When you start looking at your money story you're supposed to look back on how your family spends and what they say about money. It turns out that's a hard thing to do. There's no baby book entitled "Our Family's Financial Outlook 1988" buried in a dusty box in the basement. My parents are divorced, and I don't think we've ever had an honest conversation about money or what things cost, together or apart, at least until very recently. When I was younger, I thought it would be too embarrassing to ask. I found out our household income when filing my first ever FAFSA in 2006, and I'm pretty sure we lied about the amount (Sorry, but also kind of not sorry, Government). Families are complicated, money is complicated, and putting the two together can end in disaster. But, these conversations are also important, and I think if I continue to be too scared to look back, I'll never have firm ground to stand on to look forward. Because sobriety has a way of shining a big ol' Bat Signal on the things you need to work on, and I have a hard time covering my shit back up once it's in the open. So here we go.
My grandfathers are somewhat of a mystery to me, one died when I was a toddler, the other when I was in elementary school. I know my maternal grandfather, a man with a lot of demons and addictions to match, liked to be the life of the party. He was the type to buy drinks for everyone at the bar. The most popular man of the hour, who never stopped the party so he'd never have to notice when he was alone. For someone who was abandoned as a baby, I can't imagine there was anything more terrifying to him than being alone. A part of me wouldn't blame him if he paid for friendship.
My paternal grandfather was a hardworking man who's love of history, art, and music ran through to me, though by the time I learned to appreciate it, he was gone. He believed in hard work and taking care of what you had. Ironed shirts, creased slacks, an organized and conventionally respectable home, and a washed car were the ways you showed the world the kind of person you are. It's how you showed you belonged. This is the way that immigrants and the descendants of immigrants in America have been operating for a long time, I think. By joining the anonymous and amorphous mass of the white middle class as quickly and quietly as possible. There is a tremendous amount of privilege that has come out of that, and it's likely the main reason I am writing about my money story on the internet instead of working a shift at my third job right now. There's irony in the fact that having the time and space to work on my privilege is privilege.
My grandmothers are so similar to each other it's uncanny. They're both warriors, who had to pick up a lot of financial slack as single women, though both came from a time when they were purported to need very little by way of financial education. Both women could sew you a whole outfit, long before they had a bank account under their own name. It's in their stories that I see how important financial literacy can be, how even with a steep learning curve, it's never too late to catch up if you're willing to just ask.
My maternal grandmother, who I call Mommo, left my grandfather with her two young children and worked in a café to support her family. This was in rural Finland in the 1960s, when one simply did not leave their husband, even if said husband verbally abused you and disappeared for weeks at a time. After they left, my mother remembers cereal being too expensive and how she'd have to start boiling potatoes when she got home from school every night so they would be ready for dinner when her mother got home. Home life was pinching, saving and making due. Later, when she re-married, to a lovely, kind man who owned a dairy farm, she brought those habits with her. Mommo saves things, can make you a meal or a birthday cake from next to nothing. She doesn't believe in throwing things away if they can be mended, cleaned or salvaged. She loves you by making you things…cinnamon rolls, Swedish waffles, a warm pair of socks. She's the reason I know that things can be made with a combination of work and time that adds up to real pure, true love.
My father's mother, Rosa, came from a well-off family in Portugal. She married my grandfather in an arranged marriage at 19 and came to America, not speaking English and pregnant with my father. She raised three boys, ran a household, and later started a cleaning business. She is the most resilient person I know. When my grandfather passed, she learned to handle her own finances, everything, herself in a language that isn't her first. She also saves things. The closets in my grandmother's house are a treasure trove of things she's been given and thinks someone might have a need for one day. Things are saved, just in case, and the joy of nice things is sharing them. All she wants is her family together, the things mean nothing to her, yet she keeps them. She would sneak money into the pockets of my jacket when I came home from college. I'd find it sometimes weeks later. Hers is a fierce love, a protective love, a love that always worries about you, just in case.
My mother left home early. She knows how to work hard and how to make ends meet. She's the kind of person who will always make sure she can cover herself so she will never have to ask. The kind who would hide money under the floorboards if she could. She is the hardest working person I know, she does as much as possible herself. If she buys something, she maintains it, and she weighs the decision carefully first. If she does bring in someone to do work on her home, she is right there next to them, working alongside them the whole time. She lives carefully so that she can splurge when she wants to. She doesn't waste. I grew up with my mother placing a plate over bowls of leftovers, and not knowing that plastic wrap existed. But I don't remember her ever talking about money. Never. We talk about it now, a little, both of us getting a little braver, like plants reaching for the sunlight, slowly unfurling. From my mother I learned self-reliance, the superfluous nature of waste, and how to think outside the box. But I also learned to keep my chin up and hide what's going on, and that not asking for help can keep you in the dark.
My father started his business at the start of my parent's marriage. He is meticulous and I'm pretty sure a mechanical genius and has always found a way to do well. He's well-liked, a natural leader, and I think he likes that part of himself. He likes nice things and experiences and believes that if you work hard for your money and can afford them, that you deserve them. Like his parents, he is careful with maintaining his things. The look of disappointment he'd throw me when I forgot to get an oil change was withering. From him, I learned to pay attention, to spend money ahead of time, to avoid a larger cost later. He also is deeply affected by feelings of being poor as a kid, though they were always provided for. I remember him telling me that he couldn't afford blue jeans when the other kids in school had them. When I was a kid this seemed like another eye-rolly back-in-my-day story, but now I can see that a lot of his drive comes from not wanting to be that kid, and later, not wanting me to be that kid. I think so much of our lives are shaped by what happens to us in school hallways. My father is a grabber of checks at restaurants, never feeling we needed to know what things cost because he had made it his job to take care of them, to take care of us. I don't remember us ever talking about money, because like my mother, I think he found the topic a little embarrassing. Maybe they thought that if we never talked about it, it was never an issue.
I was an only child until I got three step-siblings in my early twenties. Growing up an only child is a lesson in loneliness and imagination. You invent your friends and you invent your life, and there is no one to tell you any different. When you're old enough to start building a life, merging those dreams with reality can feel impossible. And because you are the only small person in your universe, adults talk to you. And because you have no one else to observe, you start to notice the ways that adults navigate the world, start to see the little lies we all tell as we try to keep from offending, from upsetting, from being vulnerable. You learn about lies of omission. I have spent so much time trying to trace back the choices of my life, and of course there is the booze and the money and the shame. But mostly, I think, I can trace everything back to the lying and the avoidance. To the part of me that believed for such a long time that the truth wasn't enough. That I wasn't. I could never seem to get myself out of the pit with lying about money. It seemed like the easiest way to hide my shame, to keep the outside shiny while the insides continued to rot.
I don't know who I thought I was protecting by lying, maybe just my pride. I am someone who is good at keeping things outwardly together. Someone who agonizes over gifts and meals for loved ones because I want them to feel the love I feel. Someone who sometimes spends just to feel better. I am someone who will won't ask for help until it's far past time. Who keeps things, just in case, and wants to take care of those she loves. Someone who is still sometimes very scared to be alone. I am an amalgamation of so many of the wonderful and complicated traits of those who've come before me. In so much of myself, I see them, and I honor that. We're all doing the best we can, I think, always.
But I find myself wondering what would have been different, easier, for all of us if we had talked about the realities of money…the worries and the hopes and the disappointments, instead of hoping our silences on the issue proved that everything was fine. We hide worlds in our silences. But the things we think are bad, the things we think that no one else feels? They're the most human things about us, the most unifying really.