Wasted Time

Is it all just wasted time?
Can you live with yourself
When you think of what
You left behind?

Wasted Time — Sebastian Philip Bierk; David Michael Sabo; Rachel Bolan Southworth

I used to lose sleep for days or weeks. When it happened, I never felt safe; I couldn’t focus; and I’d always latch onto the idea that something really great or something really bad was imminent. Once I thought I’d win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes. Another time I thought I’d get myself a job writing for “Saturday Night Live.” It happened every nine to 18 months. Sometimes events would trigger it. Every time “Uncle Gus” came to visit (See Some Things You Can’t Forgive); right before my wedding; when my first marriage ended; the first time my grandmother got sick.

For weeks, I wouldn’t know what day or what time it was, I’d lose hours, days, classes, jobs and friends. It started when I was 17 and Yaya had to go to the hospital. I couldn’t sleep for a week. The episodes were mild at first. During that one, I went to school, shrieked at a tap on the shoulder, started my job at Baskin Robbins, cried when my boyfriend stood at the counter, insisting I quit, and then they fired me.

My parents didn’t take that episode seriously, or the next one or the next. Once, when I was 21, after 2 or 3 weeks of freaking out and telling my concerned friends I was ok, they did take me to the Crisis Center in Carmel, where two nice men listened to me and gave me some pills. I slept for three days, woke up fine, and that was that. Problem solved. I remember once having a psychiatrist appointment after an episode, and he prescribed something that made me feel stoned. I complained, stopped taking it, and never saw him again.

My first husband tried to help me. Shortly before our wedding, I freaked out and he took me to see doctors but they didn’t help. They thought I was anxious, or depressed, or just psychotic. When our marriage ended, I freaked out again. That was the time I thought I’d work for SNL. I went to a psychiatrist recommended by our marriage counselor and I told him what my problem was. “You’re bipolar,” he said. Just like that. He prescribed some medication. I’ve never had another episode and now you’d never know that I’m mentally ill. Even during the early years, my disease wasn’t new or exotic. Everyone knew about bipolar disorder. It was all over Oprah. I even taped that episode for my mother and told her that’s what I thought I had. She waved my theory away. I worked with several therapists over the years. But no one deduced the right diagnosis before my 29th year.

And that’s what kills me. The wasted time. How much living could I have done if I didn’t freak out all the time? If I hadn’t lost all those jobs, could I have had a real career? Would I have published a book by now? What happened to those days and weeks I lost? What about all those years that I wrote off my own sanity?

I’ll never know. Losing all that time is one of my biggest regrets. Why couldn’t I just admit to myself I was sick and go to the right doctors? Why couldn’t I accept that there was something really wrong with me? I honestly didn’t know how easy the solution would be. A few pills a day and I’m a normal person. I think if I had known that, I’d have done it sooner. But I was so scared. So scared to get labeled, so scared to hear the truth. And now I mourn the loss of all that time.

Was the time really wasted? When I was in a 12-Step program, they said, “Everything happens right on time.” It’s a perfectly reasonable statement except for regrets that tear us up inside, yet those regrets are the very issues that sentiment’s about.

Between the ages of 17 and 29, I managed to graduate high school, get my bachelor’s degree in Psychology (believe me, the irony isn’t lost), work in a psychiatric hospital (again, I get it), move to Florida, realize I wanted to write, place my first published article in a magazine, move back to New York, get a job at a newspaper, survive a horrific car accident, learn to live with the resulting brain damage, land and lose another newspaper job, get married, get divorced and get a national reporting job that moved me to Washington, D.C.

Also during that time I established my reputation as a slut in high school; attempted suicide; used drugs; quit drugs; dropped out of two colleges; lost at least five jobs; adopted a puppy; gave him up; showed up psychotic at work; moved without telling my roommate; lost several friends; and knowingly embarked upon a doomed marriage.

When I first learned about death as a kid, I used to lie in backseat of the car on the way home from Yaya’s in the city, and I’d think, In the next minute, I’ll be one minute closer to death. And the next minute, it’ll be closer. And closer! I’ve learned a little about the passage of time since then, but I’m no less alarmist when it comes to death. I was 38 when I had my first child. My first thought was, “I’ll be almost 50 when she’s 10!” My next thought: “When she’s 40, I’ll be 80. Oh, no just how much of her life will I live to see?”

