There was no question that the writer would take care of her mother in her old age. But what do you do when Mom squanders your hard-earned money on knockoff bags and jewelry?
I had to put my foot down when she started buying cheap jewelry.
Perhaps she thought she’d fool me, or try to lie to me about it. But one day, when I’d gone to pick her up from her Upper West Side apartment and bring her back to Connecticut for a few days in the country, I looked over at the passenger seat to find her mindlessly waving her right hand in the air and rattling a tiny diamond horseshoe charm hanging off a new gold ring that I’d never seen before.
It seemed to hypnotize her, the way a teething ring calms a child.
“What is that?” I asked, nodding at it, as we drove along the West Side Highway.
“Nothing,” she said. She slipped her hand under her right thigh, as if to hide it from me.
“It’s not nothing,“ I said. “Where did it come from?”
“Loretta bought it for me.”
“Your best friend bought you a diamond ring? Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“I needed something new, so I bought some bling,” she answered matter-of-factly. My mother put her hand back on her thigh and flicked at the horseshoe to make it rattle again. “I sold a few things.”
“You mean, like stock,” I said. That’s the first thing to go when she needs something new.
She shot me a look.
“No,” she answered through her teeth. “I sold some old pieces.”
She flared her nostrils and looked out the window. I remembered her heavy 1950s, triple-link charm bracelet, laden with gold trinkets—a spinning globe; a typewriter with a moveable carriage and diamond keys; a jewel-encrusted tiny Sputnik from H. Stern— growing more sparse over the years since my stepfather died, until it was all bracelet and no charm. Or the disappearance of an enormous, cloyingly old-fashioned cameo—glazed like a donut with half a century of Aqua-Net—which I could close my eyes and see my beloved, long-dead grandmother wearing on her beige cashmere cardigan. I thought of the antique garnets that my father had given her before they were married, when he’d first introduced her to his family at their summer home in Woodstock, New York, and how, one by one, the pieces had evaporated like water from a glass.
Like many adult children, my wife and I have been helping pay a few of my mother’s bills for a while—her phone, cell, and cable bills come directly to me, as do her medical co-payments, which can be significant, but not because she’s ill; seeing doctors has become an activity, like visiting a museum. When I see her, I always try to slip her some cash—like my bubbe stuffing a wad of twenties into my coat pocket when I came home from college—to tide her over until her checks come in each month.
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” I say, praying that she’ll use it for kitchen staples, or her prescriptions, or laundry and a nice take-out roast chicken, or perhaps a movie that she’s been dying to see. Anything, I pray, but bling.
Dinner, lunch, all meals, are on me when we’re together, and when she complained angrily one rainy Sunday that she had no food in her refrigerator and that it was obvious that I didn’t care whether she lived or died, I sent her a $200 groceries order from Fresh Direct with clear instructions on what to eat and when, how to defrost properly so that nothing would go bad, and what was safe to re-freeze.
The night after the delivery arrived, I called to see what she’d made, and left her a message.
“Where were you?” I asked when she returned my call after eleven that night.
“Since I didn’t have to buy food for the house, I had enough money to go out for dinner,” she said. “And anyway, you sent me too much.”
Three days later, the salmon, the vegetables, the quiche and the roast beef went straight into the trash.
“I had to throw it out,” she said, patting her shrinking, size-two midsection.
My mother has always had a tenuous grasp of money, and its meaning; when her father died in 1967, leaving her a small amount of cash and a handful of now-priceless tenement buildings all over Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she bought five fur coats in less than a year. Furious at my stepfather for some minor infraction nearly 30 years later, she met me at Tiffany one rainy Saturday afternoon ostensibly to have a sterling-silver pill case repaired, but in fact to order the expensive engraved social stationary that she suddenly could not possibly exist without, paying the $1,500 bill with his credit card. Coming out of one of her doctors’ offices on the Upper East Side, she stopped at a stand selling $100 knock-offs of $2,000 purses and bought two—one for me; one for her—fake Goyard totebags from a Liberian who was eager to show her how good his copies were. She once bought 22 bottles of Clinique nail polish because she was certain they were going to discontinue her favorite color, even as she was living on a steady diet of egg whites and canned tuna procured from her local CVS. Having impetuously quit her medical receptionist job on Fifth Avenue a few years after my stepfather died, and with no other income beside Social Security and the meager interest she earns, she began to dip into principle whenever an urgent whim struck, like the abrupt, overwhelming need to install new light fixtures in her rental apartment kitchen because, she said, she couldn’t possibly bear the old ones anymore.
