Wednesday, June 25, 2008


In Which We Are Poor in Taste, but Rich in Something Else...

I hate talking about money. It's in poor taste and is nobody's business anyway, or so my parents always taught me. To their mind, money talk usually led you in one of only two directions--bragging because you thought you had a lot, or whining because you thought you didn't have enough. I'm not sure which was a worse offense in their minds.

And yet, money is one of the great driving forces of life, much as we might wish it wasn't, and it's been much on my mind lately, so I'm hoping my parents (and you, dear reader) will forgive me for being in poor taste today (something which has never stopped me before, of course, so why should it slow me down now?).

I never knew how much money my parents had or made, not the entire time I was growing up and even after their deaths, when it became my job to sort through their finances, it was still a bit of a mystery to me. My parents had had money in a lot of different banks over the years and dabbled in a variety of investments (almost none of them successful) and they never threw out a single statement, so it was hard to wade through 10 boxes of paperwork, trying to figure out what was still active and what wasn't. But based on what I did know about my parents and money, I was pretty sure most of the accounts I was looking at would turn out to be empty.

I would never call myself poor growing up--my brother and I never lacked for anything we really needed. There was always plenty to eat, a full pantry. We never lacked for proper clothing--new school shoes, warm winter jackets, and the like. We never went without.

And yet, I was always painfully aware how tight money was. My Dad worked in construction, as I've mentioned, and throughout the 1970s, he was forever being laid-off and looking for work at a new construction site, often away from home. And when he did get a job, he always worked the night shifts, the shutdowns, the jobs that paid as much money as he could make in the time that he had on the clock. In this manner, he was able to squirrel away funds for the slack times, when he would be laid off. He always signed up for unemployment when he was out of work--my Dad was not a ridiculously proud man about such things; he was a realist. Unemployment benefits were something he paid into, was entitled to, so he got it whenever he was eligible for it. But it was seldom enough and so he needed to rely on what savings he could set aside when he was working.

If you were to chart our financial course through life, it would be pretty rollercoasterish. When Dad was working and had a steady paycheck, we'd be riding high, and everyone was notably relieved. We never splurged, but we reveled in being flush, in having money in the bank. When Dad was between jobs, we'd hold our breaths a little as we began the long plunge to the bottom of the ride. Dad and Mom would stretch and stretch our money til the bitter end. Often, the last month or so before he'd start a new job, things felt pretty bleak. Even though all our basic necessities were met, there was no room for error, for unanticipated expenses. When I was 6 or 7, our family car was a battered 1970 Volkswagen Beetle. One winter, mom was driving us to a friend's house, hit a patch of ice and sent us spinning into a stone wall on the edge of the road. The car had no seatbelts and I hit the back of the driver's seat with my face, biting almost through my lip. It hurt, but the familial worries over money had filtered down to me so thoroughly that I remember being more worried about the car than about my lip and the blood running freely down the sides of my mouth. My Mom, I must say, felt exactly opposite, not even glancing at the car until she was sure I hadn't bitten off my tongue and had stuffed my mouth full of napkins from McDonald's (we always had a large supply of restaurant napkins in our house and cars. It saved the expense of tissues and paper towels). The car was in serious need of front-end realignment, and it was weeks before my parents could pay for the repairs and get the car out of the garage. That was the winter I remember walking everywhere, and hitching rides off virtually all of our neighbors. The repairs only amounted to about $150, but that was almost a month's worth of groceries for my family, and it hit us hard.

And as I learned later, my parents had other expenses to take care of. They had a mortgage on the house, of course, and they still owed money on one car. In order to save on rent wherever he worked, my Dad had bought an Open Road camper that he put on the back of his pick-up. He bought it from a friend for something like $500, a serious expense at the time. But the friend didn't charge interest--he was a "pay me when you can" kind of guy. My Dad was religious about paying him something every month, but it wasn't much--only 20 or 25 bucks at a time. That camper lasted a good 10 years and more than paid for itself, but until Dad paid it off, it was one more bite out of the paycheck.

