The journey into old age is not all downhill. In fact, one of the pleasant surprises is the fresh, hilltop perspective that it offers on the past. Now, nearing 70, I am more inclined to see the important people in my life in the context of their own backstories and times. The inconsistencies in the fixed, sharply delineated portraits I’d drawn of them early on become more glaring. In fact, at times I’m forced to question nearly everything I thought I knew about them. Most amazing is to find our relationship evolving, even after their deaths.
Take my father-in-law Murray, a Brooklyn doctor who was notoriously miserly, a shortcoming that left its mark on my husband and his three siblings. When I married into the family, I didn’t see much to admire in the man, beyond his devotion to patients and a certain sweetness in his manner. He was closed off, incurious and notoriously tight. I suspected there was another side to him—since the family treated him like a potentate, rushing to overfill his plate and celebrating his birthday like a national holiday—but I couldn’t see it. Equally mysterious was how my mother-in-law contrived the purchase of their grand Flatbush house, given Murray’s grip on his wallet.
This was a man who never treated his kids to a slice of pizza or an ice cream cone. If someone turned the heat up; he turned it down. On the rare occasion when he found himself in a restaurant not owned by a patient—where dinner would be comped—he ordered whatever was cheapest (referred to in the family as “ordering from the right side of the menu”) and famously refused the cup of tea he could later have for free at home. The kids learned not to ask for anything; his answer was always, “What do you need it for?”
It might have hurt less, if he weren’t also stingy with his time. He lived at the office, having dinner most nights with his sister’s family in an apartment upstairs, only returning home in time to hear the litany of his own children’s misbehavior and to do his paper work. He never attended ball games or school plays, not even graduations. To see him, the kids took turns accompanying him on house calls, waiting for him in the dark car that steadily got colder. His disconnection was too painful to acknowledge, so the family focused on the penny-pitching.
“He lived through the depression,” people would say, but I knew that wasn’t it. He’d been a young adult in ‘29, too old to have had it warp his character. And my own father, a self-made dentist of the same age, loved the good life and spent liberally, in part for the delight in being able to. Because restaurants made much of their money from alcohol, he always insisted on ordering a cocktail. “Noblesse oblige,” he used to say, beaming. How could two men who’d made the same climb from immigrant poverty differ so much in enjoying their success?
The answer emerged when I filmed our parents for posterity. Murray had been the golden boy in his working class, Jewish family, the only son and a serious student, so I asked if he’d ever been a bad boy. “Only once,” he told me. When playing with friends in an empty lot, he’d found a dime— a large sum for a child in the first decade of the twentieth century—and treated all his pals to penny candy. “When my father found out,” he recalled, “he was so angry he shut me in the cellar for the day.”
To Murray’s father, a hard working cabinet maker who struggled to provide, his son’s impulsive generosity must have felt like an insult: to waste even a small sum a belittling of his labors. But that dime was an expensive lesson, in the toll it took on Murray and on down to the next generation. I was nearing 50 when I uncovered Murray’s story and found my sympathy aroused, but I continued to see him in black and white: a tightwad with a good excuse for it.
Now, twenty years later, I see more nuance in his character, as I work into the puzzle the details about him that never quite seemed to fit. In truth, the man had little interest in money. If a patient didn’t pay, he’d never send a reminder. And he took anything in trade: the boys’ haircuts, an air conditioner, even the family dog. He didn’t hoard his money; he just couldn’t spend it on anything that smacked of a treat. What a pity he never shared the dime story with his children; they might have come to see that his withholding was not about love. I think he never imagined that anything more was expected of him, that his presence at a ball game or graduation mattered. He was the devoted provider, the willing workhorse pulling the family into a better life, soldiering on in his own father’s footsteps.
Just recently, I talked about Murray with one of the nieces who’d lived in the apartment over the office. She remembers a very different man, a generous man, one who relaxed with her father after office hours, who didn’t charge rent and paid for summer camp. Most astonishing, Murray secretly bought her older sister a set of silver when she married, worried that his wife’s gift might be chintzy. Suddenly, a subplot emerged: my mother-in-law resented the time and money Murray gave his sister and her family, and he knew it.
I can imagine Murray more at ease in the apartment over the office—where he must have enjoyed being appreciated for his generosity—than in the grand Flatbush house with its bevy of demanding children whose lives he may not have fully understood. No doubt, a sense of filial responsibility led him to ease his sister’s financial difficulties and to try to narrow the gap between the two families’ lives. Clearly, it was easier for him to make a big purchase like the fine house and gift of silver than a small one like an ice cream cone.
I keep going back in my mind to an exchange during Murray’s last visit to our house in the country, a year before he died. My husband and I tried and failed to entice him to join us in the hot tub, but he was moved to say, while watching from a lounge chair, “It gives me so much pleasure to see you enjoying yourselves.” This was a startling statement from a man who almost never gave voice to his feelings. Recalling it today makes me realize how much I underestimated him. I can never know all that was in his heart, but the devotion and sweetness I first perceived were certainly there in good measure. Since Murray wasn’t my father, and I never suffered from his miserliness, it may be easier for me than for his children to see him as the complex person he was. But my view of my own parents is evolving similarly.
Trying to get a fix on a parent as you age, is like taking bearings from a moving platform. And, then, the world keeps turning, too. Now, I even find there is something to be said for Murray’s reluctance to spend. Shouldn’t we all be putting on sweaters and turning down the heat? Assaulted with enticements to shop, surrounded by “stuff” for which I have no room or need, his words come back to me nearly every day: “What do I need it for?”
We all recognize that our own inner lives are a mess of disabling insecurities, conflicted needs, and unexpressed yearnings. Eventually it dawns on us that what is true of ourselves is true of everyone.