Warning: This post will not paint a flattering portrait of my mother. She was a brilliant and complicated woman who was ruined by mental illness (bipolar disorder) and overall bad health. Her relationship with her own mother was embattled and, at times, violent. I don’t know whether this is news to members of my (her) family or not, because we generally try to remember the good times and how witty she was and how kind she could be. There were many layers of darkness below her brilliance, though.
I very clearly remember the day when my future was traded away by my mother, in exchange for an ephemeral financial reprieve.
This was due to my mother being both a shopaholic and a narcissist. I can’t even be mad at her about that, because they are issues she came by righteously via her mental illness and her own troubled relationship with her mother. She never meant to be cruel or thoughtless or destructive.
But in the end, in 1986, when I was 16, she traded my future away. She remortgaged our house to the max and also cashed out my father’s long-standing, $500,000 life insurance policy for the pittance it was worth. She did these things to pay off a truly mind-boggling amount of credit card debt, easily over $30,000 (in 1986, remember, so that’s around $70k in today’s terms), rather than have our credit ruined and/or declare bankruptcy. If we had anything left to us other than the house and that life insurance policy, she would have leveraged that too…but the fact is, everything had been sold off long before 1986, in one of Mother’s many half-cocked plans to “fix” our finances. Savings, investments, property, jewelry, cars…piecemeal over 30 years of marriage, she sold off every asset.
I had no idea that was not normal. Most kids don’t grow up knowing how to manage two sets of books, but I did. There was the checkbook that father was allowed to see, and the secret box with the secret checkbook that I helped mother manage once I was old enough to use a calculator reliably. I was a shy only-child who was pushed into homeschooling when I was 7 years old, and a few traumatic brushes with public schools during puberty did nothing to undo my complete ignorance about nearly everything. I wasn’t quite “locked in the basement” but I wonder sometimes if the end result wasn’t similar. I was bright and what is called “book smart” but as far as how adults were supposed to manage their lives, I had two sources of input: my parents, and television.
Alas, Barney Miller and Happy Days were not exactly enlightening.
I know the unravelling of my life from 1986 to 1996 is not the worst story that could be told. From one perspective, this is about a very spoiled child learning hard truths about life the hard way; from another, it’s the story of a fragile girl’s reality crumbling around her through no fault of her own. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and I have a hard time allowing for that. I should have known better!
But I didn’t.
What I do I know is that I don’t accurately remember the depths of our debt, as it got complicated with sometimes up to twelve credit cards juggling balances that always kept growing. It was never a simple problem, and there was never going to be simple solution to it that left us unscathed.
What I do remember is the day Mother managed to cow my father into agreeing to her mad plan. To do so she had to come clean about the debt, or at least most of it. I knew she wasn’t telling him the whole truth, but I also knew that it wouldn’t make a difference. They fought like cats and dogs for a week anyway. This wasn’t the first time they had to scramble to pay off the credit cards, it was just worse than any time before it.
The threat of bankruptcy was very real, though, and she used that to get what she wanted, knowing that Poppa might fight for a while but eventually retreat to the Coors beer can. This was the way of my parents, as Poppa was generally “in absentia” due to his alcoholism. He would put up a token protest, mother would outmaneuver him emotionally, and things would go on as before.
I sat there in full awareness that Mother was planning to destroy any chance I had at financial security in my future, but I could not say anything. I was 16. She was my mother. What did I know?
I knew that if my father died before she did, we’d be destitute and I’d have to drop out of college or otherwise compromise my life plans in order to get a job to support her. I knew that if Mother died first, all of this manic (literally) plotting was for naught. Given my father’s advanced age and my mother’s poor health, I fully expected one or the other to die before I was 25. For some reason, it escaped my notice that they might both be dead by the time I was 26, which is how it really went down.
Mother died first, in the end. 1994 – I had just turned 24 the month before she died. It was a protracted, bloody, painful and expensive death. Afterwards, Poppa and I had to declare bankruptcy anyway, because by that time her massive medical bills combined with the amount of debt she had managed to rack up (this time, about $50,000 in the 8 years since the remortgage) meant there was no way we could pay it all off on his retirement salary. His stroke earlier that year meant he couldn’t hold a job anymore. I had not worked outside the home for a couple of years by that point. It honestly came down to whether we had to go bankrupt sooner rather than later.
So we owed nearly full price on the house, due to the remortgage, and then Poppa died in 1996. The meager life insurance policy he took out in 1990 (or so) got me enough money to pay off my car loan and rent an apartment. His estate never went into probate, and the bank foreclosed on the house.
I lost everything and had absolutely zero financial padding to move forward with.
Why did my mother do that, anyway? Why did she leverage her only child’s future for the sake of a credit card debt she was entirely responsible for creating?
While it would be easy to make her out as a monster, and it is also indeed true that she was a full-blown narcissist, the fact of the matter is that she did it because she was scared.
No, actually, correction: she was fucking terrified.
She knew she could never get a full time job to pay off the debt because of her mental and health issues. She knew her husband’s health was precarious because of his age and alcoholism and that his own ability to hold down a job to supplement his retirement pay would end within the next decade.
But above and beyond all of that, she was scared of failure. She was in thrall to what people (mostly, her family) thought of her. She had always been somewhat of the black sheep of her family, troubled and a trouble maker, torn between craving approval and not giving a damn what anyone thought of her. She was fat in a thin world, a feminist in a man’s world, a dreamer anchored to “the real world,” a bisexual queer in a straight world.
I think nothing she did ever worked out for her because she was always too scared to break free completely, even though she fantasized about it a lot. Her desperate desire to be viewed as “successful” by the standards of her era fucked with her longing to do what she really wanted to do, because they were diametrically opposed. The fatter and poorer and older she got, the more anything good seemed unattainable.
I remember her yelling at me one day about how everything was set against her, the fates determined to ruin her life and make her miserable. Sadly, it’s not like I could claim, then or now, that it wasn’t true. She didn’t choose to be fat or suffer from bipolar disorder and asthma and CFIDS and cancer; she did not know she had married an alcoholic until well after I was born. In so many ways, her brain and her body set her up to take a fall. She was endlessly bitter about it, and refused to ever give an inch in the battle if it meant looking like a failure.
Declaring bankruptcy (if we could have, which was not a given) in 1986 would have ruined my family psychologically and, probably, structurally in addition to financially. Going on a stringent financial “diet” to pay off the bills and not create more would have been the responsible thing to do, but just as ruinous to my mother’s sense of self as being carted off to debtor’s prison. Specifically it would have meant taking a hit on their credit rating, and she was super zealous about their credit rating…mostly so she could take out more credit cards and create more debt, as she did immediately once that crisis was over.
She viewed herself as a woman who solved problems. She refused to accept that she also caused them. Paying off the credit card debt in one fell swoop was the only way to do it that would save their credit rating and our family’s reputation, no matter the risk she knew she was taking with her own future or mine.
Or, really, just mine. She knew I would drop everything to take care of her, and in the end, I did just that when she was diagnosed with cancer. I left my chrysalis young adulthood and walked right back into that house, knowing full well it was where dreams went to die.
Funny thing: I don’t remember any details about the day I did that.