A more serious expense, though I didn't know it at the time, was my Dad's education. He had gone to a 2-year associate's program in welding engineering at the New Hampshire Vocational Technical College in Manchester, back in 1962 or 63. Despite the expense it represented, my Dad was a big believer in the value of a college education, although I'm not quite sure where this belief came from. His own father had dropped out of school after the 8th grade and spent every day of his life working thereafter. When my Dad, as a high-school junior, had announced his wish to go to college, my grandfather--my grandmother too--told him in no uncertain terms that he would be wasting his time on "foolishness," and even if they could help him (my grandparents had no money to speak of either), they wouldn't. In the end, my Dad had to move out, renting a tiny apartment in Manchester with 5 other guys. He got two jobs--a janitorial position at the college, which he was able to work between classes (I will leave the reader to imagine the indignity he must have suffered pushing a mop and bucket around the hallways as people he'd shared a classroom with only minutes before watched him pass by); and a dishwashing job at an all-night diner, which paid almost nothing, but had the perk of allowing him free supper and whatever food he was supposed to pitch because it had gone stale or was more than a day old, but which instead he kept in a Styrofoam cooler by the back door and took home.

Aside from his living expenses, my Dad took out at least two student loans to help defray his tuition. Some years later, when my brother and I were still little, Dad took some summer courses at Purdue out in Indiana. The courses were focused on topics and training that would position him to work in the nuclear power industry (in particular on the massive cooling systems needed to keep nuclear power plants safely operating), which, whatever the controversy surrounding nuclear energy, presented a great career opportunity for my Dad. But the courses weren't cheap and to take the courses Dad had to take a month or six weeks off work to complete them. I'm pretty sure he took another student loan of some kind to pay for them. My Dad spent most of his adult life paying off his student loans--it was the one debt I remember him talking most about--but he never regretted it. In fact, when it was my turn to go to college, he was the first one to suggest I apply for a guaranteed student loan, perhaps not realizing that I would end up accruing more than 30 grand in the damn things before my academic career was over.

As I said, Dad was a big believer in college, still a rare thing among his peers. I overheard him talking to a colleague about it at a company barbecue once, and the friend summed up the position of most people my Dad knew and worked with. "Hey, if my kid wants to go to college, that's great, but he's gonna have to find a way to pay for it himself. Scholarships, loans, whatever. If he can't get a scholarship, I guess maybe he's not smart enough to go. In which case, he better hunker down and get a job, even if that means taking 6 or 8 years to get his degree. If he wants it bad enough, he's gotta work for it."

My Dad had a different philosophy, which I remember him sharing with us long about the time my Big Brother was getting ready to take the SATs for the first time, which means I would have been a freshman in high school, or thereabouts.

"Here's the deal," he said to my brother, although he gave me enough eye contact to make it clear that the same deal applied to me. "You apply to wherever it is you want to go. If you're smart enough to get accepted, then by God I'll be smart enough to figure out how to pay your way. I expect you to do your part--apply for scholarships or grants or whatever, and you take advantage of whatever student loans you can get--but beyond that, you let your mother and me worry about it."

The more I think about it, the more I realize what a remarkable commitment that was. Especially for my brother and me, who were (and sadly remain) not exactly geniuses. BB got into Johnson and Wales in Providence, thinking he'd like to be a chef (he turned out to be wrong, but by the time he was willing to admit he hated cooking as a career, he'd already spent four years trying to earn a two-year degree. It hadn't occurred to him that the reason he kept failing--and having to retake--certain courses was because he didn't like the work, not because he was incapable of doing it). My brother got student loans--which I'm sad to say he is still paying off--but no scholarships. Luckily for him, his tenure at college came mostly during a time when my Dad had been working steadily for almost four years, at a nuclear plant in the Pacific Northwest, where he was a foreman. I never knew how much money he made, but it was obviously the most he'd ever made in his life, as it was the only time I can remember that my parents did anything remotely resembling a splurge: they remodeled the kitchen for one thing, buying all-new appliances (a thing unheard of for my parents, who were forever buying second-hand). They paid off the cars, and they not only pre-paid my brother's tuition for two years, but also bought him a used car and gave him ample spending money.

But I guess they should have been saving that money a bit more, because by the time I was ready to go to college, my Dad had hit bottom as a drunk and had spent most of my senior year of high school either in jail or in rehab. What money my parents had squirreled away went pretty quickly towards household bills, and also my father's assorted medical bills, which were largely uncovered by his insurance.

