I don’t come from money. I learned that early on, in kindergarten, when my mother informed me that we couldn’t afford the morning snack at my public elementary school. It was graham crackers and a carton of milk, and it cost 10 cents a day.
At a too-young age I was made aware of haves and have-nots, and got a bitter taste of how it felt to be on the wrong side. But it was 1965, decades before issues like income inequality and class struggles were priorities in San Francisco, let alone school policies that insensitively highlighted them.
At home, I’d hear my parents talk about money, but like many kids I didn’t understand the finer points and didn’t feel it was my place to worry. Were we rich, or were we poor? That’s all I needed to know.
That kind of black-and-white thinking did not serve me well as I got older. It certainly didn’t help when I found out how much my father earned as a self-employed designer. My mother told me after I pestered her about it one day, but I had no tools to process the information.
The figure was around $12,000 a year, as I recall. Was that normal? Was it enough? I was relieved to hear it qualified us as “middle class,” but I also knew we weren’t “comfortable” like many of my friends at school and especially synagogue. “Comfortable” families, as far as I could tell, were able to take big vacations overseas and buy new cars and go out to dinner whenever they wanted. Clothes were always bought new and furniture never got shabby. Grandparents gave the children money for no reason, and the kids went to sleep-away camp every summer. None of that was true for me or my family.
While I was aware of these differences, I wasn’t bothered by them the way my mother was. Maybe it was because she grew up poor, or she was disappointed by her station in life as an adult. Maybe she felt status pressure in the Jewish community, where financial success was prevalent and always on exhibit. I never got a chance to ask, as she died when I was 22.
She imparted so many excellent values to her children — about Israel, education, compassion, tolerance, loyalty, generosity, integrity, humility — but she had a blind spot when it came to wealth.
Here was the message I got growing up: The rich don’t deserve to be rich, but nice people (such as ourselves) do, and therefore rich people aren’t nice.
What’s startling is that I still kind of think that way, even though I know better.
My mother had a habit of comparing us with other families in our social circle and judging whether they were deserving of their good fortune. The wealthier and luckier she perceived the family to be, the more severely their character was judged.
As off-putting as this practice was, it came from a belief that goodness, kindness and virtue should be tangibly rewarded, and she was still waiting for hers. But such magical thinking inevitably led to disappointment. And envy. That’s why other families came under such scrutiny and why so few measured up.
Sure, life would have been a lot easier had there been just a few enterprising ancestors on our family tree. I’d settle for just one rags-to-riches story that trickled down to me. But I come from peasant stock, and “enterprising” had a whole different definition. For my immigrant grandparents in Cleveland, it meant owning a small grocery store, or clocking 50 years at a tool and die factory, or buying clothes in bulk at the discount store to sell for a little more to the neighbors.
They were all living their version of the American dream, doing the best they could under the circumstances. Despite what some would have us think, not everyone is born with equal opportunity. We are products of our origins, and all we can do is recognize any unhealthy patterns and try to break the cycles. That’s what I’m trying to do with my own two children. We’ll see.
The bottom line is, I’m doing better than my parents did. And they were better off than their parents, all of whom came to this country with nothing. So I guess we did all right.
Sue Barnett lives in San Francisco. Reach her at SueB@jweekly.com.