Money, Money, Money

On sorting out my relationship with lucre

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Photo by Vladimir Solomyani on Unsplash

I have a complicated relationship with money.

I know many of us do, and the truism (that may also be true) is that women, especially, do.

My family seems to be particularly troubled by money and money issues.

There are so many reasons. Teasing them apart is the work. Am I ready to write an article explaining definitively what happened in my family around money, to try to illustrate why I and my three siblings are evidently hampered when it comes to understanding, caring for, or using this precious resource?

Probably not.

But half the reason I write essays is to try to figure this kind of shit out.

So, here I am.

Back to money.

Let’s start with Piedmont.

Piedmont (“foot of the mountain” in Italian), California is a tiny, tony town tucked into the foothills above Oakland, a troubled city plagued by crime and neglect since shortly after World War II.

Piedmont is where I grew up. My parents, a journalist and a merchant marine, with a double income at a time when few couples had one, were able to buy a large, shingled house with a big garden on Highland Avenue, the main thoroughfare.

Highland was lined with graceful old Sycamore trees that left enormous drifts of fragrant brown leaves in the gutters every fall, beckoning children to leap in and crunch them to their hearts’ content.

Compared to the house I own and live in now, our house at 19 Highland Avenue was a mansion. On the first floor was a foyer, then a second foyer with a chandelier, a huge living room, a large dining room, the “garden room,” and a bar, as well as the kitchen.

There was a main staircase and a back staircase (for the help).

On the second floor were a large landing, three bedrooms, and a bathroom. The master bedroom included a dressing room and a huge covered deck.

The bottom floor was comprised of a large basement, a makeshift workroom, a little wine cellar that my dad created, a laundry room, a bedroom, and a bathroom.

We had an elevator.

Our backyard was huge, with a shed that my dad turned into a little apartment in later years that the City of Piedmont made him tear down. They didn’t want any renters there.

I went to school with incredibly moneyed people, real blue bloods, with names like Kaiser, Coors, Crowley, and Knowland. My classmates skied the Swiss alps over winter break, or vacationed in the Caribbean, returning with improbably tanned skins. They jetted to Europe in the summers. They were debutantes, gifted with convertible Cabriolets on their 16th birthdays.

It was moneyed, very white, very exclusive, very safe.

We didn’t fit in very well. My dad was partial to his gold convertible Mustang which he sold to afford the larger sparkly brown Chrysler he brought home one day. He loved that car. It embarrassed me. Everyone else had foreign cars, either well-made Japanese cars or those of the luxury variety. No one had these long, sleek, “low-rider” cars with peeling vinyl roofs like we had.

My mom was a society editor. A big part of her job was hob-nobbing with the rich — attending their parties and writing about their antics.

As the Catholic daughter of two Irish immigrants who fled poverty and the “old” IRA (because my grandfather, a member of the “old” IRA, was on the run), my mother was far from born with a silver spoon in her mouth. But, she was attractive and elegant, with famously beautiful legs. She was smart as a whip and a gifted writer. And she was ambitious. As the youngest society editor in the nation, she regularly interviewed luminaries including Bing Crosby and the Prince of Monaco.

Part of my mother’s job was throwing over-the-top parties for the people she wrote about. When I was a child roughly knee- or thigh-high to most of the guests, she and my father filled the house to bursting with the well-to-do. And my mother went all out, believe me. She had to out-do those for whom all-out was the norm.

I remember the din, the laughter, the sea of knees I navigated. I remember the cigars, the glasses, the drinking, the men. I remember the aspics, the souffles, the cocktails, the tureens, the roasts. My brother and I watched from the landing on the stairs as the mob below moved in unison like a living, breathing blob.

The mornings after, my brother and I would creep downstairs and investigate the scene. We’d marvel at the mess, the dozens and dozens of plates and platters, boxes of Sees candies, coffee service. We’d flit from place setting to place setting at the extended dining room table and scavenge. We’d doctor the leftover coffees with large cream pours and spoonfuls of sugar, checking first to be sure there wasn’t a sodden cigarette on the bottom. We’d eat the last bites and lick the crumbs from people’s cake plates and drink our treacly coffees, and pretend to be posh.

But, then, we were relatively posh, weren’t we! We had an elevator in our house! And we lived in Piedmont.

And yet.

In this same house, my father took me aside frequently to counsel me in somber tones on the importance of marrying rich. “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man,” he’d intone, long before I could understand what he was saying or why. He thrust books with titles like “How to Marry a Rich Man” upon me. It always left me feeling embarrassed, bruised, and confused. Also, a little ashamed, though I couldn’t say why.

In the winters sometimes, we weren’t allowed to turn on the heat, and my parents fought about money constantly.

In later years when my mother was no longer able to work, shingles littered our front lawn every time the wind kicked up.

I grew up with live-in maids that cared for us while my mother was working and my father was at sea.

A few years later, Child Protective Services noted a dead rodent decomposing into the Persian carpet beneath the dining room table, and my sibling were removed from my mother’s care.

My mother loved to shop. She loved fancy food. She insisted on shopping at Piedmont Grocery because it was pretty. It made her feel elegant, and safe, I imagine. I understand. It really is a nice place to shop. And it’s still heart-stoppingly expensive. I like to shop there too, but can’t abide the palpitations I get when the bill is presented.

