My parents were children during the Depression, and were teens during WW2. I’ve always known this, and understood at a detached, unemotional level what this meant to the choices they made in life afterwards, but it’s taking the current crisis for me to understand, really understand how those years of struggle might change a person.
On a shelf on the sideboard hutch I have in my office, alongside other items of significance, is a chipped wedding cake topper. My parents were married on April 30, 1949, not long after they met at a dance. Dad had finished his stint with the Navy–he just missed the war and spent the years either on an aircraft carrier (the Antietam) circling the Pacific on a goodwill tour, or stationed on Guam. He’d held the rank of petty officer, organizing warehouses and schmoozing trades. Mom worked for General Motors, where she had started during the war– not Rosie the Riveter (like my aunt Pat), but Betty the Bookkeeper. Neither of them came from well-off families. There are no photos of their wedding–just the singular relic of the decoration from their wedding cake. But their marriage would endure for 51 years, broken only by my mother’s death.
People like my parents, who had seen and lived days where the future was clouded and uncertain, but who had somehow emerged to build a good life for themselves, were often frugal, prioritizing family and future over material possessions. That is not to say they were stingy. Dad in his early years indulged in a passion for cars, although never to excess. They saved their money for their purchases, buying both the home I was born in and the one we moved to at age 8 outright, with no mortgage. We had no credit cards–apart from a Sohio gas card–until I was well into my teen years. I had a savings account from an early age. I never lacked for anything I truly needed as a child–our home was nicely furnished (and not cluttered with collectibles or knick-knacks), and we always had two cars, including always one Cadillac. But we paid cash for all of it. Mom made a lot of my clothing until around the time we moved, after which jeans and t-shirts were rapidly becoming the favoured outfits of kids my age. I never pushed for designer clothing much–the few items I can recall wanting, I was allowed to have one of, no more. We were members of a church and Dad had his service club. My parents certainly could have afforded a flashier lifestyle–but instead, they were saving. The result of all of this saving was that when Dad passed away 12 years ago, his estate was sizable.
Now, I look around me at home here and I realize that these lessons from my childhood have been only partially learned. In the years since my father died, I too often have purchased something just because I could. We’re not in debt, and indeed, I’ve saved diligently for retirement, but we’ve relied on that nest egg from my parents for too long. I think I started to realize this a few years ago, but it’s hard to break the addiction of retail therapy. Now, I know if I never buy another piece of jewellery in my life, I will be fine, and I suspect it’s a similar story with clothing. These things are fast losing their appeal to me. I have far too many sets of historical clothing, far too many shoes. Even though by most standards I have not overindulged, in this moment of crisis I look around me and know this cannot continue. Similarly, I cannot imagine a future vacation where I spend as much on souvenirs as I do on hotel rooms or tickets to museums or concerts. The point of vacations is not to acquire stuff–it’s to see and experience new things. Mom and Dad taught me that as a kid, where they would allot me a certain budget of spending money, which, once it was gone, it was gone. I had to make decisions as to just what was special enough to spend money on. I’ve still got some of those souvenirs, in fact.
And I am now beginning to understand my parents, why, even towards the end of their lives, when they should have been “enjoying retirement”, they still kept to their frugal ways–although they were always willing to help me get started in life, and always took time to help their families. They were conditioned in their formative years to value people more than things, to focus on making sure the basic needs were met, not just now but in the future. That, of course has to be tempered with the knowledge that the future is never certain. Growing up, there were always fun (if modest) vacations, music and dance lessons, and new dresses for special occasions–again, always carefully budgeted.
What is important to me in this moment is that the world makes it through this crisis better able to understand that happiness, community, and health cannot be purchased in a store. My parents knew this. In all honesty, so did I–and too often, I have forgotten it.