Friday, August 10, 2012

Filthy Lucre

When I was growing up, no one talked about money. It was the time of the Great Depression and there was little cash about. But I think the not talking about money had deeper roots than the economic condition of the country. Value was not based on the cost of things in those days. There was more at stake.
You couldn’t talk about money for your friends’ families might be destitute, have lost all but their dignity. I sometimes felt pangs of guilt, as my family was very comfortable. Joyce’s father lost his Cadillac agency and eventually their home. They moved in with a grandmother, aunt and uncle in an upstairs apartment in a brick building on the corner of Spring Street, the first brick building built in that town, built by Joyce’s great grandfather. Marion’s grandfather had started the bank and her father had become the president. But now he was also the only clerk in the bank, and the maid’s quarters in their home was empty. Ramona’s father, who had lost everything, had skipped town, deserting his wife and two daughters. Ramona’s mom worked in the dry cleaner’s but no one ever mentioned that. Ramona often told us that her father had flown in to the nearby town airport to visit. We knew she was lying, but never said so. We knew Ramona needed those daydreams. All were living different lives, but I never heard any of them complain. They held their heads high, did the best they could, and lived their lives with honor and dignity.
Recently, while watching an episode of “Downton Abbey,” I saw a scene that perfectly demonstrates my point. Carter, the butler, is acting as a valet for a guest, Sir Richard Carlyle, a self-made owner of newspapers. As Carter brushes Carlyle’s shoulders and back, Carlyle says something about money and his ability to spend a lot of it. Carter flinches in distaste. He’s not offended by Carlyle’s wealth, nor is he envious of his position. He is, however, deeply shocked by Carlyle’s talking about his money.
We are daily inundated by talk of money. “Name” products—the name crassly advertised on the product itself—daily assault our eyes. The value of the current movie is based on the “take” for the first weekend. People are ranked by how much they are worth, how much they earn, as if we aren’t ALL equal in the eyes of God. I’m tired of it.
My father taught me many wonderful lessons when I was a girl, and one of the best was about money. He had taken me to a shoe store to buy me a pair of shoes—a rare occurrence for mother took care of all that “business.” I found what I wanted, navy blue with a new kind of sole—thick rubber—and a fancy tongue that flapped over the top of the laces. Suede brogues. When daddy asked why I liked them, for he thought them ugly, I said they looked more expensive than the others. He thought a moment, then said, “Money is a criteria, but it’s not the important one. There’s quality to consider first.” This at a time when having enough money to live was really vital. But he was right. Our placing money in such a place of importance has turned too many to be greedy. What has happened to the other criteria of quality, usefulness, honor, dignity?
           I begin to despair, but when I talk with my children, grandchildren, and friends, I cheer up. I’m hearing a conversation closer to that time I lived so long ago. One that was kinder, gentler. I think the pendulum may be swinging away from greed. I certainly hope so.

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