What does it feel like when your family fortune fades? I’ve thought about this since Duchesse asked. Whether I can sum up remains to be seen. Let us approach the subject with logic, even though it’s tricky and emotional. Or maybe because it’s tricky and emotional.
Logically, we have to look first at what it felt like to grow up with family fortune, and then at the feelings about fading. As with many historical phenomena, we shall rely on the construct of eras.
Era the First. Or, Money’s Magical Abundance.
In many ways, as I have said, mine felt like any other childhood. At least in the moment. Here’s the effect of growing up rich, as best I can synthesize. (Note that High WASPs are a particular kind of rich; there are others.)
- A fine-tuned eye for the, well, fine. An unerring attraction to the rare, the beautiful, and the precious.
- A concurrent heightened opinion about what is or is not good taste.
- An understanding that one ought to rise above the material, despite its charms. Said understanding is fostered by a very good education and lots of travel.
- Almost unlimited privacy, nutrition, and time to explore. Imagination is the true luxury of childhood.
And possibly, (as this is an emotional undercurrent my culture will not allow me to know for sure), the connecting of luxury to love.
- Silky edges on knit blankets.
- The weight of brass buttons.
- Smells of Diorissimo and Christian Dior lotions applied in front of a very large mirror. A padded seat in front of said mirror.
- The wood-turned leg of a Danish midcentury sofa.
- Hall mirrors.
- Silver, in various guises.
- Linen sheets you rip, at 13, having thrust your feet into bed with erratic pre-pubescent energy.
Era the Second. Or, Money Says Its Name.
Then come the teen years, and college. In California of the early 70s, no teen worth their salt owned more than two pairs of pants and shirts. Riches be damned, thus largely unfelt. At Princeton, in the late 70s, I lived more like a Californian far from home than a person of privilege. I struggled with Shetland sweaters and bright pastels.
At 21 I came into my inheritance; 9 months later I graduated from Princeton and began looking for work. In this phase, one makes one’s way in the world and, absent financial pressures, wanders into a career. Concurrently, one figures out that one had Money growing up, that one still has money, small M. Then, sadly, one realizes that there is not Enough.
Obviously, remembering this time requires distancing pronouns. By One, I mean Me.
And by Enough, I mean enough that you can make most decisions without regard to finances. In my youth, I behaved as though that were the case. By midlife, two children into the game, I figured out it wasn’t true. Which brought about,
Era the Third. Sumo Wrestling With Money-san.
Unfortunately, I figured out that I did not have Enough in the middle of a marriage. Any further details would divulge information that isn’t mine alone. Let me say that while nobody did anything very wrong with my inheritance, it turned out that my ex-husband and I held different opinions about just what it should mean and how it should be used.
I also figured all this out while living in Silicon Valley, the land of I Woke Up With 5 Billion Dollars This Morning, Gee I’ll Buy A Land Cruiser And A Mansion Right Now. Oh how I felt each fortune made, each new millionaire. Most likely my sense of deprivation was part and parcel of the emotional undercurrent that I’m not supposed to mention. I will never know whether a different region would have changed my attitude toward money, and so my life.
We might profitably wonder, is it all about the concept of Enough and Abundance? Those are emotional states, as much as material. I imagine that any 100 people with the same net worth hold at least 68 different emotional realities about their position. Research indicates that once a certain level of material security has been met, all else is psychology, attitude, and intent. I believe it.
So here I am, at 56. Now how does it feel? How do I feel?
Era the Fourth. Sitting Down Next To Money With A Glass Of White Wine.
Things have changed. I’d like to say I’ve reached Enlightenment and become the Buddha. Such is not the case. I have, however, found happiness, due in part to the equanimity of middle age.
Yet more credit goes to Significant Other. He is wonderful in many ways, not the least that he makes my well-being one of his top priorities. However, he has resources. Tricky, right? Makes me sound like a gold-digger, right? I of all people know that even when you love for free, money costs.
Mr. Significant and I don’t swan about in Mercedes and designer duds. (Well, OK, a designer dud on my part, here and there.) I still live in my little ranch house, and drive a 6-year old fully paid off Toyota Rav4. But I can splurge if I want to, and no one will frown, cast aspersions on my morals, or call me wasteful. They might even feel happy in the gift. This feels like unconditional love, which I believe is what we all seek.
I give him presents too.
I will never know if without money I would be so close to my family, feel as glad to be alive, and love as I do. But it’s a specious question. We are who we are and we do as we can and will. We are not Penelope, and can’t unpick our stories past the fringes to the weft.
The Promised Attempt At Summation
I believe the best parts of a family fortune are
That’s what to focus on, in the fading. Had I known earlier what was coming, I would either have engineered my life for material abundance, or structured my expectations around the abundance available for free. Oceans, redtail hawks in the sky, toddlers talking.
In the end, our fading family fortune mostly leaves me mad that I didn’t understand my situation earlier. I might not have acted differently. But as a thoughtful person, I would like to have had the choice.
I have been fortunate, and I use the word advisedly, to have happiness find me even so.