Sunday, March 1, 2015
Living Next Door to the Country Club
I wrote this essay some years ago, in a senior center memoir writing class that allowed disabled people in it. It was the year my husband's first lay-offs had occurred before we moved here. While the elderly people fondly remembered good times on the farm and grandchildren, there I was, just starting to process my crazy childhood and life. Hopefully my essays didn't shock them. I have added a few corrections here.
I was raised to marry into wealth. My mother had escaped her hardscrabble farm kid's lifestyle and had escaped to a big city by the age of 19. Poverty suffered as a child is easier then as an adult. At least when you are a kid, it's not your fault.
So while I would be an adult of currency exchanges, Save-A-Lots, scrimping every penny and living in fear of ghetto criminals, shopping was a fun hobby to my parents, the overpriced mall a center of delights. I grew up among Ethan Allen furniture, private school education, vacations and in high school lived on what was considered the richest street in town. Thank goodness, I had no idea what would await me as adulthood beckoned.
My parents lived on a near six figure income by the late 1970s and I grew up clueless. I had no idea what a sirloin steak really cost, my mother would fill 2-3 grocery carts full should relatives visit from out of town and think nothing of it. I didn't realize that a 5 course dinner could sent you back forty dollars. I grew up in a house that if the Russians had bombed, there would be food for a year. Today towards the end of every month my fridge is absolutely barren.
this isn't my mother's collection this is a normal sized one.
Money was wasted on strange things. Thousands of dollars on china figurines was spent freely. One day I entered my mother's living room during a warmer December day to see at least three-five thousand glass snowmen of various kinds standing like a snowman army. My eyes bugged out as I calculated how much money she had probably spent on the endless variations of clay, porcelain and fabric Frosties. There had to be at least $30,000 dollars invested in this particular shopping spree. My mother should have bought stock in Hallmark.
For my father there were car parts to be refurbished in the garage, and entire "muscle" car in one side of the garage to be redone, and endless gadgets and tools. He had everything from an air compressor, two or three riding mowers and endless construction and house re-modeling items.
I was no spoiled kid, as I actually got goaded by the other high school kids for living in a 6 bedroom house next door to the only country club in town. While the neighborhood kids went on constant vacations, and got to play golf, we never joined. Everything was about keeping up with the Joneses, model households, "work til you drop, children or not. Today several family member's houses look like untouched museums and the houses you see in magazines. While I would get a decent number of Christmas gifts for good pictures, I didn't dress like a rich kid. I was befriending the kids who lived in the projects and the working class neighborhoods nearer to my school. My mother didn't buy me very many clothes and when you show up in high school wearing the same 2-3 outfits over and over, it establishes your social rank more then your parent's address.
The rich kids of my neighborhood rejected the whole lot of us, my family didn't realize that farmer's daughter and that a man with an New Jersey accent who cussed his head off in a Honeymooner's a la violent Fred Flintstone fashion don't quite fit into some upper class enclaves no matter the pretensions made. If anything after the neighbors called the cops, on my Dad cussing his head off so loudly they covered their children's ears, we were forbidden to play with the rest of the neighborhood teens. They avoided us like the plague. One popular girl fled my house during her first visit, when my father stomped up the stairs screaming about some lost papers and throwing things. She was petrified. At least she could run away, I was stuck!
My family never had heard of women's rights. While I was a good student, having free laborers came first. I still remember 10-14 hour workdays, scrubbing, polishing and dusting the 3,500 square foot house we lived in. Cinderella just wasn't a fairy tale. Before anyone says, "Quit yer whining all kids have to do chores!" This was a labor camp with a mean drill sergeant by your side. Perfectionists out of the gates of hell--Mommy Dearest and Daddy Dearest nightmares that made Joan Crawford's whining about the wire hangers and chopping down the tree in the backyard a slight tiff. No one would ever realize there are 5,000 ways to rake leaves the wrong way or even fathom that a rake had to be held the right way. I would grow up with a lifelong distaste for housework and yard work.
As college rolled around, my father kept threatening to throw us out on our ear by the age of 18. Having a father who won a full-4 year ride to university due to extreme math skills I did not inherit meant as a normal kid, you were simply resented. I worked 30 hours a week, my last two years of high school in restaurants as a salad and prep- cook. I used to hoard money like a fiend. The irony would occur to me years later. At one point in late high school, I had the greatest amount saved in the bank that I would have for the rest of my life which was $5,000. College and payment on my first car soaked it up like a sponge.
Things got only worse, in college, I in youthful idealism chose art education as a major not realizing it would sink me into future poverty. Some people make that one bad decision that turns their life on the dime towards the bad. For some it's getting pregnant as a teen, dropping out of school, doing drugs. This was mine 3.4 grade point average or not. I was good at art and actually a very good art teacher in the few years I got to work in it. The subject of art had served as my escape for survival. It was not only an interest but a vocation, but sadly my declining health blocked me from the good teaching jobs.
My parents hated what I stood for. The money I got for help to get through college was paid for with as pound of flesh attached even as I worked my way through college in the dorm cafeterias. I was called an evil hippie and a prima donna because I wanted a state school education and wanted to be a high school art teacher. One would think I wanted to run away and join the circus or had become a prostitute by the reaction of my father to my choice of a future career. He even tried to get me to join the convent and got angry when I refused, saying they would pay for my college.
No one warned me of how hard it was to make a living. No one told me that young adults could struggle. No one told me or prepared me for the fact that life may brings struggle or turmoil. With parents who could indulge in immediate gratification, what did I know? My mother who had no college even got a $40,000 a year job via my father who gave it to her. No one told me how to write a check, or how to budget or that the wrong step could lead to years of poverty. No one told me that things had drastically changed since the Baby Boomers made their first steps out of college. There were losers and winners and the winners had money.
By age 22, even with a part-time $14.00 an hour art teaching job and then making the decision to go back to school for a paralegal degree, I was considered a wash-up by my family. The summer I graduated from college, my 20 year old sister was marrying the ex mayor of a big city's son. She never would have to worry about living out of milk crates or struggling to pay bills. My parents would tell me, "Why can't you be more like your sister?". She went to community college and met her husband right after high school graduation. She has never lived on her own and went right from her twin bed covered in Garfield sheets with stuffed animals on top to her suburban housewife bliss. I wondered if the marriage was arranged since she never dated in high school, went from zero to 60 and they both treated each other like they were entering a business partnership instead of showing normal love behavior like kissing and hugging one another.
My sister had reached the pinnacle of success in my parents eyes by being engaged at age 19. My college graduation was ignored and neither parent showed up. One of my friends drove me to my college graduation. I would be stuck living at home for a year paying a small amount of rent and saving money for my great escape into my first no contact.
The years then came where as an adult, I would visit my mother's house with the perfect rooms, with one room of new furniture equaling a year's salary for me and my husband. Two doors down from multimillionaires, she added onto the house, and remodeled to her heart's content. After my father died, the insurance pay-offs made her even wealthier and more self satisfied. She has no idea what my day to day life is like. She doesn't know what life without money is like. The glass snowmen stand on patrol every winter with their empty eyes surveying the suburban landscape.
See: Money, Snobs and Narcissists