I’m not the only one who has been rich and poor and then ended up somewhere in the middle. So my perspective is not radically unique, but I think it still bears sharing.
First of all, I was never so rich that I could have my own plane, and never so poor that we didn’t have enough to eat.
There are a million nuances in between the extremes, but for an example, at 13 when all my girlfriends were going to camp for the summer, I was lying about my age and working at the un-air-conditioned motor vehicle department, transcribing people’s driving records with very sharp pencils into tiny squares of graph paper.
When my friends talked about how much they looked forward to throwing pots in their pottery class, my only equivalent was looking forward to the food cart at 10:30 and 2:30, so I could take my 15-minute break and get an apricot Danish.
Nobody talked about poverty. I don’t think the word was used until Lyndon Johnson declared a war on it. But I knew we were poor, and not because I looked around and compared my life with everyone else. I knew there were dirt-poor people and I wasn’t one of them, but I was pretty sure I was only one rung up.
My parents argued about money all the time. Honey, we can’t afford to get those pink dotted swiss curtains for you and your sister’s room because we just can’t afford it. You’ll have to do with those shoes one more year, sweetheart because we just can’t afford new ones. I wish we could afford to give you flute lessons but …
When I was dating my husband, I asked him whether he grew up rich or poor or in the middle somewhere, and he said pretty much in the middle but closer to rich, and I couldn’t say fast enough, “Oh, we were really poor.” Come to find out we grew up in the exact same economic strata. But his parents’ message was one of abundance and gratitude, and mine was lack and envy.
On Sundays, my parents’ one day off, we would take a drive to the wealthy neighborhoods in the nearby suburbs and my father would slow down and we would look out the windows at the “nice” houses. I chose one and put a make-believe friend inside. Her name was Fairlene, and I spent most of my fantasy in her big living room while her mother served us hot cocoa with both whipped cream and marshmallows on top.
Somewhere in those early years, I became a mini entrepreneur. I remember setting up a lemonade stand on our corner where the bus stopped. My first day of business, I climbed onto the bus and handed the driver a free sample. How in the world did I know to say, “If you let your passengers place orders, I will give you a free one every day. I’ll have them all poured and ready, so it’ll take less than a minute for the whole transaction.” I think I even used the word transaction. I was 11. My father used to joke, if you need to borrow any money, ask Nance, she’s loaded.
The inspiration for my writing this piece was my saucepan. Washing it the other morning after the hundredth time I had burnt it, I realized how easy it was to get it back to perfection. That only happens with a really expensive pot. The pots I grew up with had bumps you had to use a hammer to straighten out, burned parts that you had to scrub and scour that never got totally char-free, and handles that had weakened and fallen off.
It made me think of all the things I would never have experienced if we hadn’t gotten rich.
My parents were always working, and there wasn’t a lot of leisure time. Besides taking those rides through fancy streets, my mother and millions of other mothers had to do the wash and the ironing and then shop for the week’s groceries and then clean the house and then feed their families and then God knows what. But they weren’t having their hair done and ordering cashmere socks on Amazon. So their days off were just another job at a different location.
I have the luxury of time. It’s not claimed by outside forces.
Like sheets. Until I had money, I never knew sheets could feel so soft and silky. That you could slide into bed. When I was a kid, I slept on a couch that opened up into a twin bed that had a metal seam down the middle. No sliding.
Like a car that doesn’t break down.
Like a new car with that smell of new leather and a sound system that makes you feel as if you’re in a concert hall.
Like shrimp cocktail. Shrimp must have been expensive, or we would have had it more than on our birthdays.
Like warm clothes. I remember being cold from November to May. The house was cold, my feet were cold, and my coats weren’t made of any fabric that could fight the freezing temperatures of Connecticut winters. Now I have down everything. If I could insulate my whole house, walls and floors, ceilings and doors, with Canadian goose down, I’d do it in a New York minute.
The list could be longer, but the point has been made.
So I started the story by telling you I had been both rich and poor, and now today we are somewhere in that elusive middle. The rich part lasted about 12 years, and I loved every second of it. We had IRAs and savings and two houses and a Mercedes and trips to Italy and Israel and England. I could buy hardback books. We could take friends out to dinner. I didn’t have to work. We stayed at hotels and had room service. I was Eloise for those 12 years. Then our business went bust, and I was back to scrimping and saving. Because I knew how to be poor, it was almost easy. We sold the big house, and moved here to the Vineyard year-round.
When we started climbing out of the financial hole, our new life was quieter. Our cabin was cozier. Our time was more precious. My values got tested, and they passed with flying colors.
I could have shrimp whenever I wanted, a car which I found out was only supposed to get you from point A to point B, so old with a few dents was not only fine but a true Vineyard car. I didn’t need the smell of new leather; I could Scotch tape the tiny escape routes of my old down jacket so no feathers would fly out. Fairlene got replaced by actual friends.
I fell so in love with my little shack that my old envy melted into the woodwork.
And the best part is the gratitude my husband grew up with rubbed off on me. And now when I drive up Middle Road in Chilmark, I turn off the music, the news, and any sound, and I feel bliss coming on. I ask the gods, How did this happen?
I had thought we lost everything, but now I know that moving here with nothing, we actually found everything.