The other day I lost my mother’s wedding ring — a simple band with tiny diamonds — which I’d worn daily since her death ten years ago. I remember my mother urging my father to get her a new ring with larger diamonds. I think she felt that would somehow mean he valued her more. He never did replace the ring — there seemed always to be a reason why he couldn’t — and when she died, the ring became a symbol of my mother’s discontent.
My mother was born into an Italian immigrant family in New York, a family that put great stock in education. Of six children, one became a doctor, another a lawyer, two (including my mother) became teachers, and one a nurse. The family saw education as a road with one destination: financial security. For my mother, this became linked with emotional security, so that money became a yardstick for self-worth. Unfortunately, for my mother, there seemed never to be enough.
Dissatisfaction hangs in the air of my childhood memories, heavy as smoke from a grease fire. A perfectionist, my mother still sweeps through my memory wielding a vacuum cleaner, obsessively hunting down specks of dust. Sadly, the world couldn’t match her impossibly high standards: the house and furniture were never fashionable enough, nor was my father successful enough.
With only a sixth-grade education, my father, who worked as a cabdriver, couldn’t match my mother’s salary. This gradually became a source of friction, especially after my sister and I were born. A heavy gambler, my father lost much of his money at the racetrack. As a result, my mother was forced to keep working to support us. She struggled all day teaching, then came home to the demands of housework, cooking, and the two sullen kids who never understood why she left them each day.
She couldn’t bear to live in any one house for long. After a few years, she and my father would begin their Sunday searches for a new house, until they found one that looked ideal, and we’d pull up roots and leave. Later, discontent would again prod her to start looking through the classifieds. New schools, new neighbors, and a sense of never really belonging are the themes of my childhood.
It wasn’t her dissatisfaction alone that kept us on the move, but also her belief that buying and selling real estate would one day make us wealthy — and therefore happy. Over the years, despite the gambling problems, she and my father put away quite a bit of cash. Ironically, though, the pursuit of what was supposed to make us happy caused my sister and me great distress. The constant moving — leaving old friends, making new friends, and adjusting to different schools — took its toll on us. The family home we yearned for existed only in our fantasies: a place with an attic filled with old toys and a garden planted for the future. As we left each house, I secretly wrote my name in tiny print along the edge of a molding — my way of staking a claim on the future.
I don’t blame my mother for her attitude about money. Over the years I’ve realized that people who feel inherently unloved and empty never have enough of anything, especially money. My mother’s childhood was bleak; her mother and aunts criticized her openly because she wasn’t pretty. Even though she grew into a beautiful woman, she suffered all her life from a sense of inferiority.
Money was the bedrock upon which she built her life. Since she’d never felt valued as a child, she lived with a terrible emptiness. Success with her career and love from her husband and children couldn’t fill it, but she believed that money, which she equated with self-esteem and security, could. Sadly, just as there could never be enough love, there was never enough money.
The family response to extravagance was, “Do you want to end up in the poorhouse?” To this day, I still have nightmares about the poorhouse, which for my mother represented an unbearably great loss, not just of money but of love. After all, people wouldn’t end up in the poorhouse if they had at least one other human willing to care for them.
What’s saddest is that my mother’s pursuit of wealth was in the end her undoing. Instead of retiring early, she continued teaching in order to secure a larger pension for her retirement years. Shortly after she finally did retire, she developed cancer. The few years she had left, the years she was supposed to use — at last — to enjoy life, were instead filled with hospitals, chemotherapy, and a growing awareness of death. In the end, my parents were certainly “well-off” — they had a condo in Fort Lauderdale, a nice car, and money in the bank. Still, the wealth hadn’t filled the deep reservoir of insecurity. A month before my mother died, I found her seated at her kitchen table, circling ads in the real estate section.
Lorraine Viscardi Murray
In my family if you made something wonderful or had a good idea, someone always began to figure out a way to make money from it. Brilliance and beauty, I was taught, would always lead to wealth. My father and uncles were always talking about great ideas they’d had that someone else had taken and turned into a fortune.
If I were very rich, I would buy the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. When I was in elementary school, we took a grand tour of it, from the kitchens to the Presidential Suite. The guide pointed out the chair that Khrushchev sat in when he came to speak at the United Nations. Although the kids in my class never wanted me on their side when we divided up to play baseball, I was the only one brave enough to sit in that chair. So that hotel has always been dear to me, and if I were very rich, I would buy it and turn it into an enormous urban retreat center. As much as I love the woods, it always makes me sad that there is no place in this city where you can go to find solitude and support to heal yourself.
