What We’ve Lost as We’ve Gotten Richer
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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