August 24 2016
Family/Living in Brooklyn/Sanity

What We’ve Lost as We’ve Gotten Richer

growing up poor, living richlyI have always been struck by how my grandparents, aunts and uncles on both my mother’s and my father’s side said the same unbelievable phrase to me: “We didn’t know we were poor!”  I have marveled at this my whole life.  How can these people who came from families of eight children, squeezed into tiny apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn not know they were poor?

As I have gotten older, I think about it even more.  Especially as I chat over coffee with my 98 year old aunt.  Her mother, my great grandmother, came to this country from Italy alone at the age of 16.  She raised eight children, who remained devoted to her all their lives. By all accounts, she was a saint among women.

growing up poor, italian americans
My great grandparents, Angelina and Santo on their wedding day

That’s not to say that she didn’t famously tie my uncle to the bath tub from time to time in a fit of motherly stress.  I mean, if I had four times the number of children I have now, I would definitely be tying someone to something in order to keep them all alive at once.

As they grew, her children did whatever they could to help her.  Some worked, some cooked, some cleaned.  It was not an easy life.  They knew the pain of losing one of their own in the war.

Italian Americas
My dad’s Grandma Angelina with my mom on their wedding day

And yet.  The stories I hear about their life growing up are uproarious and magical.  What they remember is having massive amounts of fun.  Their sisters, brothers, cousins, next-door neighbors.  Family.  It is an Italian American cliche.  But it truly was their secret super power.

They celebrated every holiday together. Shared every Sunday dinner, squeezing into tiny kitchens, eating and laughing and having a grand, glorious time.  I have seen so many hysterical pictures of them… grown ladies sitting and smoking cigarettes in playpens, men wearing baby bonnets, and all manner of clearly drunk individuals doing the kinds of things that drunk individuals have done while hysterically laughing since the beginning of time.

italian americans, 1950's new yorkitalian americans 1950's new yorkitalian americans, 1950's new yorkitalian americans 1950's new york

There is no denying it – when I look at pictures of them – they certainly didn’t look poor.

I have so much more than they had, yet have spent years convincing myself that I need even more.  My Aunt Connie laughs when I complain to her my apartment is too small.  “We were eight kids in a three room apartment!” she yells at me.  And I think about it, really think about what that must have been like.  And how she can look back on it so fondly.

Happy Children

At the end of the day, she had a happy childhood.  That’s it – right there.  She is proof that once your basic needs are met, money has little to do with the equation.  She had a strong mother who held her family together and inspired devotion.  Her father was tough, but she had a deep bench of family members to make up for any stress he may have injected into the family dynamic.  She had built-in playmates and best friends for life.

We live in a world of TMI, where not only are we burdened by other random people’s trivial musings, but we are influenced to believe that if we are not doing and buying all the things that other people are doing and buying, we are missing out on life.

This my aunt did not have to contend with.  Her mother was not running around from little league to dance class to camp, fretting about whether her kids were getting every possible advantage.  Yet they were happy and they grew to become good people.  They all eventually made their way out of Brooklyn and Manhattan.  They bought little houses and their children were better off than they had been.  And their children’s children… they don’t know that they are rich.

I may be an old soul, but I don’t want to live in a three room tenement.   I believe in social progress.  I wouldn’t want to be living in the 40’s, 50’s or any other decade.  I spend time with my children that my grandmother would have spent ironing.  I have no intention of ironing anything, ever. Or manufacturing an extra half dozen children.  I can barely handle the dog.

The “Experience” Traps

But I do mourn that something important, something quite joyful, has been lost in our consumer-driven times.  We are embroiled in chasing the things we’re supposed to want, then working ourselves to death to pay for them.  Even experiences.  We all accept the gospel that “experiences” are better than “stuff.”  But you could spend a third world country’s GDP on experiences.  When your kids are small, all they want is your time.  Whether it’s sitting next to them at an amusement park, or on their bedroom floor.  That beautiful sentiment has a brief shelf life.  Childhood is short.

Stress Comes in Many Packages

This year, my husband and I decided to forgo a big vacation to save money.  All we did for two months was bum around and visit family.  It was fantastic.  The bonds that were strengthened while my kids spent time with their grandparents and cousins are priceless.  And without the creation of endless “vacation to-do lists,” it was the most relaxing summer I can recall.  Vacation stress is an actual thing, as absurd as that is.  The planning, the choosing, the preparations, the spending.  I’m not saying don’t go on vacation!  But taking a break this year was just what our family needed to keep ourselves in a stress free zone.

Stripping Away, Instead of Piling On

I know a lot of us want this.  But it is hard to figure out how to reclaim your time in the context of the outlandish expectations and demands we are so conditioned to.  There’s no easy way.  You have to 1. decide, then 2. mentally commit yourself and then 3. say no.   Start with one thing.  It felt wrong to suggest not taking a vacation.  I was sheepish about it.  But it was right.  And it emboldened me to question other things.

I remember feeling the deep desire for my parents to be happy when I was a kid.  I was very aware when they fought or were stressed about money.  A happy house is all any child wants.  They are so sensitive to our stress.  I see how every add-on, even those that fall under the *Leisure* column, can impart stress.