It’s no surprise that a kid like that would grow up to obsess about wasted time. And maybe that is my lesson to learn, my cross to bear. Maybe that’s why I’ve wasted so much – fodder for this cosmic lesson. Maybe regret is my driving force. If I didn’t feel I was so behind, maybe I’d never push myself to accomplish anything. I try to live as if I’ll get hit by a bus tomorrow. For every activity I consider writing off, I think, Ok, so if I die tomorrow, will I be satisfied with what I’ve done? The answer’s always no, but thinking about it helps me prioritize. When I’m dead, will folded clothes really matter? Ok, no, but writing that chapter will. Will I care whether Rose’s toys are picked up? Shit, Matt can do that before the mourners come, but if I read her a story right now, she’ll have one more memory of Mommy.

It’s a morbid method, yes, but I don’t encounter a lot of buses, so the statistical probability’s in my favor. And it helps me decide what’s really important. When I worked at the newspaper, I wrote obituaries. Hundreds of them. During that time, I decided that when I died, I wanted a kick-ass obituary. One that would make readers say, “Wow, what a life!” Or “Wow, I didn’t know she did all that!” So I shifted my focus from trying to fulfill other people’s expectations to defining and fulfilling my own. I decided that the pursuit of happiness trumped the pursuit of money or approval or prestige. It’s not like the founding fathers wrote “money, prestige and social standing” into the Declaration of Independence. Those guys knew the deal. I guess you had to when no one lived past 40. Maybe they thought about death all the time too. It might be morbid, but my method works for me. I just wish I had learned it sooner.

You build your resume. I’ll build my obituary. — Maria Bellos Fisher


Two Eggs Over Easy

Instead of the expected sappy Mother’s Day tribute, I thought I’d share this excerpt from my book in progress, and finish writing the scene while I was at it. Though she wasn’t able to understand, my mother inspired this book. I heard author Natalie Goldberg speak at the Seattle Public Library, and she told us that when her mom died, she attempted to record every single thing she could remember about the woman who brought her life. My mom suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s at the time, and I thought I should remember her the same way. Although she would have hated having her secrets exposed, the book is a fitting tribute because my mother was the first person to suggest I become an author, like it was a real possibility, not to mention a real profession. (Be careful what you wish for!) She also inadvertently inspired me by reading, all the time. My mom always had a novel in hand and she taught me that people respected and admired authors. I disappointed my father by not embracing the security of the insurance industry, but maybe it’s not too late for my recently-deceased mother’s approval. I miss you, Mom. We just said goodbye but I wish we had all those years we lost.

Three?” said the host as he picked up the thick menus. “Follow me.”
“Can we get a table instead of a booth?” my father asked. I hate tables, he hates booths.

We got to the table at the center of the dining room. I pulled out my chair and it hit the chair behind it. “Sorry,” I said, as I squeezed into my seat, my belly inches from our table. I grabbed a menu and surveyed it. Pizza burger, well done. A busboy filled our water glasses.

My father retrieved his reading glasses from his shirt pocket, held the menu at arm’s length, glanced at it and shut it. “What are you getting?” I asked.
“BLT. Without the mayo. Mayo puts on the pounds. Remember that.”
My mother also donned her reading glasses and opened the many-leafed menu. She looked at the first page. The waiter came over. “Can I start get you some drinks?” he asked, pad poised.
“I’ll just have water,” my father said.
“Can I have a Diet Pepsi, please?” I said.
“We have Coke.”
“Ok.”
“I’ll have a Seven-Up,” my mom said.

I examined the map of Greece on the placemat. Touched Athens, been there; touched Delphi, been there; touched Sparta, haven’t been there, but that’s where Yaya came from. Looked in the northern part of Greece for Trikala, my dad’s homeland. I never found it on these menus. Too small, I guessed. Just like Mahopac. Doesn’t even show up on the map.

My mother turned the page, squinted, frowned. I looked up, surveyed the other people in the dining room. Families, mostly. After church crowd. I spotted a family laughing, teasing each other. I wanted to watch them more closely but I didn’t want to get caught. We never laugh like that. What do those kids talk about with their parents? My father stared into space. My mother turned the page again. “What are you gonna have, Viki?” my dad asked, impatient.

“I don’t know. I don’t see anything,” she said, holding the menu out farther.

The waiter approached with our drinks, set them down, “What can I get you?” he asked, pen poised.

“I need a few more minutes,” my mom said.

“Ok.” He left.

Thought about the report I’d put off until today. I hate Sundays. I looked down at the map again. I miss crayons. I know I’m too old for them but at least I’d have something to do. I looked around some more, studied the pastry-go-round. Oh, that big chocolate one looks yummy. Is that real whipped cream? Mom and Dad hate buttercream.

