family miser

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.

16 Responses

  • Cassandra Gordon // // Reply

    Your insightful article made me think about my father, who I adored. I think that in his case, the old adage “when he could he did” is truly applicable. But also, in his case, even when he couldn’t, he did.
    My father lived to give. He showered family and close friends with gifts, always thoughtfully purchased. In later life, as his coffers diminished, he didn’t stop giving. It cost him greatly. Basically bankrupt in his nineties, he maxed out his credit cards and ended up dependent on his children.
    However, when one of his great-children was named for him and I was asked to speak about my father, the memories of his joy of giving took center stage.
    CG, Boston, Ma.

  • Beth // // Reply

    I love this post!!! Excellent writing!! Makes one think! Thank you! Keep them coming

  • Anne Bowen // // Reply

    Keep these coming, please.

  • Carol Banquer // // Reply

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I love your perspective and wisdom. Thank you.

    My father was a combination of generous and miserly. He gave generously to the Jewish community and to Brandeis, to his alma maters, MIT and Boston Latin School. Starting when I was six, my two sisters and I went to overnight summer camp for eight weeks. I was ashamed and resentful that I wore my sisters’ baggy hand me down shorts for too many years. As soon as I could afford, to, I would purchase what I wanted when I wanted it. To this day, if I want something, I buy it. The upshot: I’m usually overwhelmed by organizing and maintaining all my stuff. It’s a challenge for me to get rid of clothes I don’t wear and books that I will never need. Over years, on a day-to-day basis I’ve been unable to ask myself “What do I need it for?” Only within the last year have I come to ask myself that wise question.

    Re your last sentence: I’ve understood for almostd twenty years that we all have the same needs , including autonomy, authenticity,, belonging, being seen and being heard–but often use curious strategies to meet those needs.

  • Barbara Weinstein // // Reply

    I was Murray’s niece and saw him very differently. Remember, I grew up in my grandparents home and every Friday evening Uncle Murray with Aunt Pearl would take the ride from Brooklyn to visit his in-laws in Long Beach . He was tired I’m sure from a long day at the office but he always showed up with his medical bag in hand. Checked his in-laws out & then sat down to eat whatever grandmother presented to him. As a teenager , if I was home that Fri I would join the family and listen to all the stories and I saw a very different Uncle Murray.

  • Corinne Adler // // Reply

    Wow!!! Yes, getting older does have insights, paradoxes, complexities, etc. I loved your remembrance of Michel’s father. I think more of my mother now than I ever have, and it has mostly to do with my getting older.

    Your writing has clarity, and most important, it is interesting to read, a certain compelling quality. I now this because I have a lot of work to do and need to do, and here I am reading your latest installment.

    Keep it up, xxxCorinne

  • Don Brasseaux // // Reply

    This writing makes me think of my earlier years and my understanding at that time of situations in the family circle.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Minia // // Reply

    Well, what an extra ordinare feeling you made me plounge in. You sent me back to so many memoires.
    I love you so much for this skill of yours
    See you soon and will be able to talk for as long as we wish

  • Stefan Stein // // Reply

    It is a moving tribute to our parents to see them come alive in their afterlives in a new,more rounded, and thoughtful way. But my attention is focussed on the writer who has carried out this wonderful revision in her own mind and thoughts in their absence, except in memory. Bravo.

  • Chris // // Reply

    Elizabeth, it is such a joy to read your thoughts. I always find myself thinking of loved ones in my life I want to share them with! Where/how can I purchase your book?

  • Caryl // // Reply

    Compelling and beautifully written, as always. And inspiring, too; makes me think I should give my parents another, deeper look. Would that they were here to talk to! Looking forward to your next installment

  • Elia Youngner // // Reply

    Dearest Elizabeth: I have always enjoyed your company but I never knew that I would also love your writing. You are a true writer!! I hope you keep doing it and including me, of course. I hope someday your blog become a book too.
    I very much enjoyed the story about your father and your father in law because we spend all our lives trying to figure out our elders. I am sure Stuart will also enjoy your stories. Can I share with him?

    I hope you are well and to see you soon

    With love, Elia

  • Stephen Truslow // // Reply

    Things we don’t know about friends and family.
    My brother’s wife died suddenly on July 4 after sustaining two strokes over a period of two weeks. At the memorial service, my brother spoke about how she grew up with a mother who had bi-polar disorder and would emotionally disappear for periods of time. The anxiety she felt from losing her mother followed her throughout her life but she was also able to channel her emotions into helping others. My brother’s revealing of her past history opened up a new understanding of what made her the person she was..

  • Ronnie Scharfman // // Reply

    How wonderful to live long enough and have the insight to revise T.S. Eliot, to find the meaning in the experience! I am so touched by this poignant portrait of your Father-in-law, Elizabeth, and by the generosity that you now show towards him the compassion that comes after understanding, the tribute that your hard work at writing constitutes!
    It also resonates with me, personally. Hegel said that it is through deepening the particular that we arrive at the universal. Your writing does this! My own Father, also a striving Brooklyn doctor of that generation, was very much more comfortable with his beloved sister in her humble apartment that with his disdainful wife and problem children in their newly renovated home.
    What a fascinating journey you are on, probing the secrets of the heart.

  • Anne Coury // // Reply

    Elizabeth, your writing is so clear with such insight and thought. I have the awful feeling that recognition will come too late. Surely there is some publisher out and about in the web, who will appreciate your unique talent..

  • Gloria Gallington // // Reply

    Elizabeth, how I love your writing! This piece is so beautifully written and thought provoking. More, please.

Leave a Reply