A happy, laughter-filled home with a large supporting cast… this is the most lavish, decadent, extravagant gift that can be given to a child. And it’s free.

I finally understand why my aunts, uncles and grandparents did not know that they were poor.

 

 

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  • WOW! I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we frantically try to pay off debt this year. I’ve spent time chasing money in an effort to get free from debt. And free from chasing money! I’d love to just be able to relax and have real fun. I love your sentiments here.

    • I can’t blame people for seeking out better lives for their families. Often that means moving someplace else. But people can still create incredibly strong bonds within their communities. That’s where I think there is a lot of upside – being a little more outward looking, a little less isolated within the walls of our own houses.

  • Once again, Linda , this is an incredible post. I absolutely love the pictures of your family having fun!

    Valuing the time we have is so important, time with loved ones and time having fun (which doesn’t have to cost a ton of money). My husband and I spent an evening last weekend with some friends and had an amazing time, laughing and telling stories. I realized we hadn’t done anything like that in a long, long while because…well, we had too many things to do!? Ugh. I want more of that!

    • I want more too! Honestly, I barely see my own sisters nowadays. When I was a kid, I had my grandparents downstairs, cousins next door to me on both sides, more around the corner and more 5 minutes away. It was so easy to be together. We have to make a much bigger effort to see family now. I do miss those days.

    • Thank you so much for checking out the site and for commenting, Meena. It took my husband and I a long time to get rid of our credit card debt and we had to do some painful things to get there. For the first time in my adult life, I will not buy anything on credit. It is amazing how transformed everything is as a result. Those days where we were so stressed about money, worrying if we would make it to our next paycheck vanished with our use of a credit card. I am so sorry I did not get that squared away earlier in life…

      -Linda

  • We must never lose site of the big picture, money will never buy happiness. I hear a lot of people say if I had this or I had that I would be happy I tell them nope you might be happy for a bit but it won’t bring you happiness if you are not happy now.

  • “A happy, laughter-filled home with a large supporting cast… this is the most lavish, decadent, extravagant gift that can be given to a child. And it’s free.” I love this post Linda, and to me that sentence sums it up perfectly!

    1. […] have written before about how my about-to-turn-99 (!) year-old aunt always talks about how she didn’t know she was poor.  My grand-parents, aunts and uncles on both sides of my family have said this same crazy thing to […]

    2. Mystery Money Man 02:21am 08 September - 2016 - Reply

      “A happy, laughter-filled home with a large supporting cast… this is the most lavish, decadent, extravagant gift that can be given to a child. And it’s free.” I love this post Linda, and to me that sentence sums it up perfectly!

    3. Doug 01:19am 03 September - 2016 - Reply

      We must never lose site of the big picture, money will never buy happiness. I hear a lot of people say if I had this or I had that I would be happy I tell them nope you might be happy for a bit but it won’t bring you happiness if you are not happy now.

      • Brooklyn Bread 07:30am 04 September - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you for stopping by Doug. I agree of course. I think we all know this on some level- we just need constant reminding! -Linda

    4. Meena 02:58pm 26 August - 2016 - Reply

      Great post. Thank you.

      I would like to scale down and shred my credit card.

      We are so bombarded with “Stuff” we need to buy.

      • Brooklyn Bread 03:42pm 26 August - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you so much for checking out the site and for commenting, Meena. It took my husband and I a long time to get rid of our credit card debt and we had to do some painful things to get there. For the first time in my adult life, I will not buy anything on credit. It is amazing how transformed everything is as a result. Those days where we were so stressed about money, worrying if we would make it to our next paycheck vanished with our use of a credit card. I am so sorry I did not get that squared away earlier in life…

        -Linda

    5. Amanda @ centsiblyrich 12:51pm 26 August - 2016 - Reply

      Once again, Linda , this is an incredible post. I absolutely love the pictures of your family having fun!

      Valuing the time we have is so important, time with loved ones and time having fun (which doesn’t have to cost a ton of money). My husband and I spent an evening last weekend with some friends and had an amazing time, laughing and telling stories. I realized we hadn’t done anything like that in a long, long while because…well, we had too many things to do!? Ugh. I want more of that!

      • Brooklyn Bread 01:47pm 26 August - 2016 - Reply

        I want more too! Honestly, I barely see my own sisters nowadays. When I was a kid, I had my grandparents downstairs, cousins next door to me on both sides, more around the corner and more 5 minutes away. It was so easy to be together. We have to make a much bigger effort to see family now. I do miss those days.

    6. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe 11:03am 26 August - 2016 - Reply

      When I look at my family, I know that we are far removed from the big family farm where everyone worked and played together. I also know we’re not really better for it. Thanks for the reminder.

      • Brooklyn Bread 01:52pm 26 August - 2016 - Reply

        I can’t blame people for seeking out better lives for their families. Often that means moving someplace else. But people can still create incredibly strong bonds within their communities. That’s where I think there is a lot of upside – being a little more outward looking, a little less isolated within the walls of our own houses.

    7. Jamie @ Medium Sized Family 04:58pm 25 August - 2016 - Reply

      WOW! I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we frantically try to pay off debt this year. I’ve spent time chasing money in an effort to get free from debt. And free from chasing money! I’d love to just be able to relax and have real fun. I love your sentiments here.

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