I’m spring cleaning my office and desk when I come across my mother’s checkbook in one of my drawers. Mom’s been gone over a decade. The account is long closed and I’m in purging mode, so I contemplate putting the checkbook in the shredder.
But I can’t seem to let go of this meaningful memento of her once-ordinary life because of the vital lesson it symbolizes for me.
Buying Gifts for the Family
A cartoon caricature of an older woman smiles from the checkbook cover as a bubble over her head exclaims: “Stop me before I shop again!” I smile, remembering how my mom loved to shop, especially for gifts for her family.
A widow on a modest pension that she received due to my dad’s career working on the railroad, Mom began shopping for the next Christmas year as soon as the current one was over — always seeking out bargains for the perfect presents. This was the only way she could afford to buy for her three adult daughters and our extended families. We begged her to stop buying presents, but it was the thing that gave her the greatest pleasure.
Mom was meticulous about balancing their checkbook, always making sure it had $50 extra that wasn’t counted in the balance — just in case.
Mom maintained the household finances and was meticulous about balancing their checkbook, always making sure it had $50 extra that wasn’t counted in the balance — just in case.
My dad passed away in 1981 at 58, just as my parents were about to enjoy more financial comfort with an empty nest. At 64, Mom went to work as a pharmacy cashier, where she was able to earn enough to maintain her own apartment and independence. After she began drawing the Railroad Retirement pension, Mom continued working as long as she could, using that “extra” income to buy gifts and indulge in her hobbies, weekly hair appointments and an occasional new outfit.
The Genie in the Bottle
So now, to us.
My husband, Dale, and I grew up in the same working-class neighborhood. We were both taught a strong work ethic and that the most important thing we have in life is our good name. We were cautioned not to ruin it by getting into debt we couldn’t handle. This philosophy worked well for us — until the Great Recession.
That’s when Dale was laid off from his job as a diesel mechanic and my freelance-writing business was sent into a tailspin.
We went through our emergency fund within a few months. Living in a small Arkansas town, my husband had few opportunities to find a job paying close to anything like he’d been making. He ended up working two full-time jobs for minimum wage, $7.50 an hour. It still wasn’t enough to cover our modest expenses, so we began using credit cards as a means to survive. Soon, debt collectors began calling; we then refinanced the mortgage and took advantage of a loan modification on our truck.
Through those rough 18 months, I would sometimes open the top desk drawer, pull out my mom’s checkbook and rub it. I thought of all the financial hardships she’d endured: After my dad died, mom was forced to close her new craft business and sell the larger dream home they’d been able to buy two years prior. She needed money to pay their debts and live on until she could draw that pension.
Like a genie in a bottle, as I rubbed that checkbook, my mom’s can-do spirit would jump out at me. “Life is always about balance, in every area,” I remember she had told me.
What My Mom Did to Survive
Her voice kept me going through the hardest of those months. Still, at the end of our hardship in the spring of 2010, Dale and I thought of doing what my mom had done to survive — sell our house. Like her, we didn’t know where we would go or what we would do, but we felt crushed by the long hours of work and the debt. We made an appointment with a Realtor.
The day before that appointment, Dale was called back to his job.
Unlike my mom, we were fortunately able to hold onto our greatest asset, our home and land.
As the economy recovered, so did my freelance business. Today, we still have some of the credit card debt we racked up, although we’ve made progress reducing the balances. Dale was finally eligible for his company’s matching retirement plan last year, so we’re hoping to rebuild some of the savings we lost.
Living Mom’s Lesson
Like many Americans, we’re nowhere near where we need to be financially. But — thanks to Mom’s advice — we’re doing the best we can by balancing work and life, and trying to save a little along the way. Now in our 50s, nearing the age my dad was when he died, it makes me anxious that one of us might not be able to work before we’re able to pay off the house and most of our debt.
I’m holding Mom’s checkbook in my hand, as I contemplate what to do with it.
I close my eyes and see Mom’s tiny 90-pound frame standing in front of me at the grocery checkout line, writing a check as the cashier waits patiently. Long after most people had giving up checkbooks for debit cards, Mom clung to hers. It was comforting; her careful penmanship told her the checkbook balanced, no matter what, and it always had that little extra — just in case.
I hear her words again. I smile, returning Mom’s checkbook to my top desk drawer. Life is all about balance, even when you’re in the mood for purging.
Our financial future is still uncertain, but Mom’s checkbook still has that little something left in it I can cling to for comfort — that genie that brings her voice back to me when I need to hear it the most.
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