maybe, in addition to the pencils, I was drawn to the lottery because my mother made it seem like a forbidden fruit. In my neighborhood, liquor stores popped up on the corners that met the main thoroughfare, replacing the mom-and-pop electronics place or the record shop that had been there for years. Signs went up on their brick exteriors: Candy! Beer! Bigger than the rest was one that read LOTTO in fat, orange-and-yellow font. My mom almost never allowed me to go to those stores. My friends’ parents would send them there on errands, to pick up a pack of cigarettes or whatever, and they’d buy themselves candy with the change. Not me.

A rare exception was one afternoon when my mom and I stopped in one to pick up the Hostess cupcakes she’d promised me as an after-school treat. There was a wino outside asking for change, and he came in to buy a small bottle of booze. The clerk was elevated on a platform, behind a counter and bulletproof glass. The wino tossed his change in a little metal shoot and the clerk swirled the carousel around to deliver the booze. He never made eye contact.

I knew my mom saw the lotto as an extension of this scenario — the idea of people who were already poor, handing over their money for nothing but pacifying hope. Everyone was running a racket — the state that was supposedly putting all the lotto money toward education, the store owners who took advantage of depressed real-estate prices to start their businesses but did not invest in or even engage with the community — and us black folks were the marks.

I’ve been wondering, lately, about my mom and dad’s actions as parents and as people. I called my mom to ask why she never played the lotto — except for that time in the ’70s when she said she’d won $41 — and was surprised when she reacted casually: “Um, I just could never understand why people would give away their money.”

But I knew there was more to her distrust than that. At the very least, I can remember her making remarks like, “These fools’ll spend their last dime.” But she had no memory of saying those things to me. How is that possible? Is it because she’s softened with age? Because her emotional space for getting upset — about social issues or anything, really — has diminished over time?

Or is it me? Is it less about her softening than it is about my hardening?

“Why do white people hate us?” I once asked her, standing in our tiny citrus-colored kitchen. I was in middle school and knee-deep in the civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize in social studies class.

“Don’t worry about it, Crystal,” she said. “They just don’t know any better.”

As a preteen, I knew I couldn’t just take my mom at her word on everything. Shortly after our class finished Eyes on The Prize, I read The Souls of Black Folk. And reread it. I became a person who knows how to find answers, and searches for them. After talking to my mom about the lotto, I looked up how much the Michigan Lotto gave public schools in 1995, the year I started high school: $547.7 million, which isn’t much, considering the Michigan fund for schools is $16.8 billion this year. Then I read a dozen other articles about public school financing. Why should any child’s education be tied to local property taxes?

My mom would rather not dwell on such questions. But either way, she got her point about the Lotto across. I’ve played it a few times in workplace scenarios — when the Mega Millions gets hot, and everyone in the office pools their money together — and I’ve thought, This is fun, I get why people do this. But next, I immediately think, I’m not going to be one of those people.

Jessica: ‘It didn’t seem like a waste of money when she did it; it seemed healthy, a reprieve from her highly disciplined existence.’

On a sunny late-October day a couple of years ago, I found an old lottery ticket of my mom’s. Every once in a while, when I’m visiting my dad in Westchester for the weekend and feeling brave, I’ll poke in the closet that he and I have left mostly untouched since my mother died 14 years ago. Inside a tote bag, I discovered her beloved thick-striped Fendi wallet, the one she saved up to buy in the late ’90s and used up until her death in 2005. And there, tucked in the bill compartment, was a crisp piece of salmon-tinted New York Lotto paper, printed with three lines of Quick Pick numbers. The jackpot was for $15 million that day, which was — no wait, that couldn’t be right: April 29, 2000? I squinted. The ticket would’ve been over five years old when she died. Why would she have held onto a losing lotto ticket for that long?

All of the other scraps of paper in the wallet contained dates that seemed more appropriate: a Barnes and Noble Educator Discount Card valid through 10/31/04, a reminder card for an appointment at a urologist’s office on 5/24/05, and another reminder card from Knotz hair salon for 5/21/05.

My mother bought lotto tickets casually and frequently, often at the dimly lit corner stationery store stocked with all the wrong flavors of seltzer. As a kid, I never thought much about it, and never realized how poor the odds actually were — for Powerball it’s now about one in 292 million — or how many people who played couldn’t really afford to lose. My mom could. It didn’t seem like a waste of money when she did it; it seemed healthy, a necessary reprieve from her highly disciplined existence. She didn’t drink or smoke, and she showed up at least 30 minutes early for all 32 years of her job teaching middle-school social studies. So what if every once in a while she threw away a dollar or three on the lotto? It brought her joy. “Hon, don’t let me forget to check the lotto,” she’d say to my dad. “Maybe we don’t have to go to work tomorrow.”

One time she actually won. “80 bucks!” she told another parent at my swim meet. It wasn’t going to change our lives, sure, but that smile on her face stuck with me far longer than the money lasted. Long before she got sick, she’d say that she would rather spend money with me than leave it to me. I’m glad she did. Perhaps that’s the reason I’m not exactly a saver now, either.

I viewed my mom’s life as an exquisite balance between hard work and good luck — just like her Italian immigrant father, who supported his family with back-breaking construction jobs in the Bronx, some of which he got because he happened to pass for a different ethnicity with his light eyes and tall frame.

It was my father who ultimately pointed out that my mom’s Y2K-era lotto ticket probably had no deeper meaning. At first I didn’t mention it to him, keeping it as a little secret between my mom and me. I took a photo of it with my phone and then put the ticket and the wallet back in the closet. I’ve looked at the picture every now and again over the past two years. Finally, I texted it to my dad last month to ask him whether the Quick Pick sequences suggested any significance — birthdays, or something that could have struck my mother as serendipitous, numbers worth holding onto to play again at some point.

I now have a nearly 2-year-old son, and on some level I was hoping for magical numbers that could bring us an unexpected windfall. That sure would be nice for his college fund. But my dad found the digits unremarkable. He wrote back, “Didn’t Mommy have a habit of just shoving stuff in pocketbooks and leaving them there forever?”

Oh, yes. I primarily remember her as the woman who never had a hair out of place — as evidenced by that salon reminder card during the depths of her cancer — but she was also the woman with the messy purse. Maybe the ticket was one of those things she just neglected to throw out until it outlasted her.

Of course, she didn’t think she was going to die when she did. Even after the order in her life collapsed — when the latest CAT scan showed this and the spread of pain indicated that — she still believed in luck, insisted she would beat the odds. Or, as she put it to me as I held her limp hand draped with evil-eye bracelets and hospital bands: “This too shall pass.” I nodded. I never thought “hope” could feel so bad, until it was all we had left.

The other day I passed a stationery store and found myself walking in to give the immortalized Quick Picks a shot. I bought a lotto ticket for the first time ever. But I didn’t replicate her exact numbers — my mom had played the Lotto Jackpot, which only draws twice a week. Instead, I chose Take 5, which would deliver results that same night, even though the jackpot was dramatically lower. It also meant choosing different numbers. Some could overlap with my mom’s; others I would just have to improvise.

I’m not sure why I went with Take 5. Part of me was feeling like I simply couldn’t wait, and wanted to know if I had won as soon as possible. Or maybe I was just being relatively practical — so what if the numbers weren’t a precise match to my mom’s. I wasn’t actually going to win $58,000, was I?

I did not. But then, who knows what would’ve happened if I’d been more true to the experiment, went with the right game and numbers as my mom on April 29, 2000? They could still have meaning; I still have hope.

The One Time My Mom Won the Lottery