Poor Dad by Martin Higgins The easiest way for your children to learn about money is for you not to have any.- Katharine Whitehorn
In August of last year, I visited my family for the first time since my father died. My mom, brothers, and sister live within a few miles of each other on Long Island and they've never wavered in their affection and support of me, though I've lived on the West Coast for the last 30 years.
I hoped that, during the visit, I could explain to them why I didn't attend my father's funeral.
I had several reasons for staying away. Most pointedly was Dad's contempt for things I loved the most: performing stand-up comedy, making music, writing, and producing films and videos. Additionally, his unpredictable mood swings - and prison warden-like, attitude control of every family occasion - intimidated everyone. These reasons are arguably a typical first son's litany of his father's offenses. My deepest indictment was what he taught me by word and deed about the value of money, possessions and family, each of the 17 years I lived under his roof.
Shortly after arriving in my hometown, I came face to face with my father's enduring legacy during a run to the supermarket with my mom. We talked enthusiastically about her plans for the coming week - family dinners, visits with friends and relatives, time for talk and remembering - while waiting in the checkout line. I reached for my wallet as the clerk scanned my toothpaste and razorblades. Mom pushed me aside and demanded to pay for the items. I held out my cash for a moment, trying to get the clerk's attention, but mom created such a scene, acting insulted and embarrassed.
I put my hands at my sides and averted my eyes. Mom was shaking her head, rolling her eyes, and stage-whispering, "Oh Jesus, don't start with this. Iam paying for these and you will just take them." I stared down at the black conveyor belt wishing only to be anywhere else, and the clerk looked at and then beyond her cash register, awaiting some resolution to what must have seemed like a domestic battle-of-wills stand-off. She finally announced the purchase total, to no one in particular, and held her hand out over the scanner midway between my mom and me. I gave in, having briefly forgotten that I am not allowed to spend my own money when I'm with my family without them becoming histrionic, and often mockingly abusive.
The following night, after buying my younger brother a drink at a restaurant bar, I returned from the washroom to find a $20 bill stuffed in the pocket of my jacket. He denied putting it there, but it was wet with beer splatter like his change on the bar.
I had been hoping to talk to my family about my dad's illness and funeral, share some of our happier memories, and ask their forgiveness for my absence. What I found was that my mother, sister, and brother have associated their control of money matters with expressing love, and now refuse to accept money or gifts from me. How they work these transactions out among themselves is a byzantine matrix of amounts and times and reasons and favors I have neither the time nor patience to learn.
The lowest moments during my weeklong stay with them was when I tried to' pay for anything - my own food, a dinner for us all, gas for my rental car, ice cream for the nieces and nephews, postage stamps. It was absurd. Ours has always been a financially dysfunctional home. My life as a child was a confusing, upsetting series of assertions and situations that left me with a warped sense of wealth, value and worth.
I grew up believing we were poor – the poorest in the neighborhood. My father's reaction to nearly every request from his children was, "I'd love to, but we haven't got the money to afford it." Or, "And where is the money going to come from for that?" When I was 12, I asked him for some spending money and, in a fit of anger, he hurled a handful of coins from his pocket into my face, screaming, "That's all I have! Take it!"
Two or three times a month he would spread out all the bills on the dining room table and examine his checkbook entries. He'd mumble and curse, wipe his glasses on the sleeve of his shirt, and chase pennies around a homemade loose-leaf spreadsheet held together with yellowed Scotch tape. We knew not to disturb this ritual, which often ran from immediately after dinner to midnight.
Later I learned that it was all a lie. Dad's deception was so effective and persistent that I was nearly 30 years old before I realized that our summer home on the North shore of Long Island and expensive cars set us far apart from other "poor" people.
In the summer of 1977, after two tours of duty in Vietnam and a half decade of alienation, voluntary isolation, and alcohol, I began to understand true poverty. I was working as an on-air personality at a radio station just outside the tiny city of Red Bluff, about 30 miles south of Redding in Northern California. I rented a small house in town and settled into the community. It was the first time I had ever lived in a poor rural area.
On one hand I was now a Red Bluff celebrity – The Guy on the Radio – and on the other, a New York-born outsider. Many of the locals suspected I was a drug dealer, bisexual, liberal, and Jew – primarily due to my New York accent and liberal use of Yiddish slang. It was my introduction to a city that had for all its history been a "cowtown” run by cowboys and their wives. I compensated by actively socializing with everyone who wasn't overtly insulting or violent.
During a neighborhood barbecue, where most of the guests were drunk on Wild Turkey by noon, I mentioned that I had grown up poor to help offset the awkwardness I felt being sober, well-dressed, and employed. My status changed immediately. Someone passed me the bottle of bourbon and asked, "What does your daddy do?"
When I said "structural engineer," another guest added, "My old man was an operating engineer- backhoe and grader." I took a swig of the bourbon and held back my reply: My father had designed crucial components of NASA's Lunar Lander.
I looked again at the people around me who were waiting expectantly to hear more about my childhood poverty. I saw their stained, threadbare clothes and missing teeth, their scars and lumps and bumps, their ragged, scabbed children and realized we had absolutely no experience of deprivation in common. Nothing about them seemed familiar or comparable to my life.
They talked about the upcoming Red Bluff Rodeo and the riding events. My riding experience was English Hunter/Jumper competitions at my private school. They talked about their battered Ford and Chevy trucks. I nodded and prayed that they hadn't noticed my `76 Fiat 124 convertible out on the dirt road. They chatted happily about tent camping 'in the national forest. My family owned a summer home on Long Island’s north shore and I raced hydroplanes on the Sound.
My father's deceptions fell away. Tallying up the evidence, there seemed to be nothing impoverished in my past. I was shocked. It was like finding out I was adopted. "We have no money" was the reality Mom and Dad drilled into me. They neglected to say that they spent their income as fast as they earned it.
To this day, when I am involved in negotiations, I find myself being unpredictably helpless or ruthless. I have a deep-seated aversion to asking people for small amounts of money but can casually negotiate hundreds of thousands of dollars for a film or video project. As a result, my life has been an uncomfortable mixture of abundance and self-imposed, short-term “poverty.”
Years ago, my wife Laura watched me in the throes of money anxiety, ranting and claiming that we were "piss poor." She let me exhaust myself before expressing a subtle differentiation so clearly, that I have been able to use its logic to counteract much of my conditioning. "We may be broke right now," she said, "but we'll never be poor. Broke is a financial situation; poor is a state of mind."
I now know that she’s right, for I lived in that destitute state of mind for over 20 years. Just as depressed people cannot see the positive, hopeful elements in the world, I could not see the wealth and advantage around me. Now, money is merely a marker; a simple token in society's board-less parlor game.
Once or twice each month, I gather up our house-hold bills, stuff them in a big manila envelope and send them off to my accountant, who records them and pays them while I take my wife and daughters out to dinner or a movie.
And I don't mumble and curse and wipe my glasses on my sleeve, because I know that it’s only money.