The Unforgettable Cashier: Tammy Sprague
Editor’s Note: From time to time, Marblehead Beacon will profile interesting people who live or work in town–individuals whose insights, wisdom, or experiences might otherwise not be chronicled. Ideas for future profiles may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I don’t deal in regrets and I believe we should try to enjoy every day.” Tammy Sprague, one of Marblehead’s best-known characters, shares such pearls of wisdom in an interview with Marblehead Beacon. Wearing a sweatshirt that reads, “empathy,” and tearing up frequently during the conversation, the Shubie’s head cashier is a study in contrasts. Equal parts tough exterior and tender heart, Sprague is open and reflective about her 51 years on this planet. “I like to let life unfold rather than try to control it,” she says, noting that there have been many mistakes and tough moments along the way. The tattoo she has with the name of her ex-husband is one such mistake, and with a smirk she notes that Johnny Depp’s move to change “Winona forever” to “wino forever” was akin to something she’d considered. “The tattoo guy didn’t want to alter another artist’s work, so I never changed it,” she says, living with the reminder of a troubled and short-lived union that impacted her worldview in profound ways. “I’m optimistic and very open,” she says, “but it’s not always easy to trust anymore.”
Sprague is the youngest of seven–a brood raised largely by her mother. “We were on welfare for a hot second,” she says, “but my mom worked many jobs and we kids absolutely came first.” Referring to her late mother, Arline, as her hero, Sprague speaks of landing back in her mother’s nest after Sprague’s late-1990s marriage fell apart.
“My mom was my best friend during that time and always,” she says wistfully, adding that one of the myriad jobs her mother held was at Devereux Nursing Home–the same place in which she ultimately lived after suffering a stroke some seven years ago, and where she died less than a year after that. Sprague recalls that for her mother’s last moments, she and her six siblings gathered at the bedside. “In spite of our differences, we all still live close to each other, and we all came together when my mom was dying.” Among the seven siblings, five live in Marblehead and two on the Swampscott/Lynn line, with a variety of careers among them, including a sister who is a nurse, one brother who is a firefighter in town, and one who has worked, like Sprague, at Shubie’s for many years.
The three-sport athlete, Suffolk University graduate, and Broadcast Communications major has worked at Shubie’s for the past 15 years, which represents a significantly more settled existence than she had for the first two decades of her adult life. In the late 1990s and early 2000s she worked as a studio camera operator at an Emmy-award-winning television station in Kentucky–where she’d moved with her then-husband. Sprague possesses some of the very same wanderlust that enticed her father, prompting him to leave the family home when Sprague was just nine. “Years later, one of the times he came around, he had no mustache and walked right by me and I didn’t even recognize him because I’d only ever known him with a mustache.” Though there is sadness when she speaks of her late father, she appears to hold no bitterness or grudges about his prolonged absences from her and her siblings’ lives.
Some of the same melancholy appears on Sprague’s face as she discusses the fact that she does not have children. “I had an ectopic pregnancy when I was married,” she says, bluntly, noting that she found herself in the emergency room the day after 9/11. “That experience actually saved my life because when they went in to deal with the ectopic pregnancy, they learned that I had stage-four endometriosis and my appendix was about to burst.” This is one in a series of medical struggles she has faced over the years. “I don’t mind sharing any of that,” says Sprague, and in fact has spoken with girls and women about the dangers of undiagnosed endometriosis, something that she lived with for many years and through courses of the potent medication Lupron and two surgeries.
Not having her own children is bittersweet for Sprague. An aunt to 13 nieces and nephews, she has an insider’s view of parenting, but from enough of a distance that she has not had to face some of the more challenging complexities. “I really wanted to have my own children,” she says, “but I am also relieved that I am not tied to my ex by a child.”
Throughout the conversation, Sprague circles back more than once to admiration of her mother, with one example standing out. She shares that some years ago, a stranger contacted Sprague through Facebook. He told her that as a child he’d gone to the Glover School, where Sprague’s mother had been a lunch aide. “He said that his dad had died and he started misbehaving, and no one–from the guidance counselor to teachers–took the time to listen to him,” Sprague explained. “But my mom’s kindness stood out so much and made such a difference to him that years later he felt the need to reach out to me.” Sprague had to share with this man that her mother–the sweet lunch lady–had passed away, but realized in that moment the power of being quietly empathetic. “You just don’t know the effect you can have on people,” she says.
At times Sprague has been on the receiving end of extreme kindness and it made an impression. After years of what she refers to as “a job filled with twenty-second conversations with customers,” she has had glimpses into customers’ lives and they into hers. While not every interaction of the thousands she has had at Shubie’s is Hallmark-movie worthy, there have been many meaningful ones, as is evidenced by the customer who gifted her a bottle of the luxury Cristal champagne for her 50th birthday. “What was so touching to me,” Sprague says through the trickle of a tear, “is that one of her young sons wanted to contribute his own money to that gift for me too.”
Though there are many good days in the world of retail, interacting with the public for years on end is not typically easy, and Sprague does not pretend it is. But she is sold on the notion of pulling out as much positive take away from every day as is possible, and even speaks of one day writing a book called “20-Second Conversations.”
Though she has plenty of hopes and dreams, Sprague does not focus on driving hard toward goals. At the moment, and for the past four-plus years, her living arrangement has been one of the highlights of her life. “I haven’t felt this at home since my mom’s house,” says Sprague, referring to the joy she has found living in a home that was once a Marblehead shoe factory. “My landlords are family to me,” she shares, animatedly giving example after example of the ways in which the couple who rents to her has shown their incredible decency. “I try to help them too,” she notes, speaking fondly of caring for their cat, dog, and home when they go away, helping with lawn care, and tending to their garden. “I love people but I really enjoy solitude,” remarks Sprague, referring to the fire pit her landlords built because they recognized just how much she likes to sit outside quietly.
Having gone through multiple painful rebuilds of her knee and currently hobbled by a recurrence of back issues likely caused by an injury playing hockey on roller skates as a teen at Gatchell’s, Sprague now finds joy in calmer endeavors. Though she still wears her board shorts regularly, out are the days of skateboarding, varsity softball and tennis, and running cross country, and in are the days of coffee, sitting at the beach, and listening to music.
It is not lost on Sprague that sharing highly personal life details can lead to judgment. “But I figure people will make judgments about me whether they know me or not. Better that they know me.”