Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Family Money

Madame X's post about her family and social circle's levels of wealth made me want to elaborate on my earlier post about my aunt.

Let me start by saying that I do not understand how money works in my extended family. Each little family pocket seems to differ from all the others except for the fact that they share a general sense of confusion, of not really knowing what the deal is with their money, how it shapes their lives and their interactions with each other. Some of this stems from the difference between financial status and class. Some of it stems from family dynamics. I'm not sure where the rest of it comes from.

It's such a weird, knotty little problem. I was chatting with my mother recently, and she was mentioning how strange money is for her and her siblings--how differently they've ended up feeling about the money they have or don't have. Because of when they were born, who they married, what careers they pursued, they've ended up in very different socioeconomic places. Similarly, my dad's life is really different than his brothers' lives were, partially because he was born much later, by which time his family had a little more financial comfort.

It's been passed down to subsequent generations. My sister, my (mother's-side) cousins and I all started out at the same private school, but we've ended up in very different places, too--my sister and I know that our nuclear family "has more money" than our cousins', but they always seem to have more money to spend than we do, on cigarettes and drinks and taxis and spring break trips. (But we went to private colleges; they went to state schools.) My (father's-side) cousins, too, have diverged, from our family and from each other, and sometimes, like at my cousin's son's bar mitzvah, that divergence is starkly foregrounded. My mother says one cousin resents that her sister bought her a house. My mother says her brother's children feel that they were brought up with a false sense of how much money their family had, and it was a shock to find out it was less than they thought. My father says that since he's retired, the big shots from his old industry don't return his calls anymore. My father says his brother's children stopped talking to his other brother's children because of a sweatsuit and a will.

A couple of weeks ago, I was served legal papers pertaining to a lawsuit over the assets of my grandfather's estate. I have read them and failed to understand them in a really profound way, but I know that ultimately they signify that my mother and her brother and her sister feel that they have been cheated by the people whose job it was to look out for their interest in their father's artistic reputation. Perhaps because much of my family is involved in the arts, there is more aesthetics in our wrangling than there is in other families'; perhaps not.

I think sometimes that the reason we pretend that money is no issue in the face of family is because if we start thinking about how big an issue money is, it clouds everything over and makes us feel very much alone.

It works similarly with friends: most of my friends are in relatively similar situations to mine at present. We're mostly scrabbling for cheap apartments, for health insurance, for the money we need to start our adult lives. A few live substantially above that level: I ran into a friend on the subway recently--I had Trader Joe's bags and my hair in a sloppy ponytail; he was wearing a Paul Smith suit. And of course, some people's limited means are mitigated by their family's assistance (as mine are, to some extent). But aside from the few bankers and the many grad students of my acquaintance, my friends and I are living at about the same level--we haven't begun to differentiate ourselves yet, really. Yet. Yet.

My field of academic interest is reasonably closely related to this--I'm interested in canon formation, in aesthetic taste, in reading practices--in how class and money and economic history have shaped the more ethereal realms of our lives. Including how we relate to our families; including who our friends are. I may very well be thinking about these problems for the rest of my life, and I still don't know if I'll ever be satisfied with my conclusions.

1 comment:

edp said...

"I think sometimes that the reason we pretend that money is no issue in the face of family is because if we start thinking about how big an issue money is, it clouds everything over and makes us feel very much alone."

Very, very well said.