Family currency

by jexmas on August 6, 2011

My first memory of money, actual money, is when I am six years old and am standing at the counter of the local candy store, spending all of my pocket money on candies. My partner in crime is my next-door neighbor, Pete, who is the same age as me. We had made a secret pact some time before, since we were coincidentally given our pocket money on the same day each week, that we would ride our bikes down to the candy store and spend it all on candy.

I vaguely remember our pact but not how we agreed to the terms. But I remember vividly the candy store clerk looking over my head out the front window of the store and asking me, “Isn’t that your father out there?” I turn and look and, sure enough, there is my father sitting in the car parked right out the front of the store. I immediately blush and feel caught red-handed.

Pete and I walk out of the store trying to minimize our giant bags of candy and my father apprehends us before we can get on our bikes. He confiscates our spoils and tells us he will meet us at home. We ride our bikes solemnly back to our respective houses and, by then, my father has given my bag of candies to my mother who, over the next two weeks, doles them out minimally in my school lunch. I want to believe Pete’s stepmother does the same thing or, at the very least, that’s what I tell myself to keep things even between us.

This situation is, of course, much more complicated than it first appears. Although the money is mine, I am clearly not allowed to spend it however I wish. I certainly cannot spend it on candy, since candy causes diabetes and I should know that. Now I wonder if that is how my contempt for money started.

My mother thought money was dirty. She would often say emphatically, “Wash your hands” after I had handled money, either coins or notes. Sometimes she would follow it up by saying, “You never know what dirty man has been handling it.” She always said it was a dirty man of some nationality or profession for whom she felt contempt, but it was never a woman. For some reason, I associate that kind of money with the greengrocer, with his dirty apron and large knife chopping the stalks off cabbages and the outside lettuce leaves. He reaches into the grubby pocket on his apron and takes out a roll of filthy lucre, peeling off faded, limp dollar bills and digging into the pile of loose, tarnished coins rattling around at the bottom of the pocket to give my mother her change. I can see her recoiling as she gingerly takes the notes and coins between thumb and forefinger and I know she cannot wait to get home and wash her hands. I suppose that is how money becomes associated with excrement: through contempt.

At the other end of the scale, though, she pined for money. She would often sigh loudly and say, “Oh, if only your father was not so stupid with money.” She kept her hope alive by regularly buying lottery tickets and, although she never won more than a few dollars, would allow herself to disappear into her fantasies about how she imagined spending her fortune.  Her dreams would send her into a certain rapture when she envisioned freedom from the bonds of domestic servitude. She would no longer be bound to the ordinary and hateful demands of motherhood. She would flee from my father, sister and me and travel by herself to exotic places. She would get a faraway look in her eyes as she described how she would use a big chunk of the winnings to buy herself a beautiful new wardrobe of fabulous clothes and would open herself to the wonders of the world, unencumbered by such chores as unsavory interactions with the greengrocer and others like him who make the ordinary world go round.

I never understood money. I think I had a savings account but did not understand the concept of it and neither of my parents spent any time helping my sister and me learn to have a good relationship with money. Money was already confusing and too hard and it was not until I was 21 that I learned how to balance my checkbook. Prior to that, I could not grasp the concept of a check register. The actual balance seemed to ephemeral, too hard to pin down. What was in there today may not reflect the actual balance and the whole idea seemed impossible. Now, it seems silly and obvious, but then it made no sense.

In spite of my mother’s pining for great wealth, we seemed to have enough. As I grew older, I became more aware of my father’s tendency to keep his knowledge of our money to himself. He made the money since my mother never worked and I think he managed it without consulting much with his wife and certainly never with my sister and me. How things happened was mysterious and we never talked about it. Even at the level of the currency between us, nothing flowed and we were not linked as a family or even as individuals.

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