On the phone with my mother, I feel her out on a plan I have. I am hoping to grow up. I say, “Mom, we want to refinance our mortgage now that the rates are down. I want to be on the deed to the house with Jack on my own steam.”
“You are on the deed to the house with Jack.”
“I know, mom, but that’s because of his money. I want to contribute more to our down payment, more of my money. I’m hoping to take over my money from Grandpa Morty.”
Morty, my grandfather, was 93. Just this year, he sold his liquor distribution business. When he was twenty, his brother Sol died in a car accident. Grandpa was driving. They were on a delivery run for their “notions” business. They sold soap, thread and other sundries while waiting for Prohibition to be repealed. Sol wanted to start a legal liquor business. There was a storm, and Sol didn’t want to risk the “run”, but Grandpa Morty insisted. Sol’s death devastated him. Six months later, Grandpa’s widowed mother gave him the life insurance money she collected after Sol’s death. She said “This is our last chance, you take this and care for the family now.”
From the time he received that insurance money until my phone call to my mom, he’d been a money-making machine. Distant, but kind to his grandchildren. I wasn’t really sure that I knew him. But I knew some things. He still talked about the night that Sol died. He named my mother Solana after his brother. His guilt over the accident plagues him. He doesn’t believe in life insurance, says it’s bad luck to bet on someone’s life. He loves his family by taking care of us financially.
The money isn’t in a trust. My mom and grandfather have always been clear that it is in our names, but that Grandpa knows best how to take care of it. Now I want to do something different. It is time to take it over, pay my own taxes. I don’t want to file separately anymore. I want the responsibility even if I make some mistakes.
Grandpa managed my parents’ money, and my mom became dependent doubly, not just upon her husband, but upon her father as well. He still manages my mother’s and her sister’s money, even though both of them are divorced and in their fifties. His business even did their taxes. And our taxes. Mine, my sister’s and my first cousin’s.
I may not be a stock expert, but I don’t mind being conservative. I just want to learn to take care of myself, to provide a home for my children as an equal partner.
But I don’t want to insult him. He worked so hard, gave us everything, and I am grateful. When I was little, Grandpa loved to tell stories about his childhood, but as I got older and our political differences became more apparent, Grandpa could be distant, even cold and condescending. Still, he never threatened me or attached any kind of strings to his powerful position.
That was my dad’s role. For most of my life Dad pretended the money was his. He started out working, hard, I’m sure, for my grandfather. Then, over the course of my childhood, something happened — I’m not really sure what. My family tells multiple truths. He lost interest in the work, and was undercut by my grandfather. Or he felt entitled, went to work part of the day and spent the rest of his time having multiple affairs, doing yoga, shopping for antiques. Or, simply, his mental health deteriorated over the years.
He had mood swings, fits of temper, and people found him increasingly strange. He loved to talk about how our family “wasn’t a democracy” and how he paid for everything. Any rebellion from me was met with, “You know I pay for everything around here.” He gave me my allowance, but the money wasn’t his. When he was at his worst, his most abusive, that comforted me. Finally, when I was in college and told him I couldn’t be around him because I didn’t feel safe, he threatened to take away my tuition. I stood up to him and spoke the truth: he didn’t have the money to take away. It wasn’t his in the first place. Saying that out loud was my first step to growing up.
But the money wasn’t mine either; it was Grandpa’s. I always had Gramps to fall back on. He may have been distant, but he loved me, and I knew that. After my dad, distance was comforting. So his role as the steward of my livelihood symbolized safety. It protected me from the world, and, ultimately from my father. It put me through college and grad school. I let him take care of me well into adulthood, but I was beginning to see that independence had a way of bringing me closer to the people I loved. It made me feel more able to care for my kids, who were now dependent on me.
I am not at all sure my mom will see it that way. She is caring for my grandparents and just finished helping Grandpa get through the sale of the business. She struggles with being nearly sixty and just now learning how to manage her own money. I am not sure how she’ll react to my wanting this change.
She tells me, “Honey, I’m glad you called me about this and I think that is absolutely the healthy thing to do. But. Things are really crazy now that Grandpa has retired. He needs some time to let it sink in. Actually, scratch that. I need some time to let it sink in. You’d be doing me a favor if you waited. ”
“Mom, he’s ninety-three! I love it that he thinks of himself as going on forever but I don’t think it is going to be as big of a deal as you think. I know he still manages everyone else’s money, but I think he’ll respect me if I tell him I want to do it myself. I want to be on the deed to our house with Jack, not in name only but for real. I want to be an equal partner and parent. Independent as I can be. ” I paused, and gathered courage: “You know after my depression how important this is. ”
“I know that, honey, I’m just not sure it’s the right time. Can we stop talking about this now? Give me some time to think?”
We hang up.
On our next visit to Milwaukee I sit down with Grandpa. I hadn’t told Mom yet; this was between him and me. I didn’t want to insult him by going through her.
“Gramps, you know how grateful I am about how you take care of us, the opportunities you’ve given me.”
“Of course, dear.”
“I want to take over managing my money. I want to do it myself.”
“Oh, darling, I suppose we could talk about you drawing an income. You’ve never wanted to do that before.”
“No, Gramps, this is about me being a grown up. About managing it myself. I have my own family now and I have to learn how to take care of them and myself. I know there is nothing legally stopping me. You’ve always been up front that the money under my name is mine. I know I won’t be able to make it grow like you can, but I need to do it myself now. I won’t be able to do it the same way as you, but I’m going to do my best to follow your lead and take responsibility for myself. Take care of my family.
“I’ve decided. I just want to make sure that you know that this is about me, not you. I have so much respect for you. I’m just ready to take responsibility for myself.”
“Well, I guess you are doing this. I think it’s a mistake. But I love you.”
“I love you too, Gramps, so much.”
Back home in Berkeley, my mom calls.
“You were right. It was much easier than I thought. And I’m so proud of you. But Grandpa said something interesting after you left. He said ‘It was like she was saying goodbye to me.'”
“Oh Mom, I so didn’t want him to feel that way. What did you say?” I ask.
“I told him that he wasn’t defined by his money. That you love him for him, and that maybe you could have a new relationship with him now. I said maybe he shouldn’t think of it as ‘goodbye,’ but as ‘hello.’ ”
I smile at the unexpected gift: how quickly growing up binds me even more deeply to those I love.