When he left Russia his pockets were full of czarist rubles, a worthless souvenir. He never really trusted paper money again. When he was flush, he bought silver dollars. They would always be worth something. The paper stuff was like play money to him. Later he kept his dollars rolled in a rubber band in his pocket or, if the roll was too thick, in an empty cigar box, better than banks.
For her, money meant acceptance. She needed the right clothes, the right neighborhood. A bookkeeper, she saw money as a tangible object, to be grasped and managed to get where she wanted to go. She kept a budget with envelopes – food, clothes, rent, accidentals. Occasionally she would borrow from one budget envelope, but always repaid it.
They lived hand to mouth and moved often. When they couldn’t afford to move, she painted the kitchen table. During the Depression he sold crackers from a horse-drawn wagon. When that business collapsed, he worked for her brother, then ran a hospital canteen, a kind of coffee / gift shop where patients could buy smokes, hamburgers or small gifts for their girlfriends. It was a hospital for sailors, for the merchant marine. During the war there were many customers. He saw the money coming in, worked alone or with his oldest son or hired help, never worried. When she, the bookkeeper, noticed the difference between the register intake and the cash on hand, the hired help was fired. “Robbing us blind” was how she justified it to him, who felt uncomfortable letting someone go. From then on she worked beside him, hiring live-in maids to take care of the house, the children. For him, there was always enough, maybe because he didn’t manage the money. When he wanted it, he took it, whether or not that fit in with her plans or the bank balance – the innocence of ignorance.
At one low point in their financial lives he brought her a set of stone martens for Mothers’ Day, three dead animals with glass eyes. Of course they couldn’t afford them and, of course, when she finally got over her anger, she loved wearing them draped over her shoulders.
Her fury lasted longer when he brought a surprise for Valentine’s Day: a red heart-shaped box containing red roses forming the outline of a heart. This she couldn’t even wear, show off to neighbors, a real waste. As she told her sister on the phone: “I lit into him, but good”.
For her, there was never enough money. Clothes came from the bargain basement, food from the reduced-for-quick-sale bin. She opened new savings accounts with any bank that offered pots or silverware as a reward. As a result, her children said she had money in every corner, five dollars in this bank, ten in that one. True, but it never amounted to much, even with the interest.
Within the family she could be mean at the drop of a hat. When her children’s friends came, she scolded afterward “You have to give them milk? What’s wrong with water?” Her own children, she complained, drank orange juice like a beverage.
Pennywise and pound foolish, they fell into their luck or careened into it, rebounding from some catastrophe. The big white house with twenty-five rooms, for example – a mansion including a billiard room, cedar- lined rooms, a butler’s pantry and the only double-winged staircase in Boston- bought on a whim to make her happy. It was wartime. They were making money hand over fist. They couldn’t heat the house, couldn’t furnish it, couldn’t really live in it because they were working so hard.
The house was full of another family’s history: window seats in the cavernous living room filled with souvenirs of a journey to the Far East- a set of may Johngg tiles, straw fans, coolie hats; the music room floor marked with a bleached piano shape, the oval conservatory’s tiled floor stained where plants had stood. In the year and a half they lived there, the family established their own claims: the rose trellis on the back porch, a late-night entry for the son, the marble counter in the kitchen pantry, a cool spot to store birthday cakes. The sitz bath in the main bathroom remained a mystery, unused.
Then came the idea of having a real restaurant, their own business, something classy, with a real chef. She could be the hostess, he could oversee the kitchen, the sons could help behind the counter. It would be easy after the endless hours in the canteen.
A friend sold them some land on a lonely country road, an hour and a half from Boston – cheap. The restaurant was built from scratch using orange roof tiles, blue plastic booths around orange plastic tables – cheap. The resemblance to a popular restaurant chain was unfortunate. The chef came from a hotel in Boston and was not cheap. He demanded and got $250 a week, in 1945 a small fortune, and arrived in full uniform and with his own set of knives.
It was named after their daughter “Lenore’s – The Place to Eat That Can’t Be Beat.” No liquor license, but on Mother’s Day and most Sundays it was full, with a line of patient customers waiting for tables. Usually it was so empty it echoed.
They owned a mansion and a classy restaurant that looked like a hamburger joint on a secluded country road, a double catastrophe. They sank all their savings- the bonds they had bought for the children, the rainy day money, everything they had- into the restaurant. Finally they sold it, at a loss naturally, and auctioned off the house. Furious at having to give up her dream, she ripped the crystal chandeliers out of the wall in the music room and took them away with her.
It was 1946. Soldiers returning from the war snapped up all the available housing. Where to go? A friend knew of an apartment big enough for a family of five, but they would have to buy the house to get the apartment. She figured that the other apartments would bring some income. Burdened with a heavy mortgage, they moved in.
Although it was a poor substitute for the lost mansion, they were proud of their new house. She was the landlady, but when the tenants complained about the lack of heat, he was the one sent to smooth things over. It was his job to deal with the janitor, an alcoholic who often forgot to shovel the coal into the furnace. It was a happy day for everyone when they switched to oil heating.
The house made them property owners, a class above wage earners in their minds. The apartment house provided a minimum income. Although the parents both worked, it was the income from the house that carried them through. The fiscal flow was never even – a new roof, an empty apartment meant anxiety and more economies.
The children experienced these changes like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Summers in camp were cancelled. The membership at the synagogue was dropped in favor of a cheaper schul. The kosher butcher, “that thief” was no longer patronized, although every piece of meat was salted for hours at home to make it kosher.
As the children grew, the costs increased. All three offspring should be college-educated, have more advantages than their parents. The mother took out a second mortgage, this time for renovations that would provide offices for six doctors. The college years were rocked by financial tremors. The day of the last mortgage payment coincided nicely with the final college graduation. After eight years, the house belonged to them and not to the bank.
By this time they had reached retirement age. He had a heart condition and had difficulties breathing in the hard Boston winters. She wanted to move to Florida permanently. Two of the tenants, dentists, were anxious to buy the entire building. They refused to negotiate with her, the landlady, insisting on her husband. He would vanish into their office, then come upstairs to discuss the situation with her. Laden with warnings and conditions, he would go down again to re-negotiate. Finally a contract was signed. With the down payment, they were able to buy a condominium in Miami in the building she wanted, right on the beach.
It was only a one-bedroom apartment facing the street. He was happy. “Always something doing.” he said, watching the traffic. Never satisfied, she wanted something bigger facing the ocean. They bought a two-bedroom apartment in the same building. He was happy watching the ocean. She furnished it according to her taste, bargain-basement-rich. With the ocean breezes, she seldom saw the necessity to “turn on the air”. Old habits die hard. He slept on the terrace on hot nights.
The children and grandchildren came for visits, thankful to escape their own various hard winters. The parents outlived the monthly payments from the dentists by only a few years.
The children sold the condo as soon as possible. Along with the proceeds, they inherited their mother’s attitude toward money- the figuring, conniving, skin-of-the-teeth mentality that finally bought their parents the American Dream.