Cutting the Purse Strings
Excerpted from BECAUSE I LOVE HER: 34 WOMEN WRITERS REFLECT ON THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOND.
My mother grew up in a working-class, immigrant family in which money for frivolities such as toys and new clothes was virtually non-existent, so she and her eight siblings imagined and improvised their way toward fun. They had an impressive repertoire of outdoor group games such as kick the can, Red Rover, freeze tag, statues, and hide-and-seek. On rainy or cold days they stayed inside and made clothes for their homemade, shirt-board paper dolls or played “secretaries” with pretend typewriters made from pieces of paper hanging halfway out of books (that make an impressive clacking noise when one pretends to hammer away at the keys) and telephones made from tin cans and string.
Since they were left on their own quite frequently, they discovered some other interesting ways to entertain themselves, many of which were not strictly legal—or if not illegal, not exactly ethical anyway. They got pretty good at carting off cold sodas, bags of chips and occasionally, buckets of fried chicken from family reunions or company picnics in a large, leafy park near their house. The only problem was, they weren’t related to anyone at those family reunions, nor did their parents work for the sponsoring corporations. They also knew how to shimmy through the fence after hours at a local trampoline park and jump to their hearts’ content, sometimes naked. They had peeing contests off the roof of the shed in their backyard—and my mom and aunts swear girls can do it just as well as, if not better than, boys.
As children, my cousins, brothers and I loved nothing better than huddling on top of my grandmother’s washer and dryer in the corner of her kitchen to listen to our parents regaling one another with their childhood stories until they were all laughing so hard they cried and our stomachs and cheeks hurt from matching their hilarity. Some people might call the antics of my mom’s childhood “delinquent behavior” and by today’s standards those people would probably be right. As a parent now, I find myself wondering what was going on in that household to allow nine children to run amok all over town without any parental supervision. I know the answer, of course. My grandmother was either pregnant or caring for an infant continuously for a dozen years while my grandfather worked three jobs. It’s amazing that nobody died or at the very least went to jail, yet somehow all nine of my grandparents’ children grew up to be good people with respectable jobs and nice families of their own.
As a result of a lifetime of improvising, my mom, like all the women in her family is very crafty. She cooks, she bakes, she sews and paints, shellacs and macramés, refinishes old furniture, and is an excellent potter with a devoted clientele. She is also the consummate bargain shopper and a champion Dumpster diver, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like nice things. As a kid, she fantasized about being a member of the Anderson family from the TV show Father Knows Best with their perfectly pressed new clothes and fine furniture. When it was her turn to raise a family, having a nice house and children that always looked good was a high priority. However, given my parents’ tight budget coupled with my mom’s inbred frugality, she had to develop a preternatural sense for a good deal to reach these goals.
She became the kind of person who can walk into a major department store, sniff out a totally hip, past-season designer winter coat marked down seventy-five percent, then hit a few rummage sales on the way home where she’ll uncover a hardly worn pair of vintage leather boots for ten dollars that match the coat perfectly. Plus, she’ll talk the seller down to parting with the boots for five bucks and throwing in for free a scratched-up end table with a wobbly leg sitting next to the garbage cans. Then she’ll take the table home, strip it down, fix it up, and hand paint it so it matches her family room furniture perfectly. Growing up watching my mother work her peculiar magic of turning a little money into plenty of stuff meant that I learned the art of opting out—that most mainstream spending is silly because fads don’t last and desires will pass, that paying full prices means you’re a sucker, and that you should never be too proud to use other people’s cast-offs.