Around 25 years ago, I had a therapist call my parents something along the lines of ‘double-dealing cheap, four flushers.’
I was quite upset with her for that and mounted a backhanded defense of my parents.
Sure they let money slide through their hands like sand, but they always meant well.
|That’s my dad there somewhere in the gray flannel suit|
It wasn’t until later that the real meaning of the therapist’s anger was not directed at my parents’ wants or needs, but the example they had set for me. It went far deeper than simply making bad money decisions and there were things that I didn’t tell the therapist that I will tell you now.
If I had a dollar for every time my father sarcastically reminded us that “money didn’t grow on trees,” I would have been able to finance my own college education.
The thing was, my father never followed his own advice. Remember the grand tour of the American West story I started this blog with? That was paid for by a loan from Sun Finance in Cleveland.
A loan for a family vacation with no contingencies built in, so when the van broke down dad was forced to wire home to his own parents for money to get us back to Ohio.
It must have been humiliating for him. It was probably just as humiliating as realizing that for his entire marriage he never made more money than my mother, a public school teacher. Dad? He sold custom drapery for Sears. Interior decorator. Hell of a job for a Marine..
|Rooms to die for. Or in.|
But dad had big dreams that were larger than his paycheck. He dragged mom and the rest of us along for the ride whether we wanted to or not.
Early in their marriage, again with a down-payment borrowed from their folks, my parents bought a new split level in an edge city suburb (Mayfield Heights, Ohio) on land that used to be a golf course.
|This house – that’s me in the Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit|
I loved the place – my first home. My sister and I had our own bedrooms, a nice family room basement, and a backyard with, yes, a white picket fence. It was a neighborhood not unlike Kevin Arnold’s in The Wonder Years. There were lots of kids my age, sidewalks, parks and an ice cream man.
|Mom was no Lisa. She would have been a MILF then|
It wasn’t enough for my father, who after six years paying the mortgage, decide to pack up the kin and move to bucolic Chardon, Ohio. You can read about meeting the neighbors here. I still think dad had watched too many episodes of Green Acres and fancied himself, if not a future farmer, at least some kind of country squire.
|Yeah, this guy|
Much later, after my father died, my mother would tell me that they barely scratched by in the house in Mayfield. Dad would sometimes come home and play a cruel trick, convincing my mother he had been fired from his job and watching her panic. Sometimes, he’d carry this sick little game through dinner and well into the evening before coming clean.
What kind of a man does that to his wife?
So the house they could barely afford in 1961 was traded for a 1968 house worth double the old one.
I started out in public school, but that wasn’t good enough for my parents. I was yanked out of kindergarten in mid-November and sent to the Notre Dame Elementary penal colony, which my parents could also not really afford.
I could have gone to the cheaper Catholic school in town, but it just wasn’t good enough. I think often of what life would have been like if I had stayed in public school.
“The kids there would have beat the crap out of you,” my mother said.
|This is the reason I never really liked this movie|
My self-esteem was always number one with my mom.
My parents were middle-middle class (yes, there was and still is such a thing) but acted like they were doing everything they could to escape a lower-middle class upbringing and live like, well, the kids of the professionals that I was surrounded by at Notre Dame.
It really was all about keeping up appearances. Hyacinth Bucket had nothing on Ed and Connie Gottschalk.
|Hyacinth was more like my mom’s mom. Only meaner.|
Except it was all outward – the face we showed the neighborhood. Inside, it was a totally different story.
The house was nice. It was painted, landscaped with news trees and shrubbery. The grass was cut to specification. No one could call our property a dump.
But INSIDE, my parents struggled to put decent food on the table. I still can’t eat chop suey, frozen pot pies and beef and barley soup because we had it so often. Tuition took precedence over food and utilities. In Chardon’s brutal winters, we’d be running on the last drops of heating oil as the house temperature would dip into the fifties. Finally the truck would arrive after my parents managed somehow to scrape some money together.