I, meanwhile, had been accepted to my school of choice, a modest-size private university in New York, then very highly regarded for its arts-and-sciences and communications schools. A four-year education at this school cost somewhere around $65,000--not quite twice what my brother's tuition at J&W cost. My student loans covered half of that cost, and I managed to make up another $14,000 in scholarships, two of them essay contests that I won using my only talent--my ability to write unmitigated bullshit. I worked several jobs at college to cover my living expenses, but in the final tally, that still left a little over $20,000--five grand a year--that my parents insisted on paying. Til their dying day, my parents always made a big deal about how hard I'd worked to defray my own college expenses, leaving them with comparatively little to cover, but these things are relative. Five thousand dollars was a lot of money, and at a time when my family could least afford to spend it. I found out later that my Dad went into deep personal debt--a high-school pal was president of the local bank where he lived in New Hampshire, and extended Dad a loan when no one else would. Dad made other painful sacrifices as well, selling off beloved antique firearms, parting with a significant portion of his boyhood coin collection, and other things I'll probably never know about.

I carried a lot of guilt about this for years, but once I had kids of my own and started to think about setting aside money for their schooling (it's never too soon to start!), I began to see that my Dad's commitment to his kids' education was as much for him as it was for us. It was a personal accomplishment that he took a great deal of pride in, not simply because he worked his ass off to support us, but because he'd instilled an ideal in us, furthered his family in a way that no previous generation had.

In one of his last visits to my house, he overheard me talking to Thomas one morning at breakfast. My son, then about 8 years old, had wanted to know what college was. I gave him the Reader's Digest version, and my son had extracted from it what most 8-year-olds would--abject horror at the idea that, after 12 years of public schooling, he would then have to leave home and study another two to four years to earn a degree.

"I don't want to do that," he said, very seriously. "I want to stay home with you and Mom."

"Well, sir, you can do that too. Just look at your uncle BB!" Dad chimed in.

We had a little laugh about that, but then I told Thomas, "Listen, you've got a long time before you have to think about it. But trust me: when you get older, you're going to feel differently about this. Just think: you could go to school to study art, or to learn how to design computer programs or video games. Or you could become a man who digs up dinosaur bones for a living. You can do anything you want. All I'm saying is, when you're ready, I'm going to make sure you get to go wherever it is you want."

My Dad was silent then, and could only look at me, his eyes shining. It was the first time he'd heard what was clearly a deeply held belief articulated by one of his own children, and I know it gave him immense satisfaction.

What I didn't know was that the old man kind of cheated on me. Which brings me to why I'm even writing about this.

After a year of wading through papers and writing to assorted banks and financial institutions, and dealing with the attorney hired to handle my parents' estate, I've just confirmed something I had begun to suspect months ago. Which is that my parents were a lot smarter or luckier (or both) with their money in their later years than they were when I was growing up.

Because it turns out they set aside something for each of their grandchildren, even the baby they never got to meet. It's a bit Byzantine how it's set up--all in their names, in such a way that I can't touch it (neither can they, til they're old enough). Perhaps my Dad feared that one day my own financial straits would become as desperate as his once were, and he wanted to spare me the temptation. Or maybe he just worried that BB would hit me up for a loan. But that's all incidental. Nothing changes the essence of this moment.

Which is that, essentially, my children's college educations are paid for.

I was strangely upset and disturbed by this realization yesterday. Because, after all, that was supposed to be my job, my commitment to my kids. My Dad should have been spending that money, enjoying it, using it to see to his and my Mom's happiness.

Except, of course, I realize now that that's exactly what he was doing.

I hate talking about money. It's in poor taste and is nobody's business anyway, or so my parents always taught me.

But, as you must surely understand by now, this has nothing to do with money at all.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I've been lurking here ever since L'il Gator mentioned your blog. This post, moreso than any other post about your parents, left me with tears streaming down my face.
I can't believe we're still missing your parents! What an incredible gift to you and your children.
You are an amazing writer. I have been popping in since I saw a link for it on Strep and dogs. I laughed so hard that night that I was compelled to read more and now I'm addicted to your crazy life and style of writing. You have a way of going nowhere but then actually getting somewhere. The moment I wonder what you are getting at, it comes and I am blanketed by emotion (not every time). This post left tears in my eyes...and a slight bit of jealousy having 15K of student loans to pay off myself. I guess now I have hope that my parents are currently doing that for my's a longshot but worth the hopes.
As I sat here crying and thinking about how much I adore your mom and dad for the bazillionth time, a coworker walked in and saw me being all weepy. "Oh Geez," she sighed, "you've been reading that magazine guy again." You and your kids (and BB & HLS too, of course) are so lucky to have had your folks in your life.
As a college student who cannot afford to go back to school for the foreseeable future, I got a shiver down my spine when I read that your beautiful children are blessed enough to have their tuitions paid for.

