Walking the Tightrope

By Katherine Mayfield

Walking the Tightrope

My parents grew up during the Depression. After they married, my father earned an excellent white-collar wage as an electrical engineer, and his financial mantra was, “Save every penny for your retirement.” Sound advice, but when I was small, even with my father’s good job and steady wage, it always felt like there wasn’t enough. Our house was nice, our yard was large, but inside the house, everything felt too tight, as if even the air we breathed had to be carefully measured and saved for a rainy day.

My mother loved clothes, having grown up in hand-me-downs from her two older sisters. She carefully saved a dollar or two a week from the grocery money my dad portioned out to her, and fervently looked forward to end-of-season sales and yearly clothing specials.

My parents took an occasional short jaunt to a nearby city or tourist attraction, but mostly remained at home after they retired, because my father wanted their savings to last for the rest of their lives. In their sixties and seventies, they kept scrimping and saving, putting it all away as if they were ashamed of the small fortune they’d amassed. My mother loved to travel, and my parents took a fiftieth-anniversary trip to Niagara Falls, where my dad took photos of my mother in her blue rain jacket, grinning gleefully at the camera with the roaring water in the background. But my father always grumbled about the expense, and eventually my mother decided that the joy of the trip wasn’t worth listening to my father’s griping about money.

I would not have described either of my parents as happy people.

When my mother was in her seventies, she told me, “We always wanted to go to Europe. I wanted to visit the little town my ancestors built. But it’s too late now.” I mentioned travel groups for seniors, but she shook her head. Too much, too big, too far away.

When my father was in his seventies, he saw an article about an engineering consultant, and said, “You know, if I had gone into business for myself, I probably could have made a lot more money.” It often seemed to me that my parents held themselves back from taking risks and enjoying life, and then complained because they hadn’t gotten what they wanted.

When I was in my thirties, I came to the realization that life as we know it could end in a heartbeat with the touch of a military button, and I decided that learning to live for today might be just as important as saving for retirement.

But still, as a woman in midlife who has enough to get by, I constantly bump up against my history of feeling like the Poor Little Match Girl in the story by the same name. I keep the heat turned down as the temperature drops in autumn until I’m chilled to the bone. I buy clothes secondhand, even though I could afford a new sweater or two. And every time I catch myself following in my father’s footsteps, I think of how many times I’ve read that we create our own reality with what we think and believe, with the vibes we send out. I have to remind myself that most of the reality blueprints my parents instilled in me around having enough and staying close to home were generated by their experience of the Depression. The world is incredibly different than it was then, or even thirty or forty years ago, and in the deepest grotto of my soul, I know that I am an explorer, and I appreciate abundance and plenty. I love new experiences; I love meeting new people; I love seeing new places; I love having beautiful things around me. But my parents did an exceptional job of training me to think like they did, so I bounce back and forth between who they wanted me to be and who I really am, like a seesaw in a hurricane.

I fervently believe in Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, but I don’t believe in Deny, Deprive and Dispossess. I don’t want to be my parents’ version of me, I want to be myself. I wrestle with the old demons when they pop up with their spiteful grins, and I endeavor to see each day as filled with new possibilities, new offerings of hope for a joyful and abundant future. And the more I believe, the more it seems to happen that way. Maybe we really do create our own reality.

“Live for today” existed absolutely nowhere in my family’s frame of reference, and they missed out on a tremendous amount of living. I’m still learning the lesson – walking on the tightrope between the Poor Little Match Girl of childhood and the midlife desire to have it all – but day by day, I’m learning to live for today.

So, the next time I go out to eat, I think I’ll order what I really want, instead of what’s cheapest. Every now and then, I’ll buy myself something new, and ignore the siren song of what’s gently used. And I’ll continue to remind myself that I don’t live in my parents’ world, I live in my own, until I get better at creating my own comfortable reality.

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2 Responses to “Walking the Tightrope”

  1. Cheryl O'Halloran says:

    What a wonderful story. I like the part about ordering what I want on the menu rather than something cheap. Great reminder. Thank you!

  2. Elena says:

    So what happened to your parents? In the similar case of my Depression-era parents, one actually needed those funds that could have been used for a much- desired trip to Ireland, but instead it ended up being used for her nursing home , which gratefully they had choices of nicer ones during her sudden disability. However, the money saved could have also been used in her 70’s for the trip which she really deserved.

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