The waiter came back, “Are we ready to order?” he asked my mother.
“Oh, uh, ask them first,” my mother said.
He looked at my father, “BLT on white toast.”
My turn, “Pizza burger with fries.”
“How would you like that cooked?”
“Well-done.”
He looked at my mother. “What can I get you?”
She sighed as she closed her menu. “I’ll just have two eggs over easy.”
“White, wheat, or rye toast?”
“Oh…I don’t know…rye.”
He left.

“Jim, I want to go to Caldor’s and pick up some detergent. It’s on sale,” she said.
“After this?”
“Yes, I want to make sure they don’t run out. Last time I got there on a Monday and it was gone. I hate rainchecks.”
“Ok, after we eat,” he said.

I looked around at the other families. One of the booth’s jukeboxes played a song. I strained to hear. “Jessie’s Girl.” They never let me play the jukebox at the diner. Even if we wound up in a booth. Dad only likes Dixieland and Mom doesn’t like prerecorded music. “Why listen to that when you can play your own?” was her reasoning.

“Ok, pizza burger, BLT on toast, and eggs over easy. Is there anything else I can get you?” the waiter asked.
“More coffee,” my father said.
“More water, please,” I said.
He left to fetch the pitchers. Mom poked her fork into her egg.
“Ohhhh…”
“What is it, Viki?” my dad asked.
“These eggs are too done,” she said, pushing the plate away. “I can’t eat this.”
The waiter returned and poured my dad’s coffee.
“Excuse me,” my mom said, “These eggs are too done. Can you get me some that are softer?”
“Of course,” the waiter said. “Softer.”
“Yes, please,” my mom said with a whole-body sigh.
“It may take a few minutes, but I’ll get them out as soon as I can.”
“Oh. Ok.”
He picked up her plate and left.
“Oh well,” my mother said. “Now I have to wait.”
My dad and I dug in.

I had one bite left when the waiter came back. My dad’s plate boasted a few crumbs. “Here we are, two eggs over easy, soft-cooked,” the waiter said, placing her plate on the table.
“Thank you,” my mom said. She picked up her fork and looked at the waiter over her shoulder.
“Are they ok?” he asked.
She took a bite, “Yes. They’re fine. Thank you.”
“Will there be anything else?” he asked.
“You can take these,” my dad said, waving at our plates. He picked them up and left.
We drank our coffee and Diet Coke.
“You don’t have to watch me eat,” mom said. “I hate when people watch me eat.”
We turned our faces to the windows to wait.

“Check, please?” my father pointed to his palm as the waiter walked by.
“Jim, I’m not done!” Mom said.
“Well, let’s go, Vicki. You wanted to go to Caldor’s.”
“Well, if we’re in such a rush, then I’m done.” She’d eaten half an egg.
“Eat, Vicki, eat. The check isn’t here yet,” my father said.
“No, I’m done,” she said, pushing her plate away and putting her napkin back on the table. The waiter slapped the check on the table and my father picked it up, looked at it, pulled out his wallet, did some calculations, then tucked a few dollars under the sugar dispenser.

“Ok, you ready?” I picked up my jacket, my mother got her sweater, and we followed him to the register.
“Was everything ok, sir,” the host asked in his thick Greek accent.
“Yes, yes, efharisto. Everything was fine.”

If you’re interested, Natalie Goldberg will be the keynote speaker at the Write on the Sound writer’s conference in Edmonds October 1-3. In the interest of full disclosure, I sit on the WOTS board.


You Get What You Need

Two weeks ago, Matt took Rose to Virginia for a family funeral. We got the call Friday morning. Matt’s grandmother died. She was 92 and declining, but we didn’t know when she’d go. Immediately we looked up flights to Virginia. No one knew the specifics yet, so we didn’t book. Friday afternoon I realized that I’d scheduled my amniocentesis appointment during this unexpected trip. I would change it, I said. My place was with my family. The receptionist made me cry twice just trying to book appointments already, but I’d deal with her and we’d all go to Virginia. Then Matt reminded me that our vacation would start the week we got back, leaving me only three potential days to reschedule. Gallantly, he offered to take Rose to Virginia and leave me at home for my test. “Ridiculous,” I said, “That’s too much for you.” He insisted he could handle it. Hmm, I thought, as the reality of the situation dawned, “Let me call you back.”