And then I promptly started crying. Because I too know the sacrifice in a father's drive for a child's education. My dad has not lived with me for many years. He has instead, lived around the country, in places he hated, away from my mother. So we could keep our house. So I could finish high school where all my friends were. So I could, once I graduated, not have to move across the country to a foreign place to start my college career. So I would have a place to live, rent-free, while I went to school. So I could afford books. And groceries. And gas. And a hundred other things.

I'm sure that I have no idea what many of his sacrifices are. All I know is that I take them for granted. Thank you, MM, for smacking me upside the head and making me realize that my dad really does love me. His actions tell me everything.
The love your parents had for you and their grandchildren continues to give in the most unexpected and delightful ways. Bless them both!
This is such a beautiful story but coming from you, is really no surprise in that context. You're so right -it's not about the money. But it sure is about the tenets your parents held near and dear -as do you and your wife -about the value of education and ultimately, it is about pride and love -of the finest variety.
This is such a beautiful story but coming from you, is really no surprise in that context. You're so right -it's not about the money. But it sure is about the tenets your parents held near and dear -as do you and your wife -about the value of education and ultimately, it is about pride and love -of the finest variety
Your Dad is such a complicated figure. But I think everything you ever write about him confirms the solid image in my mind of the vacation pic from a couple years ago of him winking at the camera with his white Abe Lincoln beard :)

And one word of warning, your kids could be in great danger of being spoiled and if I were you, I would be hell-bent on teaching them a work ethic. In fact, I would probably never even let them know their education was paid for until I absolutely had to. Take it from someone who had everything given to him and still can't find the means or muster the energy to make his life worth anything.
That's great, MM! There's always other stuff you can help your kids with financially down the line, like down payments on cars or houses. I realize that's not the point... I'm sure your parents were very proud of that accomplishment.
My grandparents did the same for me and my brother and sister. It is an amazing blessing! I'm sure they all will put it to good use, even if the idea of "extra" school once the compulsory stuff is over seems unpalatable right now. My own kids have a hard time believing that some day they will want to move out (at least I hope they will!).
This is another beautiful post. I didn't realize until very recently what my parents gave up so that my brothers and I would be provided for. Thanks for sharing your family with us.
My grandmother died when I was young. On my sixteenth birthday, among the other packages was a present wrapped in kraft paper--the way my grandmother wrapped all her gifts. My dad said that one was from her. It was a box of her jewelry. Receiving a gift from her after so long helped me to remember that, even though I couldn't send her report cards or photos, she had nevertheless watched me grow up.

Thanks for the post.
I love your parents.
My parents didn't believe in talking about money either and I found out some charitable acts they did anonymously through the years that I'm proud of, but they would never talk about.
Actions do speak louder than words...
hey, this works out great. Since you're still, I hope, in college-fund-saving mode, you can pay for my kid to go to college.

you're a sweet guy, MM. Have I told you that?

But seriously, this is a wonderful thing.
Have I said lately how much I love your Mom and Dad. They'd have gotten along great with my grandparents, who saved their whole lives, lived modestly, and set up a trust fund to help pay for their grandkids kids to go to college.

Yup, I love your Mom and Dad.

When Thomas graduates from college, you just know his grandparents are going to have front row seats. :)

Hugs to the MM family.
What a remarkable man you father is.
You have been truly blessed to have such a man in your life - in the good times and bad.
You are right. It's not about the money; it never really was.

Someday, you'll do something similar for your grandchildren, and then you'll experience the joy, and the peace of mind that your parents had when they set up those three accounts.

And the circle will be unbroken.
What a lovely post, like seemingly everyone else it brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.

My parents have always said our education is the most valuable inheritence they can give us.
After my divorce, I was a single mom who lived at home with her parents for a few years. I paid them rent. What I didn't know until years later, was that they put every penny of that rent into an investment account for my son's college education.