I used to see other kids at school with better clothes, better lunches, and better, well, everything. The thing that hurt the most was hearing about all the great vacations they took. Aside from the Wyoming excursion, we were only able to drive to Florida (mainly paid for on my grandparent’s dime) or extremely local vacations to neighboring states. I’m sure the Contemporary Resort Hotel at Disney World was very nice. I heard about it a lot.
|It looked like this or so I was told|
And then there were the fights. Lord, how much I have tried to forget huddled in bed upstairs at night listening to my mom and dad scream and curse at each other over the bills. It got to the point where the word ‘divorce’ was bandied about – but only for a moment. They needed each other in ways I don’t think they could articulate.
I didn’t understand. Weren’t we doing OK? I mean, look at this house?
It must seem mad that in the middle of all this struggling, dad decided to have a built-in swimming pool constructed in the back yard.
I would later call it ‘Ed’s Folly’ (but never to his face, of course) because it not only stretched my parents’ budget to the breaking point, but after it was built, it was rarely used.
|This pool, remember?|
See, dad, again, didn’t plan for all the contingencies. He had enough (borrowed) money for the actual construction of the pool but when he inquired about heating it, the contractors said there was no way to heat it with oil. Now we did have a natural gas line running parallel to the street, but to run a line from a tap in all around the house to a gas heater would run an extra $3,000 (1973 dollars) which my dad did not have and could not get.
This meant that, in chilly Chardon, the swimming season would run roughly from May 25 through September 10, if we were lucky. If not, shave 7-10 days off the end of both dates. My father, who was a natural polar bear, was constantly forcing my sister and me into the freezing pool. Damned if he wasn’t going to pay for this pool and not have us been seen using it.
He really took it personally. How could we not swim in this Arctic paradise after he spent so much money to give us something most kids didn’t have? He became bitter about it, but then again, he became bitter about a lot of things.
Of course, a big part of it for Country Squire Dad was to constantly invite the neighbors and their kids over. There was only one other built in pool on the street and it was owned by a Jehovah’s Witness family who primarily used it for baptisms. It was heated, or so we heard. Dad would fume.
“Baptisms – that’s all they use it for, can you imagine?” dad would wail. “What a God-damn waste.”
|Keeps the ph low though, and no sunscreen needed!|
It got so bad that the neighbors started avoiding my father lest they be roped into a pool date. The water was just as cold for them as it was for us – unless it was mid-late July then everyone wanted in.
Remember when I said ‘the show’ was the outside face? Here’s how it worked out: I can remember one day, getting off the bus from school (around the eighth grade), running to the phone to call one of my classmates for a weekend get-together and be greeted with a dead phone due to an unpaid bill. I remember holding the dead phone in my hand and looking out at the pool and thinking this was not how it should be.
The electricity? That too – cut off right in the middle of Saturday cartoons. It was a constant occurrence.
Mom never got on decent financial footing until after dad died – he was, as is the case with so many fathers back then – worth more dead than alive.
|It’s funny ’cause it’s true!|
As for the pool, after my dad died (1983) and I left home (1984), it was only used sporadically by the neighbors. The earthquake of 1986 literally split it in half and that was the end of it. My mother, for reasons known only to her and her Creator, had it filled in with tires which led to the creation of a wonderful mosquito breeding ground and a potential Superfund clean-up site. Eventually, it was capped off with cement.
Mom never learned her lesson though and as she grew older and lonelier, she started spending money wildly. Of course, a lot of that went to fund my sister’s lifestyle which is another subject I don’t want to get into here.
And so I became paranoid about money and I guess that paranoia has, for the most part, served me well. I won’t say I’m that much better a money manager than my parents, but then again they didn’t have a credit score following them around online like we do.
My greatest fear? Living beneath a freeway underpass in a cardboard box.
|They tell me it’s not so bad in the summer.|
Seriously. I’ll die before I let that happen. And I was never more nervous as when I felt I was starting to live beyond my means or that somehow I was in danger of losing my job.
But one good thing I took away from my childhood is that I pay my bills on time. It’s funny that such a mundane task can be such a point of pride for me. But again, so many of the fears of adulthood were rooted in the experiences of childhood.
To this day, the idea of owning a swimming pool makes me break out in a cold sweat.