I settled in bed upside down, looking out at the woods, my meditative stance. If Matt left with Rose, I’d be here alone. Alone! I could write whenever I wanted; I could nap when I felt like it, not just with Rose; I could leave the house by myself without taking the time to strap a kid in the car seat. How long has it been since I had such freedom? Let’s see, Rose was born two-and-a-half years ago, so that would make it um, two and a half years. I can’t even remember a life like that. Huh. Could Matt really handle Rose by himself? They don’t get much father-daughter time. But he has a tendency to lose his temper and yell at her. Can I leave my baby with him without my protection? Shit, if I’m asking that, why am I having another baby with this guy? I think he yells at her because he’s got less experience with her. Maybe a crash course is just what he needs.

I called Matt back. “I think you should take her,” I told him. “We can’t deprive your mom of her grandchild at this difficult time. I think seeing Rose would be really good for her. I think it would help her focus on the future and take some of the pain away,” I sold.

“Ok. My mom should call with the arrangements at three,” he said.

I hung up with a whole new outlook. Freedom! What am I gonna do with myself? I made a list of all the things I wanted to do while they were gone.

1. Write
2. Sleep
3. Garden
4. Go out alone
5. Massage
6. Out with the girls
7. Go to a bar
8. Play pool
9. Read
A few hours later, the phone interrupted my reverie. “I spoke to Mom and she doesn’t think it’s such a good idea. Without you there, there’s no one to watch Rose during the funeral. My grandmother asked her grandsons to be pallbearers so I’ll be doing that. Mom will be too broken up to take care of her and she can’t think of anyone who’ll watch her. She doesn’t think she’ll be in the mood to visit afterwards either.” I knew it was too good to be true.

“So you want me to keep her here?” I sniffled. My voice broke. “Ok. I guess that’s all we can do.”

“Listen to you! You want me to call mom back? If it’s that important to you I will.”

“What’s she going to do? She told you not to take her. There’s nothing we can do. Oh well, I’ve never had a break and I guess I never will,” I said, as tears warmed my cheeks.

“I think you need this break,” he said.

“No, it’s ok. I didn’t expect it to really happen. I’ll take her.” I hung up on him. I sobbed as Rose napped in her room. I couldn’t stop. I hoped she’d sleep until I could get out of bed. I cried myself to sleep and Rose didn’t wake up until six p.m.

Matt walked in a half hour later. “I’m gonna take her. You need this break.”

“Did you talk to your mom?”

“No, but she’ll just have to deal.”

“Oh. Ok. Thanks, Honey.”

I still didn’t think it would happen, but the next phone call yielded better results. Grandma looked forward to seeing Rose and she’d found a babysitter for the funeral.

The day they left, I watched my babies go. Rose and I had never been separated overnight, and now she and Matt would be gone for four whole days. My throat tightened and tears flowed and as Daddy and daughter got in the cab. I watched the car turn onto the main road and disappear. I cried for the next 15 minutes. The house was quiet. Nothing new. It’s always quiet after the babysitter picks Rose up, but then she comes back three and a half hours later and chaos resumes. This time she wasn’t coming back.

Wow. Giddy with excitement, I could hardly focus on work. But I had to, so I bore down. I actually worked an extra hour because I didn’t have to stop with Rose’s return. But ugh, I thought, what a waste of freedom. Not gonna do that again. I must be careful with my time during this furlough. It’s a once in a lifetime gift that I can’t squander.

The sun shone, the thermometer clocked in at 67 degrees. Wow, what a great day to read on the deck and work in the garden, I thought. But right now I’m kind of tired. I crawled into bed. Three hours later I felt a renewal I hadn’t experienced since my childless days. I guess I sleep better alone in the house. The sun still shone and I could have gone out to the garden, but I felt mellow, so I sat in my 0G deck chair and read magazines. Our roommate came home and helped make dinner. He was flying out the next morning. We ate, watched TV and retired early.

The next morning I revisited my must-do list, determined to make this break count. I scheduled a massage for late afternoon. Pleased, I worked another few hours, this time punching out a half hour late. Dammit, got to stop that, I thought. I was determined to write that day, but after spending so much time at the computer, I needed a break. I lay down. Three hours later, I awoke to the alarm. I had set it to make sure I didn’t miss my massage. I drove to the massage place and ohhhhhh, was that nice! Relaxed, I picked up a few things from Rite-Aid and headed home. I settled on the couch. Mmmm, movie would be nice. I started “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Two” and mellowed out. It finished at bedtime.

