Financially speaking, my grandparents ended up doing okay. Children of the Great Depression, they grew up in the Burroughs of New York City poverty-stricken and Jewish – neither of which gave them a whole lot of advantage in the world.
When my mother and her sister were kids, the family moved into a cramped one bedroom in what I lovingly like to refer to as “The Anus of Brooklyn,” i.e. Sheephead’s Bay. Sheephead’s Bay is a subway stop or two from Coney Island and not easily accessible by car, bike, any kind of public transportation, or magic. It is also home to some of the worst NYC diners imaginable and presently many Ukranians.
My mother has numerous stories of growing up as a child of Depression-scarred parents: my grandma chasing her and her sister down the street after spending $0.05 on plastic charms, for example. I remember vividly the day my grandmother went berserk on the fruit vendor when the advertised price was off by $0.10 at the register. She seriously went absolutely nuts. She flew into such a fit of hysteria that I didn’t dare go near her. The denouement portion of her tantrum took about ten minutes. Family lore is that she literally picked up every penny off the street and stashed it away in preparation for the possibility of economic collapse redux. P.S. The fruit vendor wouldn’t budge on his price and she bought the strawberries, anyway, at my urging. I got the feeling this kind of thing had happened to him before. She lived only two blocks away.
She would also – out of love or practicality I could never tell which – make the latkes for us every Thanksgiving. This sounds awesome in theory – who doesn’t love potato pancakes? – but in an effort to save both time and hassle, grandma would make them the day before, refrigerate the moist, oily patties in tin foil, then put them in the trunk of the car next to the thawing turkey and drive all the way from Brooklyn to New Jersey on Thanksgiving Day. It should go without saying that cold, day-old latkes adopt a patina that is the opposite of tasty.
My grandfather was – and remains – an overly cautious man. I don’t know his story well because he’s not what you would call loquacious, unless it’s to tell you a joke he read in a Reader’s Digest thirty years ago while sitting on the toilet. My fondest memory of him is when we were kids. This guy would do anything for a laugh, including dropping his trousers in the supermarket and exclaiming, “Oops, my pants fell down!” We kids would erupt in laughter while shoppers did who-knows-what to avoid the old guy with his pants around his ankles. I’ve never seen my grandfather happier than when he’s flying free. Like my grandma, he too kept a wary eye on finances – just not so much on his clothing.
As I contemplate the various expenses I’ve incurred over the years – college, headshots, dance recitals, clothing, shoes, plane tickets, an overpriced haircut from which I demanded my money back (it was that awful), orthodontics, travel travel travel, shoes (lots of shoes), new computers, new TVs, new furniture, cameras – as well as the expense I’m gratefully embarking on with help from all sides (ahem, my wedding), I’m trying not to think about where all my past, present, and future money could have gone or where it ought to be going.
I’m not wealthy but I didn’t grow up poor, and for that I am very thankful. I’ve had plenty of other problems that no amount of money can fix, though, and that in itself has taught me a lot about the value of a buck.
My grandparents didn’t really “get” me things like stuffed animals or games. They were always much more concerned with making sure my and my brothers’ basic needs were met – such as nutrition, straight teeth, and education, in that order. They always arrived at our house with vast quantities of Aquafresh toothpaste, toilet paper, and cans of tuna fish. This was in the days before Costco, mind you. They had to make a real effort. To my recollection they never brought mayonnaise. I’m not sure what they thought we’d do with all that tuna.