Not that I expected there to be a part 2 to yesterday’s post but some of your comments got me thinking (a dangerous thing, for sure!)
As TKW pointed out, even though we were now living the big life, frugality was still ingrained in my parents minds. We went from a tiny bungalow in a working class neighborhood to a large 5 bedroom ranch house on an acre lot. Our new subdivision had homes with circular driveways, large ponds, and impeccable landscaping. It was quite a leap for us. I remember thinking we lived in the country (we didn’t) because our mailbox was on fancy post down at street level. The mail truck drove to each home. No more walking mailman sticking our mail in a tiny box to the right of the doorbell.
Maybe it’s genetic (I’m Scot-Irish, like Mel!) or maybe the early example my parents provided made an impression but my shame about the imitation Sir Jac jacket didn’t last long. I let the twitters at school die down, started wearing my beloved jacket again and guessed that all was forgotten. We were now known as “new money.” It was as if ‘all was well with the world’ now that we had been rightfully labeled.
I’d like to think growing up where I did didn’t change me for the worse. I took some amazing things from my childhood to make me who I am today but there are some attitudes I held I’m not proud of. I remember once in college, talking on the phone to my sister at length. She had a few scholarship offers to some major universities and she needed advice. After I hung up the phone my roommate (who grew up in inner-city Detroit and was the first to attend college in her family) said, “Oh! Your sister is going to college?” with a genuine smile and excitement in her voice. I snootily replied, “Is she going to college? No – WHERE is she going to college.”
And by now, my parents attitudes had changed. It was now important to them that we date only the boys from “good” (financially well off) families. When I told them my plans of majoring in education they scoffed, “Well, you better marry well. You’ll never make any money in THAT profession.” My father (who I adored) actually said, “Why in the world would you want to teach? You’re so bright. You know what they say, Those who can – do. Those who can’t – teach.” It was the first time I had ever heard that horrid phrase. I was crushed.
It took moving away from my home state and traveling 1500 miles across the country to cause a major shift in my attitude.
Driving through West Virginia I saw a shack that looked like it could blow over with the right puff of wind. I wistfully began imagining what it would have looked like when someone lived there. Flowers outside the front stoop, fresh paint on the shutters, no trash littering the yard. Then, to my surprise, a man appeared at the doorway. Shirtless, holding a beer, scratching his belly. A TV was on inside. I was stunned that someone could be living there. That it could possibly have running water and electricity.
In Savannah, while on my way to work one day, I drove past a row of townhouses downtown. Every other one was boarded up. Gang graffiti decorated some of the boards holding it together. I was stuck at a light when out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman emerge from one of the buildings, clutching her handbag, dressed beautifully in a pale pink suit, ivory silk blouse, well-worn but tasteful leather pumps. She raced to catch the bus that was stopped just ahead of me.
People actually live this way? Their dwellings could hardly be called homes. I realized even in my family’s poorest of times, when all of us crammed into one bedroom – we were rich.
I ended up teaching at a small private high school. I loved it. I made a modest salary. And that was OK with me. But the way I was treated by some of the parents was horrible. Less than. Below. It was like an amazing social experiment to me – observing these people who lived the way I was raised, but they didn’t know. I felt like a spy on a covert operation. I was just a teacher, aspiring to be just like them, they imagined. I attended a charity fundraiser and happened to be standing next to a parent from our school. We were looking over some of the silent auction items and I made an observation about the quality of a beautiful sweater set, complete with jeweled collar. She turned to me, stunned, and said, “That’s quite observant for someone on a teacher’s salary!”
My daughter went to the same school. One day, she came home and said, “Mommy? Are we poor?” Of course not, I told her. Why do you say that? She said, “Because we only have one TV.” I explained to her that we chose to only have one TV. We chose to live where we did. We loved what we did for a living – excess money is not important. What is important is doing what you love, having good health and a safe, warm place to lay your head at night. It was in that moment that I made sure we started volunteering at the local soup kitchen more regularly so my daughter could see what “poor” truly was.
I’m not sure a 6-yr-old cared about my explanation and soup kitchen example. She was more impressed with the nannies, TV in every room, and gorgeous homes that her friends lived in.
My husband works in health care. He practices Chinese Medicine (yes, I know, voodoo to some of you). I giggle when I hear some of your impressions out there, “He’s not a real doctor.” No, not in the Western sense. And we’ll certainly never live the lifestyle of a Western trained surgeon. But we live a very comfortable life. And I can afford to stay home with my children, which I love being able to do. And my kids can have music lessons and play on sports teams and attend private school.
I’ve ridden the financial roller coaster at various times in my life. And I used to feel guilty whenever I noticed that I was among “the haves.” I used to call myself blessed or lucky. But I am no more blessed or lucky than the man scratching his gut on the porch of that shack. Even being lucky is relative. My parents worked hard to provide the best they could for us. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am. My husband works very hard to afford the things we can afford.
Samuel Goldwyn once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” We’ve worked hard to get where we are today. And hopefully, our example will encourage our children to do the same.