I had my amnio appointment the next morning. They recommended that I had a ride, so my friend Jayne drove. Jayne dropped me off at the doctor’s on time but they made me wait an hour. Annoyed, I posted complaints on Facebook and emailed my best friend from my mobile phone. Important test, yes, but they were still wasting my day of freedom. They finally took me. I had three separate appointments and two-and-a-half hours later, at lunchtime, I was done. Jayne picked me up and dropped me at home. No cramping, but my belly did feel tender, especially when I stood up or sat down. I called Matt to report that I’d made it through and we chatted. I missed him. But not Rose, I noted guiltily.

Starving and craving salad with red onions, I went out and picked up lunch. Had to get my own red onion to slice into the salad, but I finally ate, then felt like stretching out. I sprawled on the couch and turned on the TV. It was another nice day – perfect to garden, but they told me to take it easy. I tried to order “Julie and Julia” several times, and after a call to Comcast and a remote signal from the technician, I realized that we never had Starz in the first place. Another hour of freedom wasted. So I surfed the channels awhile and then I felt more like being in bed.

Three hours later, I awoke but I still felt sore, so I went back to the couch. But the sunshine’s siren song called to me. I read on the deck. At dinnertime, I settled on the couch and ordered “I Love You, Man.” Finished it and went to bed.

Thursday. My last day of freedom. I looked at my list. Massage, check. Out by myself, check. Read, check. Sleep, check, check, check! Write? Not one character. Garden? Nope. Play pool? Nope, but not a big deal. Out with the girls? No time left. Go to a bar? Without company and alcohol, eh. Ok, so today I must write and I must garden. Come to think of it, I can garden with the family at home, but I can’t touch the computer with Rose around, so I’ll just write.

After I signed off work, I felt a little sleepy. After all, my tummy still twinged and I should take it easy, right? I didn’t work any overtime so I should have had time to nap and write afterwards. So I clicked on “The Golden Girls” and took a nap. Didn’t fall asleep right away and by the time I did, I had to set the alarm so I could make it to a preschool open house. I got up, ate some dinner, felt really sore and horrible, decided to skip the open house, and rested a bit. I did feel well enough to go after a half hour, so I did. Without Rose, the preview took all of 15 minutes. Then it was time for the airport. I picked up some pizza and headed down. Spent my last moments of freedom in the cell phone lot, eating pizza and listening to stand up comedy on the radio. Then, with a sigh, I headed toward Arrivals. My baby didn’t even run to me, poised to hug, as I’d pictured. She just sat in her car seat and said “Mommy! We went in the elevator!” And my freedom was over.

Despite the disappointment with what I’d failed to accomplish, I did enjoy my little vacation. I try to tell myself that I really needed some rest, more than I knew. I can’t remember the last time I just did nothing. Even when we’re just watching TV at night, there’s always something – fold Rose’s laundry, brush her teeth, plan meals, make the grocery list – something. Since the onset of parenthood, I’m never able to let it all go and chill. I consoled myself by thinking of those sage words from the Rolling Stones: “If you try sometime, you might find, you can get what you need.” But those are four writing days I’ll never get back. And in September I’ll be mommy to two. I doubt I’ll ever see another day of freedom. But I have a feeling that those memories of legendary rest will stick with me, and I’ll reminisce about those four days for a very long time.


How to Say “I Love You”

I learned a lot watching my family at the airport. I learned something new about my husband. He’s a “good helper,” just like my daughter. The woman ahead of him in the bag check line had trouble getting her suitcase handle to retract. I realized this when I saw my husband on the ground, pounding that handle back into her suitcase. Oh boy, I thought. He’s probably so pissed off that this woman’s holding him up. And then his head bobbed up so I could see. He was smiling. Smiling! “Got it!” he said.

Who is this guy? I wondered. My husband, the one I see at home, would be all pissed off. My husband, the guy who tells me how somebody at work screwed up the entire accounting system and so he has to work tonight, doesn’t take kindly to strangers making him wait. My husband, who threatened to sue United Airlines last week for not seating him with his two and a half-year-old daughter, does not volunteer help like a modern-day Lone Ranger.

I thought and thought about it and now I wonder: When he goes off by himself – business trips, work and whatnot – is he a whole different person? Is he patient and positive and helpful? And if he is, where does it come from? He’s never like that at home. Worse, is that his normal persona? Now that I think about it, when we first met, he was a pretty positive guy. I didn’t see him mad for at least a year. And now he gets mad all the time. My God, did we beat him with an angry stick?