That would be wealth. With my father and uncles gone, I haven’t a clue about how to get it. (But then again, none of their great schemes ever worked.)
In the meantime, I have the richness of the empty white wall above the mantelpiece across from my bed, which thrills me every morning when I wake to it, vast and soft and a little cracked. The wood of the mantel presses into the room like the front of a ship. A spiral of beach stones sits on top, some that I gathered in childhood. I see the blue flowered quilt from my adopted Grandma Carla, and the shimmer of a half-remembered dream.
Brooklyn, New York
When I was eighteen, I turned down a job as a prostitute. I was living in a tenement house at the time. Mr. Cello promised me $100,000 a year, free cocaine, and a vacation in the Bahamas, but I figured life had something better in store for me.
The next year I got a job at General Electric for $3.56 an hour, plus benefits. I worked at a drill press, and sometimes I wondered where I had put Mr. Cello’s phone number.
I had some boyfriends with promising economic futures, but they didn’t pan out, despite my mother’s maxim, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man.” There was one I liked, a blond fellow with a strong jaw line. He had just gotten out of jail in La Paz. He was a vegetarian. He wrote me love poems.
But selling coke is bad karma, and besides, he could get an erection only if I was asleep. So he got married to someone else and now they fly around Europe watching tennis matches.
A few years ago, my sweetheart and I sold our business in the city. We sold it for a fraction of its value and moved to the country with our kids. Our families thought we were crazy. “Worst mistake you ever made,” my father-in-law mutters to this day.
I’m glad I’m not a whore in New York City or a wife who has to watch tennis matches and make love after she’s fallen asleep. I’m especially glad I’m not a business owner living in a suburb and arranging vacations with travel agencies.
I wish we had some money in the bank, though. I’d like a new truck — big enough for the kids to ride in — and enough materials to finish the kitchen. I’d also like to take a vacation in the Yucatan next winter. Chuck says I’ll always be restless like this, and it’s probably true, but I wouldn’t trade our lives.
We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We’re surrounded by mountains that are covered with tall fir and cedar trees. In the summer the meadow is yellow with flowers. Deer and elk graze there; at night, if the moon is bright, you can see their round eyes watching you. The night sky is full of stars, and always, in the background, you can hear the sound of the creek rolling past on its way to the ocean.
When something needs building or fixing, the neighbors all pitch in. We share a garden and an orchard, and on Sundays all the folks in the valley take a sauna together. They are wonderful people, and I love every one of them. And I still buy a lottery ticket every now and then — what the hell.
My parents survived the war in Europe. In losing everything but their lives, they discovered a new meaning for wealth: a healthy life in peaceful times. Here in Canada they felt wealthy, because they had six healthy children. We had none of the things my friends had — no car or automatic washer and dryer or color television. I felt rich because my parents went out on movie dates together, which none of my friends’ parents ever did. I felt rich because I had a little brother and sister to play with and they were much more fun than my friends’ dolls. I felt rich because I could take three buses to get downtown and none of my friends had ever even taken one bus. I felt rich because I knew my father wanted to divide his chocolate bar equally into eight pieces, and each portion was an expression of his wealth of love.
I got divorced after being married for twelve years to a man who got promoted, transferred, and richer every eighteen months. He said we had been happiest in the early years, when we were poor. I said those were the wealthy years. I felt poor only when he started to love his job more than he loved his family.
The man I love now has just written a best seller. Suddenly he has money. He has moved uptown. He is upgrading his furniture, his stereo, his wardrobe. He wonders if he’ll ever find the right chairs for less than $400 to go with the marble dining table he bought at the bargain price of $1,000. I am once again amazed at how expensive it is to have money. I wonder how high a price I will pay for this so-called wealth.
Nowadays, as I savor imported Belgian chocolate, I wonder if I will ever again experience the wealth of my youth when a tiny piece of cheap chocolate gave me a taste of wealth beyond compare.
I have often thought about wealth — the money kind — in terms of “You get what you need.” My college guru said it differently: “The Lord provides.” It seems to have been true for me.