“Do you think your mother understands the difference between principal and interest?” my wife asked, “or does she expect us to support her, or to live with us when the money’s all gone because she needs new light fixtures, or runs out of nail polish?”
The question that every adult son or daughter wonders was suddenly on the table, and it was a real possibility: Jewish children are spoon-fed the dictum that, should their parents need help, in whatever form that need may come, they are required, under Halachic law, to intervene. If it ever came to my mother’s being homeless, if she whittled and divested herself down to nothing, spending her few shekels on nail polish, on lighting fixtures, on bling—while we were struggling to pay both her bills and ours—would we take her in? I thought of the proximity of the guestroom to our bedroom and I cringed. As a $13,000-a-year editorial assistant just out of college, I lived with her for two years; our twice-daily battles—morning and evening, like clockwork—finally resulted in my bursting so many ocular blood vessels that my physician made my moving out of my mother’s house a medical priority.
I couldn’t answer my wife; I tried not to think about it, all of it, how we would live together, whether we’d be destroyed—financially and emotionally—by my mother’s outsize sense of entitlement, desire, and need. But this was real. Every time I phoned, she invariably had just spoken to her broker, to demand that he find her more money. I’d hang up, a heavy wave of nausea settling over me like a blanket.
“The goddamned interests rates are so low,” she said to me one night, disgusted. “I’m getting practically nothing every month.”
“Do you understand, though, that the more principle you draw on, the lower your income will be, and that when that principle is gone, so is the interest, and you’ll have nothing left? What will you do then?”
“You don’t understand,” she replied. “I must live like other people, I must have some enjoyment in my life. If I have nothing left, I’ll just lay in bed, and eat less.”
“You need to understand,” I responded angrily. “I can’t support you right now—I’m a writer for God’s sake. I can barely hold up my end of my own household. Sometimes I pay your bills before I pay my own.”
“So? I sent you through college. You have a partner who makes a salary, and you’re working. You’re not alone. So I don’t see where paying a few of my bills should be such a problem for you.”
And mostly, it wasn’t.
We were happy to help my mother however we could, but sometimes—if I was between writing jobs, or a contract that I was expecting to arrive suddenly fell through—we struggled to make ends meet on my partner’s take-home pay. And the image of my mother, a stunning Manhattan socialite who had once led a certain kind of cosmopolitan existence replete with endless streams of disposable income and husbands who took almost carnal pleasure in adorning her with designer clothes and furs and massive pieces of jewelry, began to look more like an angry apparition, like the shackle-dragging Ghost of Christmas Past dressed in old Armani fraying a little bit around the edges.
After I broke the news to her that we were going away for our annual vacation to a drafty rental lake house in northern Vermont, my mother informed me that one of her bills was due and that she wanted it paid before we left.
“I can’t do it right now,” I told her, preparing for her irate response.
“You have the money to go on vacation; don’t tell me you can’t pay this stupid little bill.”
“I can’t pay your bills if you’re buying cheap jewelry, Mom, I’m sorry. I just can’t do it.”
“I have no joy in my life, and that’s what your throwing up to me? You weren’t raised this way—I used to help your grandmother and I never complained.”
“How do you think it makes me feel when my wife is working like a dog, I’m working round the clock, we’re barely getting by, we’re paying your bills, and you’re buying jewelry? Or 22 bottles of nail polish?”
She looked at me blankly.
My throat tightened; I felt sick, and sad that this woman, at this point in her life, has none of the comforts that she feels rightfully entitled to, that she so desperately needs to make her feel whole, and that I, in my insistence that she be responsible with what she has as she nears eighty, am depriving her of.
I am culpable and completely responsible for her, and for her happiness.
She is, after all, my mother; and she needs me.
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