In the 1930s, after a day’s work shilling scorecards at Wrigley Field or hustling in Chicago’s Maxwell Street market, my father would contribute his earnings to the family pot. In the 1990s, I hoarded my babysitting money in a pink plastic heart-shaped box that I decorated with puffy paint pens. Of course, I kept it all for myself. I grew up believing in a natural order that dictates parents provide for their children, not the other way around. In spite of — or perhaps because of — his ability to give my sister and me a comfortable upbringing, my father made a sharp point of using his past to show up our privilege. It drove me bonkers.
I grew tired of hearing about how my father would stand with his nose pressed up against the window of Silverstein’s deli, wishing for a nickel to buy a bottle of Pepsi and a hot dog, whenever I asked for a dollar to buy vending machine Doritos. I knew these tales were designed to elicit my appreciation and gratitude, but instead they triggered anger. My friends didn’t have to suffer through an Abraham Lincoln yarn every time they asked for spending money, and they always seemed to have cash to burn. I knew my father’s stories had value, but their worth wasn’t transferable. A story couldn’t buy me a Dairy Queen Blizzard or a velvet choker from Claire’s Boutique. I was a good kid. Wasn’t that enough? Not for my father.
Born in 1926, my father was a child of the Depression, and his story follows the era’s well-known plotline: immigrant parents who didn’t speak English, five siblings, hard work, bootstraps, a better life. My sister and I didn’t come along until he was well into his 50s. Had there been a Baby Boomer who grew up in the flush of postwar prosperity to buffer us by the length of a generation, perhaps we would have avoided some of our relentless cultural clashes. Instead, he harped on his hard-knock upbringing. I resented that he thought my life was easy breezy. He criticized my peers’ sense of entitlement. I despised his haranguing and how it twisted the things I enjoyed into frivolous indulgences. Sorry I prefer the more expensive cookies to the generic brand! Sorry my piano lessons are so pricey! Sorry for the circumstances of my birth! Our divergent financial values were a constant point of contention. I had everything I needed, but my wants were a problem.
Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, things changed. By that point, I was financially independent and hadn’t asked for mall money in quite some time. But I was going to grad school, and suddenly my father was offering. “Whatever it is, I’ll take care of it.” That’s what he said about anything I needed. No, not needed. Wanted. No strings. No questions asked. I knew something was terribly wrong.
Not long after, my father directed my sister to a vest in the back of his closet that I’d never seen him wear. In a slim pocket inside the lining was a thick wad of hundreds. My sister and I were to use this money to take care of things. Like the caregivers who came to our home while he was in hospice. Like the bills he couldn’t pay himself. I lost count of how much we spent. And as the money dwindled, my father deteriorated. Even in his eighties, my father worked six days a week. He brought his lunch everyday. He taught me to grocery shop by circling sale items in the Dominick’s flyer before going to the store. Sometimes he’d send me to McDonalds to bring him a .65 cents cup of coffee, and if I didn’t get him the senior citizen discount, he’d make me go back and get the change.
Until the very end, he was pragmatic, private, and disciplined. So as the executor of his will, I should not have been surprised to learn that everything he had was split 50/50 between my sister and me, and that what he had was more than I expected. But I was surprised. And slightly terrified. Suddenly, I had an inheritance. It was by no means a set-for-life, rest-on-your-laurels type inheritance, but still. Having spent my adult life up until that point living on a teacher’s salary, it was far more money than I’d ever had. My father owned a small optometry practice. The amount he’d accumulated was the direct result of lifetime of scrimping and saving. Decades of bringing his lunch to work, doing odd jobs around the house instead of hiring someone, and yes, denying his daughters spending money for unnecessary purchases. All this so that one day, my sister would be heir to a priceless, precious commodity: a sense of security. Except I didn’t feel secure. At all. Rather, I felt completely unmoored.
Despite my years of financial independence, I realized I’d relied on a psychologically safety net. Now it was gone, tangled up in a trust, probate and saving accounts that I was responsible for. I knew I wouldn’t squander what my father had diligently saved, but I didn’t totally trust myself. My father had internalized his frugality since childhood. I wasn’t a spendthrift, but I liked stuff. Lattes and yoga classes and impractical shoes. Stuff my father scoffed at. Stuff I sometimes felt ashamed I enjoyed so much. It seemed counterintuitive that I felt so unstable. But knowing there was money was in some ways worse than being kept in the dark. Now I knew there were no more hidden pockets. There was nothing tucked away just in case of emergency. I was in charge. I was living the emergency.
By that, I mean that I played a nonstop game of financial whack-a-mole in the months after my father died. As soon as funeral expenses were paid, estate attorney fees were due. Then it was medical bills and the hefty price of a headstone. Just when we’d taken care of one expense, another would pop up. I was hemorrhaging what my father left on necessities. I became paranoid that a massive bill or lawsuit would come along and bleed us dry. Then what would we do? What I didn’t expect was that along with the money, I’d inherit a new set of insecurities and neuroses. (As if I didn’t have enough.) My father had delayed gratification over a lifetime, and I was using his savings for a “five dollar cup of hot milk” — his definition of a latte. Logically I knew I wasn’t wildly indulgent. Yet even small purchases felt disrespectful, even shameful.
I set up mental blockades about what I couldn’t buy until my father’s money was completely cordoned off. I mean, it was my money, but it still felt like his money, and therefore I felt compelled to spend it in accordance with his values. Which basically meant not spending at all. So despite having more money than ever in my life, I became extremely frugal. If I went to a café to work, I’d buy a coffee and bring snacks like a total weirdo. I drank water at bars. I never allowed myself to take a cab. Rather than figure out if I could afford a movie or dinner, it was easier to deny myself both. I corralled my spending using safe round numbers — $30 a week for groceries — and if I went over by a few bucks I’d ask the cashier to take something off the bill.
In some ways, it felt empowering to deny myself so much. It was easier to place an embargo on all goods than to negotiate new terms of my spending. Stingy, frugal, tightwad, cheap: I developed the very traits I’d criticized my in father. But that wasn’t the worst part. I regretted that my father hadn’t enjoyed the fruits of his labor more. In the wake of his death, awareness of my own temporality was heightened. I recognized that by spending so little, I was denying myself so much. Not in material terms, but in experiences and simple pleasures. I may have inherited my father’s values, but I also ascribed to the modern principles of YOLO and treat yo self. Inevitably I broke my own ridiculous rules. Then I felt guilty, then guilty about feeling guilty over something so petty because who knows? I might die too tomorrow!
Over time, my perspective changed. Sort of. To be honest, I’m not sure how. I remember reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and she confirmed what I already sensed. Writes Didion,“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” In some ways, my rigid rules were simply a way to keep my father present. It was oddly comforting to believe he was looking over my shoulder, judging my every purchase. The fact is, he wasn’t. I was the only one judging. That’s when I stopped seeing my father as stingy. I saw him as a person who had a tremendous sense of duty. It had taken me far too long to realize that his frugality was his own form of generosity.
Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist. Her reportage, essays, and criticism have appeared in Money magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, Narratively, at The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.
Photo Courtesy of Brooke Hatfield and Travis Ekmark