When I was a young, single parent without much money, I lived the life I wanted with no painful compromises. I found an apartment in a Victorian house with character, stained glass and natural wood, and even a few ghosts! The rent was unusually low and the neighborhood was great. I found a well-paying job doing part-time child-care for a family. The mom was a doctor, and she gave us much of our medical care. I was able to take my own young child to work, thus avoiding day care. He went to good private schools, because I was able to work part time at school to help pay for tuition.
I shopped at secondhand stores and found hand-knit wool sweaters for a quarter, coats for five bucks, and other vintage one-of-a-kind items for less. I even found a classical music collection, some thirty records unscratched, for a mere ten dollars. They had furniture, too — I got my wood inlaid table, art deco chair, and oak rocker all very, very cheap! And my child never looked like a waif. I could almost always find high-quality children’s clothes at the thrift shops run by fancy private schools.
We always ate what we wanted, mostly healthy food, and went on vacations. Back then you could get cheap air fares, and fortunately I had good friends in California, Arizona, and Florida with amenities such as a swimming pool, a cabin in the mountains, an airplane, and a boat; they were happy to share these with us.
Then I got married. My husband, being the responsible family type, abandoned his anti-establishment ways. He started a business. We had a child. We moved. He got a car. The kids still went to private schools. We needed insurance. The list goes on and on. I went to secondhand stores less frequently. When I did, good things were far less plentiful and more expensive than in the old days; anyway, I felt guilty taking items from people who really couldn’t afford new things.
Our new “necessities” seem to eat away at much of our additional income: environmental causes, health clubs, water filters, full-spectrum light bulbs, organic fruits and vegetables, free-range beef, naturally raised chickens, and the right kind of new clothes for my teenager. My husband, a former hippie artist, has to buy three-piece suits and wear socks that match.
We don’t look like we climbed the economic ladder. We still have much of my thrift store furniture, some of which could use recovering, repair, or replacement. We do not have a dishwasher or a microwave, and we don’t own a house. Vacations are just a week in Wisconsin, and sometimes my husband can’t even come, because he has to work.
I still get what I need. I can stay home with our youngest child, and I don’t worry about money. Thankfully we could afford the braces for our teenager, and the additional visits to the doctor, the tests, the nebulizer, and all the medicine for our allergic pre-schooler. Life is still good.
But now my husband says he wants to go back to doing artwork full time and move away from here. This could mean a two-thirds reduction of income, though it would still be much more than I had in the “good old days.” Friends say, “Doesn’t this make you feel insecure?” Well, yes, it does, but can I tell my husband to do something he hates just to make money? Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” (Does this mean I can now guiltlessly shop the thrift stores?)
Last night I had a few minutes, so I cruised the Goodwill. Just that day I had realized I needed a winter coat. Within five minutes I found a brand new wool coat in a beautiful color and style, and the right size, for fifteen bucks. “Amazing!” I thought. “The Lord provides!”
Violet just got this job for one of these do-gooder places nobody’s ever heard of. (They try to get corporations to give maternity leave.) She’s going to make $26,000 a year, or maybe $26,500. I told Mom, and she said, “You could make that too.” That had never occurred to me. So far the most I’ve made is six.
I got a new job last week: tying up the garbage in front of the house. It’s three times a week, and I get at least $35 a month. But I’ve always loved garbage — it’s the tactile equivalent of gossip. You hold in your hands the letters the man in Apartment 3K tore up, and his catalog of Love Potions. (I really did find a catalog of spells in our trash once — with descriptions like “Cures forgetfulness, makes parents kind to children” under “fennel.”)
Is Real Wealth the ability to enjoy one’s job description?
More good news: it looks like Dennis Moritz’s insurance covers his stepping on my finger at the Avant Garde Playwriting Workshop last spring, and that $403 I thought was gone is mine again. His coverage is my wealth.
I always seem to live in some shadow economy to one side of the actual one. Lately I’ve been a companion to an autistic child. This fall I may start my Ph.D. and duck out of sight a few more years on some fellowship. Why not? Real wealth is a healthy colon, and the courage to pay for oranges with pennies.
The Lexington Avenue Subway
Yesterday I took the risk of buying a beautiful silver and gold ring with a large, dark red garnet. Just buying the ring set off my fears that I had transgressed and bad things would happen. For one thing, I had the audacity to pamper myself — especially when I have debts. For another, I let go of some control; I spent more than I should have, more than I’ve allotted for myself. So now, when the catastrophe comes — and it is, of course, imminent — I won’t have the money I’ll need, since I have just irresponsibly spent it on myself.