My father used to beseech her, “Please, please stop shopping at Piedmont Grocery. We can’t afford it.” She ignored him completely.

We grew up learning how to ski in the winters. We had a few beach vacations to Santa Cruz, an hour south.

We were dressed in matching red and green plaid taffeta gowns at Christmas and crisp new Easter dresses at Easter. We got white patent leather Mary Jane shoes once or twice a year.

We had money.

Or did we?

My mother loved pretty labels and would buy the foodstuffs (from Piedmont Grocery) that had the prettiest label, every time, driving my father to despair.

I left home at 17, when I was a junior in high school, and my mother’s demise from alcohol abuse was advanced. I had no allowance and no way to get money except by earning it. I rented an apartment above a classmate’s garage and worked whenever I wasn’t in school: at Old Uncle Gaylord’s Cafe, at Piedmont Cinema, at Cafe Valerian, and at Yogurt Delite.

I spent my money on my friends — rich friends who lived with their parents and attended private schools. Somehow, they never had money in their pockets, and I always did because I was always working. When I wanted to get a sundae at Fenton’s Creamery and no one had any money, it annoyed me. So I bought their sundaes for them and was proud to do so. Saving money never occurred to me.

In college, I incurred significant student loan debt and never even bothered to read the fine print of what I signed, and I signed a lot.

For decades, I spent whatever I earned. Money burned a hole in my pocket, as they say. If I had some, I’d hail a cab and go have some fun.

In my twenties, I lived in Budapest with a bunch of other ex-patriates from the U.S. and Europe. We ate out all the time, took cabs when- and wherever we wanted, and attended world-class opera for the equivalent of $7.

When I returned to the U.S., I racked up thousands in debt, living as I was accustomed.

When I was 27, I met B. He was handsome and charismatic. He had a liberal way with the truth and was a little scattered, but he was sweet. He worked as an assistant to a physics instructor.

A year after we met, I got pregnant, and we decided to stay together. B. was under enormous pressure. I turned up the heat even more. I “knew” it was “his job” to bring home the bacon so I could have my baby and nurse and take care of him for his first years.

My demands were too much for B., who suffers from bi-polar disorder. We didn’t know this yet, though every couple of years, someone asked me if he did.

I do believe infants and toddlers should have their mothers with them for their first years, absolutely. But, looking back, I also think I could have been more flexible and creative, less rigid, and less hard on B. I regret my exigent younger self.

B. and I separated when our kids were 3 and 6. B.’s undiagnosed bi-polar disorder was increasingly difficult and frightening.

We spent years flying by the seat of our pants financially, running out of money every month. That said, we always had good food on the table.

I discovered Mr. Money Mustache about seven years ago. He made saving money seem fun and sexy rather than dreary and depressing. I became a disciple and began getting my financial house in order. I’ve made great strides, and we are safer every year.

Today, I don’t know if we are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. I mean, of course, I know. Why do I say I don’t know? I mean, I know we’re not “rich” — but, what do I mean by that? Compared to the population of the world, we most certainly are rich.

Compared to my three siblings, we are doing very well.

And we’re not “poor.” I know that. But, if I lost my job and had trouble getting work again (ageism isn’t unheard of), we would be uncomfortable in a matter of months.

I’m not sure if it’s important that I don’t have a clear idea of where we are on the financial spectrum. I’m not sure it matters. The middle class is disappearing in the U.S., and I can feel the downward pressure of the divide.

We are a single-income family surrounded by double-income families.

We drive a modest car, and my kids don’t have cars.

My kids got excellent financial aid for college, both of them, which is a tremendous relief for me.

All that said, we own a home in the Bay Area. That alone makes us “rich” by many measures.

We are doing fine, that’s all there is to say.

I have complicated feelings about money. I want more. I dream about not being stressed, not worrying constantly about spending. I can’t imagine how lovely that must feel.

At the same time, I’m ashamed we have so much when so many have so little.

I think often of the little girl a few years ago who rang our bell on Halloween. We had a fire in the fireplace, candles lit, music playing, a nice carpet on the floor. I’ll never forget how her eyes widened, and she said, “Wow!”

And yet, when we first moved into our Oakland bungalow, I assumed it would be our “starter house.”

I’m afflicted with weird stuff from Piedmont, from my mother’s poor childhood and her conflicted feelings chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and famous. I’m afflicted with confusion and sadness when I think about my father and the many get-rich-quick schemes he signed on to, pyramid schemes of all kinds, while my mother wrung her hands and called him an idiot.

I have all of their stuff, and it’s hard for me to part from it. My house is too small to carry their pasts, their stuff, the dolls my father collected in Asia, the vases, the china, the little painted birds that held the place cards for those well-heeled guests at those parties so long ago.

For me, the work is continuing to untangle the mixed messages I received about money and develop a cleaner relationship with it. Save it, respect it, grow it. Don’t feel guilty and ashamed for having it. Don’t feel ashamed for spending it. Don’t feel ashamed for wanting it. Want it, and what it can buy, but within reason. Keep cultivating balance, and wisdom, and gratitude.

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