Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Family's Inherited Wealth - Yours?

My grandma Clara has been on my mind lately. She has been gone for over five years and didn't live to see my first child, but whenever the weather turns cold, I think of her.

My dad's family were extremely poor. My grandma had been widowed when pregnant with twins, the last of twelve children. She often worried about feeding the family and didn't even have indoor plumbing until my dad (the third from the youngest) was in the army. I sometimes picture what it must have been like to be pregnant and going to an outhouse during a February night in the Midwest or trying to keep a supply of clean cloth diapers through those winter months, washed in a bucket heated up on a stove. I imagine what it would have been like to go out in a snowstorm to pump water to cook dinner and just hope there's enough food for a dozen children.

And it was a good night if there was something to cook. My dad remembers many nights when they just ate bread with sugar on top for dinner and the thought of canned, condensed PET milk still makes him shudder.

She was, as my dad would say, "A tough cookie" through it all. She had come from a fairly wealthy family that had servants, but was "disowned" by her family when she married my grandpa, who was not her social equal.

She was a devout Catholic and her faith carried her through many a tough time, including the death of one of her children and the suicides of two grandchildren.

My dad has told me how they all had to gather each night in the living room to pray the rosary, a very long prayer if you're not familiar with it. And they had to kneel. As I know all my aunts and uncles to be very energetic, indeed noisy, outgoing people, how she managed this each night is a mystery.

She was determined that the kids go to a Catholic school, but had neither the money for tuition nor a way to get them to the school. So she managed to flag down a passenger train and make a deal that if the driver would stop briefly each weekday, she would trade produce from her garden. And she talked the priests into giving a tuition break for the whole family - I wish I'd inherited her negotiating skills.

My dad remembers her weeping with worry about money, something that I think haunted him. There was a real fear among the kids that they would be sent to Mooseheart, which is a sort of economic orphanage still in existence near Chicago.

My dad went to work in the second grade setting pins at bowling alleys until midnight, then getting up to go to school. He also worked for farmers throughout the season, always giving the majority of his pay to the family. His siblings did likewise.

One time he was driving a tractor and backed into a trailer. This was at the beginning of the summer and the farmer told him he would have to work all summer without pay to reimburse the costs of the damage. My dad was heartbroken, but he did indeed work all summer for this farmer with the encouragement of my grandma. And on the last day before school started, the farmer and his wife invited my dad in to dinner (a first). They told him they admired his finishing out the job and would in fact pay him for his summer's work. My dad's relief was deep.

When it was cold, my grandma worried about running out of coal and insisted they let the furnace die down each night. But my dad felt it was too hard to start a new fire in the morning, and would try to trick her by leaving just a few embers glowing. If he got caught, she wasn't happy. This is something I think about when the central heating has my house and my own two children and family toasty on a winter night.

When I was a kid, Grandma wore flowered housecoats, cardigans, sensible shoes, and already had over 40 grand kids and great-grand kids. But we were each special to her. She would call if she hadn't seen us in awhile despite the fact we lived only a few miles away, sitting at a tiny bench using her black rotary dial .

We got cards and a small gift for birthdays and holidays. And at her house, she always had a glass jar with a big green metal top you could twist off to help yourself to her homemade chocolate chip cookies. And there were several other jars of Smarties candies and Tootsie Pops. You could stuff yourself with never a word of recrimination. In fact, she never had a harsh word for any of her grand kids. My guess is she used up her scolding voice raising her own children.

She had a few jokes she enjoyed telling many times over and she loved to give money to various charities. She never had much, but she always gave and she was on more mailing lists than your average politician.

As she got older, she liked to hold my hand when we talked. I think about how much physical contact I have with my own kids from bathing to dressing to holding hands to go across the street to cuddles and snuggles and how she must have had so many hands to hold, until they all grew up and she must have missed that a bit.

Naturally I wish I'd visited more. She was over the moon when I would come home on college breaks to take her to church or the cemetery. And I distinctly remember the day she met me at the door with her walker, already dressed in her sweater and waiting by the front door. She had in her now arthritic hands very plastic purple roses. I was taken aback as she'd always made fun of "fake" flowers and instead had gathered ferns or peonies from her own yard to take to grave sites. Now she chirped that these "new" flowers were so real no one could tell the difference. I started to see her aging.

Her funeral was packed with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. She had lived for over 98 years and each of us there that day owed a special debt to her. She'd somehow managed to keep the family together and was the "mother", literally, of all of us. And the "family wealth" we all inherited is beyond price. Thanks and love to you Grandma!

If you'd like to share about your own family's inherited wealth, that would be lovely. And if you still have living grandparents, realize what a treasure that is, and sometimes, hold their hands while you chat.


  1. Very moving. I had tears as I read this and I thought of my own grandparents and parents.

  2. This is one of the loveliest articles I have ever read. I saw it on the Simple Living forum, and clicked on your blog. Thank you for posting it.

    I have happy memories of my father and paternal grandfather, who both enjoyed tinkering with tools and materials, 'inventing' gadgets to make life easier (or just more interesting). My dad showed me how to use tools, and I might also have inherited their creativity. Sometimes I get funny looks from people who still are surprised to see a woman use tools to repair or create things. It has certainly made it easier to live frugally.

    Your story really made me stop and remember!
    Canadian artist

  3. Canadian artist,

    Thanks for your comment and kind words. And I envy your handy nature! My dad and brother are two of the handiest souls I know and I so wish I'd made more of an effort to learn this sort of stuff. My husband, whom I love dearly, would freely admit to barely being able to use a screwdriver, so I've been picking up things a tiny bit here and there. There is a new business here I saw advertised called "The Handy Woman" which is a group of women that come and do small and large household projects, partly with the thought that some women might feel safer with other women coming and going from home. You're not in a side business in WI by chance?;-)

  4. I just found your blog and want to tell you that I love this post. Your grandmother sounds a lot like my grandparents. I don't think many of us today could have done what they did. They were sure made of tough stuff.