However, these feelings subsided enough so that I could buy the ring and suffer only a rapid pulse and a moderately tense stomach. And these were offset by my joy in having and looking at my beautiful ring, whose garnet glows darkly.
Today, though, I knocked it lightly against a hard surface and cracked the stone. As I always fear will happen, I’ve ruined what is most special to me. This makes me depressed, and a little panicked. I have the urge to call the jewelers to ask them to fix it, to make it, me, better.
The ring seems to be a symbol for my self. It is beautiful and regal, holy; then I ruin it, I fuck it up — just as I am fucked up. I can’t remain glowing and deep and mysterious; I must have a dark crack running through me, not immediately evident but apparent under light, as I allow myself to become known. I am worried that I will continue to batter the stone, and eventually ruin it, for it is too soft, too delicate.
I must learn from this. Actually, I rather like the dark line that the crack forms. It gives character and depth to the otherwise pretty but empty inner world of the garnet. Still I fear it will crumble. How do I become stable? How do I tolerate the instability of all things?
I guess I could have a harder stone put in, to replace the fragile, fractured one. But is this what I want? Maybe the garnet is just stable enough to tolerate the knocking I will inevitably give it, so eventually it will be filled with dark fissures and lines that light up under the sun in mysterious patterns, but which otherwise remain hidden in the crimson aura of the stone.
At the clinic where I work, we take care of poor people. They come in many varieties. A lot of them have nowhere to live, no jobs, no “place.” Many have bodies and souls beaten down by years of hopeless addiction to alcohol. Some are quite crazy; just relating to other human beings is so difficult for them that I am constantly amazed by their courage. Many are old, and somehow poorer and more alone than they expected. They live in tiny one-room city apartments with linoleum floors and formica tables and a bed, a quilt, a television, and endless cigarettes. We get pretty tired, sometimes, trying to care for so many with so little.
When John comes in, he always smiles warmly at each of us. He has a compliment for the receptionist’s new punk haircut, a heartfelt “Good to see you” for me, a quaint, silly joke for the doctor. He offers to hold doors for me, or for other patients, but not obtrusively. He is always on time, always understanding and relaxed if we are running late.
One day I said to him, “John, it is always such a pleasure when you come here. You’re so thoughtful.” He looked at me in his matter-of-fact way, and said, “I have no money to pay for my care here, and I never will. But I can give you the gift of consideration and good spirits, so that’s what I do.”
We never did figure out whether I was a spring or a summer. We definitely ruled out winter, since I look awful in black. I trusted Lynn’s judgement completely in this area. After all, she looked stunning during her entire four-day visit. Her props — hairdo, makeup, scarves, jewelry — were bold, colorful, becoming. She assured me she didn’t spend a lot of money on clothes; she was quite proud of her T.J. Maxx specials. I enjoyed looking at her and admiring all the details of her outfits.
As usual I was dressed for comfort, warmth, and activity — in the prescribed layers of cotton, wool, and down of nondescript color and design. I dressed for myself, smug in my choice to be sensible rather than chic.
And then we went shopping.
Lynn not only picked things up to admire — she paid in cash and took them with her, the way I used to. I had not spent money on myself in a year, since I had left my job. I felt the tension in my chest, the shallow breathing, the slight trembling inside. My addiction was kicking back in. I longed for violet ceramic earrings, a warm, bright red Minnesota sweat shirt, some silk long underwear. I used to have all the things that I assumed were necessities in life. At that time, I had the money to indulge my generosity with my family and friends — and to acquiesce to my own tireless wanting.
I struggled to regain control in the middle of the shopping mall. I reminded myself that what I have now is more valuable than all those lovely pastel baubles. I have time and quiet. I read, write, walk in the fields where I watch hawks and deer, and each evening share stories from the day with my husband. But the treasure is solitude. In the stillness I finally hear the whisper that must have always been, inviting, nudging, pulling me forward. I made too much noise to hear it when I was busy doing important things — working, talking, shopping, talking.
As I shopped with Lynn, the compulsion to buy was unsettling, disturbing. I had to talk myself down, like grounding myself while on a drug high. I shifted my attention to appreciating Lynn’s obvious enjoyment in these new surroundings. I shared in her pleasure at discovering special gifts for friends. I calmed myself.
