What’s Your Financial Family Tree?

In our first talk, Amanda and I go through my family history with money. It wasn’t just that lost things. It was that it all felt so scary.

It wasn’t just downgrading cars, If was the fear of not knowing when the losing would stop. It was the chaos, knowing my parents were shielding me from something, but not knowing exactly what that something was. The monster in the fog is scarier than the monster out in the open.

Something was making my mom cry. Something was eating up our freedom to do things. Something was lurking, always, in the way she sent me away from the cash register. I know now it was called bankruptcy.

To do this assignment, I called my mom and my dad’s brother and one of his sisters.

A few Thanksgivings ago, my aunt told me a story about her grandmother. She had gotten on a train to the boat to America at 16, with her three other sisters. As they pulled away, she saw her mother running after the train.

“And that was the last time she saw her mother,” my aunt said.

I learned, by calling up and asking, what the opportunities of my life were built on. This mother’s pain. My great grandparents planting seeds and taking in boarders. My grandfather leaving for work, not letting the fact that he was vomiting sick get in the way.

Both sets of my grandparents lived through the Depression. Both my parents’ families struggled and sacrificed to give their kids better opportunities, so they could give their kids better opportunities. I am those kids. To squander those opportunities, because, oh, you know, lattes, is to spit on the work of generations.

I have always maintained that frugal is an ugly word. It sounds like something your old aunt’s foot cream is supposed to cure. But I know an even uglier word: wasteful. I feel wasteful of the opportunities I’ve been given. Wasteful of the gifts wrenched from the bodies of my… what… ancestors?

We don’t say that word much in American culture. Forefathers, sure, but that’s like Benjamin Franklin. We all have the same ones.

Unlike in other cultures, I don’t feel my ancestors can see me. I don’t talk to them. I don’t have traditions to honor them. In short, my life has never been set up in a way to take their perspective into account, to look at myself through their eyes.

I often think about the aliens in The Slaughterhouse Five, how they could see all time at once. Imagine, a faded, translucent grandmother, washing clothes by hand, passing through me, a faded, translucent girl, lying on the couch, saying, “Let’s just order in, it’s raining.”

To me, that is an ugly picture.

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