Growing up I had an a mythical or maybe horrific relationship with money and finances. It was a semi-idealistic view, but with an undercurrent of mixed messages and vague dread.
The basics were covered. Food, clothing, shelter, yup, we had them. So I didn't want. At least I didn't identify with the kids in the government-subsided apartments in town or the ones who carried their tattered meal cards that promised hot food every day. I had my ham and cheese sandwich on white bread and an apple, thank you very much, I was good.
Yet, I wanted. I knew my pants might get tighter and shorter for a few more months than the better dressed girls growing alongside me. Some of the same designer labels hugged my back and backside except in my case the labels were cut out or over-imprinted with another designer name — The House of Irregular.
I never noticed at home, but when I went out and ate at friends' houses, there was variety we didn't have. Or maybe freshness. Much of my gastronomical intake was from a chest freezer in the basement loaded down with day old bread and treats from the bakery outlet and meat bought in bulk and repackaged in plastic wrap in suitable meal chunks.
Ground beef was stretched across multiple days in various disguises. Burgers, chopped with onions and spices, mixed with mac and cheese, sloppy joes and fabulous taco fiestas, a new an exciting food idea in our white bread town.
It wasn't until adulthood that I understood the magnitude of my mother's feeding five kids, maintaining a household, paying for the house and all on a public school teacher's salary. I cannot type that we were poor, because that betrays what an incredible job Pat had done keeping us afloat. But, we weren't rich.
The climate on these issues was hot and cold. We didn't talk about money. Grown up stuff was solely my mother's domain, and she felt no compunction about keeping the details under her hat.
However, at a moment's notice, an unexpected squall would kick up and the lack of money would rush to the forefront of the drama. Want the coat with the little extra design and worst of all retail, first-run tag? Better run for cover before the barrage of “Who do you think I am?” “Who do you think you are?” “I work so hard, and you kids don't appreciate me.” “I work my fingers to the bone for you.” “You just take, take and think money grows on trees.”
Worst of all: “Fine. If that's what you want, you can decide. I'll just go without a coat this year, if it's that important to you.” Followed by silence. A thick, ominous silence.
Speaking of coats, Pat rocked a red dress coat with a real fur collar on special occasions, like holidays and church. On ordinary days, she'd wear the kind of ordinary, drab jackets and “car coats” that got folks through New England winters, and she wasn't opposed to wearing a hand-me-up from one of her own children. I have a dim recollection of Elmer's glue, the collar and tragedy that had my mother soaking and scrubbing fur for days. That dress coat had to survive another year, and by god she'd make it happen.
Good at math and figures and observant, I started to piece together the situation. But, money was an abstract concept for me about which I hadn't learned to manage. I only learned there wasn't enough.
The vague dread lingers in adulthood.
I seemed to have inherited Pat's knack for money management. In fact, I pretty much have made a living largely because of that knack, managing million-dollar budgets for other people.
I can make some calculations in my head. I know the logic of compounded interest. Putting together a contract or grant or spending plan is more muscle memory at this point in my career. I literally made four times what I put into my first condo when I sold it. Car dealers don't intimidate me, they are a game.
Still in all, I worry about money. Sometimes rationally. Sometimes not. I dream of having the kind of nest egg that negates any possibility of concern. Hedge fund billions.
I remain a thousandaire.
However, my mother's lessons end at one crucial point. My whole lifetime, or maybe not the first few years before my dad died, Pat scrimped and saved for survival. Only in her later years, with a paid off mortgage, a remodeled house thanks to a well-insured fire, five grown children with their own jobs and homes, a pension and a scattered but flush shoebox of investments, she still scrimped and saved as though it was for survival.
Her final years were Campbell soup, and they could have been caviar.
Worry as I might about cash, I don't live in privation.
I used Pat's money, my small inheritance, to buy a new car, finance a move cross-country, help create a settled household for my partner, who had less than me growing up. I shopped and paid off debt and created a new chapter in my life, but with a jumble of happiness, anger and bitterness.
If I had realized how much she would leave behind, I would have angrily tried to shake loose her self-induced deprivation. It's a remaining regret I have for not having done more before she died.
So, today, I worry, but I talk myself through it. I may not have a nest egg, or this week even much in my savings account. But, I have a comfortable life. My only debt I couldn't pay off in a minute is my car and our house. It's worked out in worst times than these, I remind myself.
Maybe the future will require cheese sandwiches and raman noodles again. Worry? Yes. But to live and live well and as best as I can, that is imperative. Otherwise, what's the fucking point?