Sunday, September 13, 2009

My ASTRONOMICAL personal debt level - Yours?

I read an interview of a self-described, self-made man. Asked whom he felt he owed for his success, his reply: "I never had ANYTHING handed to me. I don't owe anyone but myself."

My balance sheet is not so clean. Though our house and car are paid, my personal debt load is so high I'm not sure it'll be paid in a lifetime. I had my first inkling of this one night at age five when I vomited my way down the green shag steps of our old farmhouse, looking for the bath. Somewhere in the back of my head it occurred to me to be glad it was Mom, not me, who would clean up that awful, stinking mess. And though I didn't say, "I owe you one" as she washed me up, put on my clean pjs, and tucked me into bed to tackle the stairs, I did owe her for that and a million other small sacrifices she made.

When my dad used money hard won from years of pre-dawn to late night days building up this redi-mix business to pay for my college and my older brother spent two rare days off to drive me straight through from IL to graduate school in CA - insisting he take the longest night shift - the debt grew.

My grandpa taking my anxious calls about exams, collect of course, and telling me jokes to make me smile, my fantastic husband who fully supported my decision to leave the practice of law, despite halving our income, my in-laws who raised not only the greatest guy I've ever met, but also his kid brothers who've become much loved uncles to my own children, friends, some of whose friendship now dates thirty years - it all adds up.

And what about the patient elementary school teachers, compassionate maternity nurses, and my neighbor Bud, cheerfully jump starting my mini-van one frigid February morning? Or the firefighters who, as I write, stand ready to risk their lives if I'm careless with a candle?

And as a woman, how do I repay suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony who faced a lifetime of heckling crowds to fight for my right to own property, vote, have a career, and not be beaten by an angry spouse?

On Friday, we took the neighbor kid with us to McDonalds, then walked across the street to a big, old cemetery. Buried there is a man who died at the age of 102, named Nathanial Ames. Under his name is a plaque: "Served in the Continental Army Under General George Washington".

I wonder if he was there with the other soldiers that bitterly cold Christmas night of 1776 listening to Paine's words read by the General himself, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman..."

And as for him and the other soldiers beyond weary, without tents or proper winter clothing, willing to take a perilous journey not for a pirate's share of gold, but for an ideal - an ideal of freedom and democracy and the thought that maybe all men WERE created equal, well how to you repay THAT?

So you see, my debt load is high, but I'm working to pay it down in bits and pieces. I'm patient with the elderly driver creeping down the street in gratitude to all those who were patient as my own 80 year old grandpa tried so hard to hold on to his independence through his car.

I take a deep breath (sometimes) when I want to shriek at my kids and nod to my now deceased grandmas who raised great human beings under far harsher circumstances.

I try, not always successfully by any means, not to always ask, "What's in it for me?". But rather, "Am I paying my own way, at least a bit today?"

And go to bed tonight in awe at the generosity of the human spirit.


  1. What a lovely post. Thank you for helping me pause and ponder my own "debt" level. I am afraid I am now in debt to you!

  2. Thank YOU for your kind note - I think it's an even bargain;-).