Cents and Sensibility

Where There's Life, There's Hope. A Tribute to the Indomitable Spirit of My Parents Who Spread Rays of Light in Days of Darkness

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A cautionary tale but also one filled with great hope for the future. Times seem bleaker with each passing day, but I choose to turn to my personal reserve, and it’s not my bank account that I’m referring to.

Coming from a family of ten with a one-income household, we learned lessons of frugality starting at birth. In the 1950s, my parents purchased a house in what would have been considered a hamlet of Chicago, where doctors, lawyers, and professionals put down stakes. We lived on the “other side of the tracks” where homes were more modest, yet we seemed to be unaware of the literal or figurative meaning of any boundaries. We reaped the benefits of living in a beautiful neighborhood and studied shoulder to shoulder in a private school with students whose household incomes far exceeded ours.    

How did our parents manage to feed, clothe and provide an education given the household revenue vs. expenses? Equally, how did all ten of us feel safe, secure, and able to compete academically with the “best of them”? It seems incredulous now that none of us even questioned the potentially precarious spot we could have been in at any given time. In fact, whenever an announcement of the next sibling-to-be occurred, we cheered on the breeders (Mom and Dad). Innocently, we reckoned the personal impact would simply amount to one more bed appearing in an already overcrowded bedroom.

I’m not saying we were entirely selfless or unaware. Come on, we were kids and I think I mentioned, also intelligent. When Christmas rolled around, I personally cursed the day that five more kids were born after me and imagined the size of the gift pile I could have had. But then I remembered the doll clothes Mom made for us and the hand-me-down tea set she got from her mother, lovingly placed on our miniature kid’s table. Some people get depressed at the thought of holidays, I am fortunate to cherish these memories.

Then there was the matter of clothing us. Lucky for us, Mom was blessed with the gift of stitch-witchery and made outfits for us, even darned socks for my Dad. Wondering what darning is? When your socks start to wear, you probably throw them out; she sewed them up. The clothing budget stretched further during the academic year as we donned our affordable but somewhat drab school uniforms.  

While kids in our class were taking off for spring break in Florida (unthinkable), we were making cardboard box forts in our backyard, all the while happy as clams. My genius brother showed us that we could retrieve more boxes from the back of the local furniture store, allowing for the much-needed construction material to build that dream addition. Before you knew it, we had a sprawling cardboard housing development, stretching from one end of the backyard to the other. My (lawyer) brother declared he was Mayor of Cardboard Town. Good times!

When summer rolled around, we did take vacations-sometimes in shifts. We would line up several suitcases the night before and load them to the max with shorts and bathing suits. The next morning, we’d pile in the car and head down the Blue Star Highway, eager to arrive at our much-anticipated Michigan getaway. Dad had a cottage rented for the 5 of us (minus Mom and the five left behind at home). We unpacked the car, electric frying pan in tow. With no budget for restaurant meals, Dad made eggs and bacon en suite. No kitchen, just bedrooms, and a bathroom, but oh, the fun we had! Happy idiots, maybe, but happy.

More simple pleasures were to follow. Dad stocked a pond in our yard with lily pads, goldfish, frogs, and ducks. He had a great love of nature and cherished the time spent around the water feature. His zen moments were sometimes uprooted, however, with pesky neighbor kids armed with fishing pole and worms, eager to engage in some local angling. Not at all upsetting for us. Au contraire, their antics provided great fodder for entertainment, as Dad beat against the window, red-faced and enraged, waving off the intrepid trespassers.

All of us had part-time jobs through high school and college, further supplementing tuition costs with academic scholarships. While our fellow alums were heading off to pricey out of state schools, that just wasn’t in the cards for us, nor did we care. The youngest sister even had the dubious distinction of achieving a W-2 from Wimpy’s Restaurant at the tender age of 13. Was it even legal to work at that age?      

Dad was a Renaissance Man, ventured into the gig economy in addition to his full-time job, and started a commercial landscaping business. Tough physical work, but it provided supplemental income and got him close to nature (a great love of his). He hired a few of my brothers who may not have shared Dad’s view of how things should be done, nor shared his love of all things green. Well, maybe they made an exception when it came to the “greenback” they earned.  They supported him, understood they could make pocket change and headed off for a long day of manual labor.

This past week has been a time of great reflection for all of us. I thought about how my parents cared for us, loved us, loved each other, and successfully launched all ten of us into adulthood.

Here’s the balance sheet of how it all turned out for our family of ten. Two are business owners, one founded a not-for-profit, a lawyer, a college professor, middle school teacher and professionals in real estate, marketing, banking, and human resources. Add to the list several academic accomplishments, all achieved with limited or no financial support from the Bank of Mom and Dad.

Mom passed away at age 97, lived on her own until age 95 and saved enough money to bankroll her own quality care in assisted living. She also managed to leave behind a significant inheritance for her children. Wow, just Wow!

Grounded in faith, they regularly attended church, contributed to the coffers each time the basket was passed around and most importantly, they walked the talk.

They taught us how to sacrifice, be independent, have compassion, and told us, above all else, to love one another. I turn to their indomitable spirit to face each day with a sense of renewed purpose. As Mom would say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

Let’s all take stock of what we have, protect our cents and most of all, rely on our sensibility.

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