I found out later when they sold some investment that had to have taxes paid on the profit. Nice surprise.
That is amazing. What a special gift.
I'm glad you have such a talent for telling these stories. And that you were blessed with such extraordinary characters in your life. You are a lucky man, but I think you know that.
That story just makes us love 'em more! What a sweet thing to do. And they'd have probably waited until the last minute to let their devious plan be known.
Nothing like starting your morning off in tears.

Wow MM, that's amazing. What a great gift to your kids from their grandma and grandpa. Something they will remember and be with them forever. Its a gift that is truly priceless.

I was lucky enough that my parents paid for my college tuition, fortunately it was a state school so much more manageable then private tuition today. But that didn't stop me from working part time jobs throughout my entire college and using that $ to pay for my car, housing, groceries, etc. My parents chipped in to help with the basics until I made more $ but it instilled a great work ethic and I never took anything for granted. I just know today that I'm super lucky to have started my career debt free. By your attitude and writing I suspect your kids will be the same, I'm sure they will have the same work ethic and appreciation for what they have in life as you do. I can only hope my kid does the same as well.
That's incredible...

I start college next year. My sister's dad had started a college fund for her, but no such luck for me. I've already started applying for scholarships just to get into the nothing little art school here in Las Vegas for Game Art and Design...

But what your folks did, wow...
I'm crying right now M. That's amazing and wonderful and so perfect...

Love you all,
Have I ever mentioned how much I love your parents?

What a wonderful gift, MM !
1 - I'm glad to hear that you hired a lawyer. As you know, I went the "Hell, I can do this myself" route, and it certainly was Hell.

2 - I got misty reading about this, so I can only imagine how you felt.

3 - Every time I think you've written as well as is possible, you up the ante. You never fail to live up to the billing I give you over at my place. Just superbly well done, MM.
Hi everyone.
Thanks for this information.
Student Loan+Girl in Asia
what a moving post. You parents remind me so much of my own parents.
Of course I must throw in my two cents. I'm sure you'd be disappointed if I didn't ;)

There are so many parallels in our lives MM, this being another. I've been here since the beginning and feel you've allowed us to truly know your parents. That gives me confidence in saying:

It's not a gift, it's your Father's LEGACY. What he couldn't do for you, he made damn sure he did for his Grandkids - By Gorry! It was as much his gift to you, as to them.

He was making his amends the best way he knew how - through his actions. Although, I'm sure he probably had some more quotable gems he would have passed along when Thomas entered College. I'd imagine something stoic, minimizing the ginormousness of his contribution.
Beautiful. Just beautiful.
how lucky Thomas, the Brownie and the Eclaire are!

my own grandfather, my mother's father, gave each of us grandchildren (16 of us) a very significant sum before he died - we were adults and he wantd to get around the inheritance tax issues

with that I was able to pay off my own student loan and then some

my father was very proud that he was the one son-in-law NOT to take money from my grandfather but he was equally pleased that his own children could benefit from my grandfather's hard-earned wealth

and you're right, money is a funny thing to talk about but what a wonderful thing for your parents to have done
Wow, how loving! And I can only imagine how pleased your parents were to watch those accounts grow. My in-laws have started CD's for each of my girls. They collect change and deposit the money in them periodically. These are not large amounts of money, but they constantly give my husband and me updates, because they're thinking of the girls all the time. And this is one of the ways they see that they can help them. I am more grateful to them for the constant and regular thoughtfulness that this involves than I am for the financial help. It's just special. Like your parents.
wow. that surely wasn't where I thought you'd end up with this one. you knocked me over with a feather. a delightful feather. those folks did love you lots, didn't they. thanks as always for sharing things that you're "not supposed to talk about."
What a beautiful thing they did for Thomas, Brownie, and Eclair!!!
Truly wonderful.
Long-time lurker. Truly enjoy your blog.

My parents are self-made. They came from nothing and worked their asses off, putting aside money for my and my brother's educations along the way. I understood that but it didn't hit home how damn lucky I was until one of my high school classmates had to choose between two schools, Wash. U. in St. Louis and Princeton, and had to chose not based on where he wanted to go, but on which school could give him a larger stipend. Education is critically important and your parents understood that. Even if Thomas, the Brownie and the Eclair decide that college isn't what they want, that money can give them options in life.

What a great story, and well-told, as always!
WOW! Indeed not a post about money at all! What wonderful parents you had. I could tell this from all your previous posts but by golly if this doesn't prove that! What a great gift for the children and for you and HLS.
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