My father died shortly before my fourth birthday, leaving my mother with three young children, a half-finished house, and no income.
He was 33, a newly qualified architect just starting out in his own business when he died. He designed our home, which was very modern for its time. It was open plan, with a huge kitchen/dining room and a laundry overlooking the front yard. This was very unusual as most kitchens and laundries were at the back of the house in those days. My mother had insisted that she wanted to have a view of the street when she was in the kitchen or doing the laundry. She disliked housework and menial chores (it runs in the family) and didn’t want to be stuck away somewhere at the back of the house slaving over a hot stove in the kitchen or doing the endless laundry that comes with a growing family.
We had beautiful polished floorboards in the lounge room and a fireplace. This was odd given that we lived in Perth where the winters aren’t really that cold, but we all loved that fireplace and I have happy memories of sitting on my grandmother’s lap eating hot buttered toast in front of a roaring fire. We’d crouch in front of the fire with long forks trying to get our thick white bread nice and brown without burning the edges, but we secretly loved the burnt bits. They added excitement and texture, elevating the toast to something magical.
We moved into the house before it was really finished, so when my dad became ill, we had many working bees at our house. Friends and people from our church would come around on weekends to build cupboards, paint walls and hang doors. They even made us a cubby in the backyard from leftover building materials. They fashioned a little front doorstep, and we pushed our feet into the wet cement and put our initials underneath in a neat row–BJM, in that order, oldest to youngest. As I grew older, I would marvel at how my feet had mysteriously grown large enough to fit into the impressions made by my two big sisters.
When my father died, my mum survived by cleaning the local hairdressers, taking in ironing and doing whatever she could to make ends meet. Sadly, her father (our grandfather) also died in the same year, so it was a difficult time both emotionally and financially, but we got used to wearing hand-me-down clothes and eating meals that had been stretched out with cheap fillers like pasta, oats, and bread.
One of my favourite desserts was made from Weetbix layered with apples and sultanas and served with hot custard. Years later, my mother told me she used to make this when there wasn’t really enough of the main course to go around.
I’ve got no doubt that these experiences have shaped my attitudes towards money and I often struggle to understand how young families can afford to take their young children to the local café where breakfast costs $40 or $50 dollars for a family, and that’s without any smashed avocado!
This isn’t a criticism of young families. I can fully appreciate that times have changed in so many ways, but I find it hard to comprehend that people seem to spend fairly large amounts of money on things that I consider luxuries. I still feel guilty buying take-away coffee even though I can well afford to these days, but I’m also very aware of where these feelings come from and I know they are hard to shake.
Once when my children were toddlers, my mother sent me a five-dollar note inside my birthday card with instructions to buy myself a cup of coffee at the shops as a treat. She knew me too well. There was no money to spare and it would have been unthinkable to spend money on coffee when I needed the cash to put petrol in the car so that I could get to playgroup.
Now I’m heading towards retirement and I’m finding it hard to accept the idea that one day soon my income will drop and I’ll have less coming into my bank account. Over my career I’ve transitioned from a well-paid job with the national broadcaster, moving to part-time work with TAFE and back to full-time work when the kids were bigger, but I’m still thrilled when I get paid every fortnight.
I’m hoping that when I eventually call it quits, I’ll have learnt to be generous with myself (and with others) and not get caught up in the fear of not having enough. I know that I have enough, as well as a generous and supportive husband, so these fears are totally unfounded, but it helps me to understand that my fears are rooted in experience.
It also helps to remind myself that being relatively poor wasn’t even a bad experience. We never missing out on anything. We had clean clothes, a nice house, a loving mother and plenty to eat. We were satisfied with our lot, so I hope that as I move towards the next phase of my life, I’ll be happy knowing that there’s enough of everything, including money for coffee.