I realized the fragility of my new values. It is easy, as Ram Dass says, to get high and remain holy on a mountaintop. It isn’t so easy in the middle of the mall during the height of the Christmas season. I was gentle, forgiving myself. This was, after all, a fairly rigorous test of my seedling lifestyle of material simplicity. For all the temptation, I really never broke down. I did wear a little mascara and lipstick every day. And the wood-smoked chicken salad with roasted walnuts was a good deal more expensive than my usual scone from the cafe — and worth it. But at least it never occurred to me to scrounge around for the Visa card.
I recognize a new longing. I want to touch the beauty of the iridescent ornaments, the rich paisley scarves, the Georgia O’Keefe red poppies with my eyes, my fingers, my skin — and feel full. I want to know that the pleasures of my heart are the most satisfying.
Maple Grove, Minnesota
When I was married to a young doctor, he was doing his internship and was paid nothing for that year. We lived with my family, and I was not aware of our poverty. Later, in New Mexico, I had my own adobe home on two acres, and I lived well on what was considered a poverty-level income. I felt “wealthy.” I ate delicious fresh food and had many fascinating friends (who were all good cooks). My clothes were not the latest fashions, but they never went out of style because they were simple and classical. I had a serviceable car and I was able to save enough to go to Mexico now and then.
One evening, in California, two multi-millionaires were discussing a big money deal, and a rather naive friend asked the richer of the two, “If you have three or four million, why do you want more?” The man looked at him with contempt and replied, “If you have three million, you want ten million.”
My Indian friend Isobel and I were kneading bread to bake in my outdoor oven made of adobe bricks and mud. While I laboriously shaped two loaves, she made fifteen or twenty. She worked so fast, her fingers seemed to blur. Then she made cookies, dozens of them, and pies. I was dazzled by her sureness and speed. As I was washing the pans, I said, “Isobel, how many loaves of bread did you make?” She stopped and narrowed her eyes, and they twinkled in amusement. Then she laughed and said, “Enough.”
I am reminded of her when I think of wealth. If you count it, it’s never enough.
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
I used to feel that money (or the lack of it) stood between me and virtually everything important: health (medical care, medicines, vitamins), mobility (transportation to people and places), creativity (time, tools, energy, zest), learning (workshops, courses, seminars), and so on. The embarrassment of my situation perpetuated itself in hundreds of ways, particularly socially. Potential new friends, for example, would suggest going to a movie or going out to eat. I would struggle with what to do. Should I explain that I couldn’t afford it (thereby putting an immediate burden on them)? Should I make up an excuse? (How many before they gave up?) Should I keep suggesting a walk in the park? The condition of poverty seemed to seep into every aspect of my life. I examined, reexamined, and overexamined what I was doing wrong, because obviously there was something the matter with me. What was I doing, thinking, feeling, eating, hiding, creating, perpetuating, that was causing such a lack in my life?
And then one day I became rich. My bank balance didn’t change, but it ceased its tyranny. I experienced one of those amazing moments that seem to change your life in an instant, but that takes a lifetime to get to. What happened was that I “simply” stopped looking at the world through the eyes of an abused and abandoned infant. I stopped seeing the world as a place of great danger and threat, in which the secrets were known and the power held by others, never by me. I stopped being someone who would always be threatened with loss and deprivation. Obviously the deep poverty — the inability to take care of myself, the victimization, the helplessness — was there from the very beginning. It was the way this drama of life started, not because I was a despicable or undeserving person — although that was (when feelings began to have names) the implicit feeling. As I grew up, the concepts, the illusions of wealth and poverty, of have and have-not, served to describe the play that had been originally set in motion. But at the magical instant, I saw that it was possible to change my part — not by denial, but rather by accepting all the drama that had gone before, and by realizing and saying, “I don’t have to do this anymore!” From that point on, I haven’t.
While it may look much the same from the outside, my reality, since then, has been absolutely different. The ramifications continue, and each day I discover another way my world has changed. What I have has become so apparent and precious to me now, that it is far more dominant than what I don’t have. Regardless of numbers, I now feel rich. Strangely, I even feel somewhat rich financially, although I have no more money. I think that must be because so much fear has gone from my life — the fact that today’s numbers are low does not overwhelm me with dread and fear for the future, or guilt in my present.
Renais Jeanne Hill
Joshua Tree, California