All this time I’ve blamed him for his moods, his anger, his negativity. And now I see it could all be my fault. I married him. I wanted a house. He had to get a better job to pay for it. We both wanted a child but I’m not sure he realized what he’d signed up for. Rose is really well-behaved but he doesn’t handle her breaking rules very well. His promotion was what brought us to Seattle, but I was the one who liked to move and he knew that. Relocation took us away from our house by the bay, our friends and his family. All because he wanted a better life for us, his family. And now he works all the time. He’s in the office from nine to five, but he works nights, weekends, and answers never-ending emails on his Blackberry at all hours. We’re on “vacation” but he won’t stop working. Work never stops. Never.

And that’s why I figured his temper flared so much. How could anyone who never gets a break from work deal with home, or Rose, or the airport? But now I see that work may not be the root of this evil. Work is still there when he helps a stranger with her luggage. He’s still on call when he sweet-talks security into letting us bring the carseat on the plane. The thing that’s different is that he’s not at home. That must be it. World Matt is a whole different guy.

I like World Matt. I wish I could bring him home. But what can we do? Rose is going to act up. Domestic duties don’t disappear. I’ll still be his wife.

Or will I? If Rose and I make him unhappy, we can’t keep doing it in good conscience. We love him, after all. We want him to be happy. But he says he loves us. If he loves us, but he’s unhappy when he’s with us, how can that continue?

I read an article once called “How Your Toddler Says ‘I Love You.’” The “I Love You” that I remember most vividly is: “He’ll save his worst behavior for you.” Maybe that applies to husbands too. I mean, when you boil it right down, men are just tall kids. Maybe that’s how Matt shows how much he loves us. I’d really appreciate seeing his best behavior more often than his worst, but let’s face it, we save our worst behavior for him too. I don’t censor my moods for him. Hell, I don’t even sensor my words. Rose doesn’t sit still at dinner or listen when he directs her. What do we expect?

Maybe we’ve all gotten too comfortable with each other. Maybe we need to treat each other like potential friends rather than family. Maybe if we kept the fact that we like each other at the front of our minds instead of the back, we would treat each other with more consideration and kindness. Maybe we can. But if we did that, who would see our worst faces? Who would know us as we know each other? Hopefully not our bosses or our teachers. Hopefully not random strangers. Maybe our friends, but if all they got was our worst, they wouldn’t stick around long. I guess our family is the only safe place for that stuff. We know they’ll stick with us, no matter which side of us they see.

If there’s a solution to this problem, it must lie somewhere in the middle. I’d like to see more of World Matt at home. He’d like to see more of World Maria, I bet. So if we could keep World Matt and World Maria in mind when we’re tempted to unleash the beast within us, we’d see more of our best, rather than our worst. Maybe our best selves would win over our worst selves in this emotional cage match. And maybe that beast would become the exception, rather than the rule. I can’t guarantee it but it’s worth a shot. Anybody want to place a bet?


Your Money or Your Life?

“My friend said I should get a laptop. He does a lot of work on his computer.”

“Well, you told me you didn’t like to use the computer in that room because it’s cold. If you had a laptop, you could use it anywhere in the house.”

“Well, yeah, it’s cold. I turn the heater on in that room, but by the time it heats up, it’s time for bed. I could put the heat on up there, but who wants to heat all those rooms when I just need to use one?”

That’s my dad. He’s not poor anymore. Not since he was a kid. Just cheap. His whole life is about money. In the same phone call, he told me he was not going to travel to Argentina because he couldn’t find a hotel room for under $200 a night. He could easily afford that price, but he doesn’t want to spend the money. He’s 81 and he could spend money enjoying his last years, but he’d rather spend his last years trying to hold onto his money.

I have paid dearly for his frugality. His computer sits in my old bedroom and he’s not kidding: it’s cold. The room is on the outside corner of the house, above the garage, so cold air envelops it. When I got home from school in the winter, I’d have to crawl under the covers to stay warm until dinner. When I was younger, I’d go into my parents’ bedroom and turn up the heat, but when my father got home, he’d yell at me for wasting his money. I got tired of the daily tirade, so I just spent my afternoons in bed.

When I was in grade school, we had “the blue car.” It was a Chevy Malibu my father bought when he married my mother, or shortly before that. After many icy, salty New York winters, the driver’s side floorboards rotted through, so there was a hole under the pedals. The car still ran, so my father patched the floorboards with an old snow shovel. He drove it that way for years. On cold days, we could feel a draft coming up from the driver’s feet. In the summer, it was kind of a reverse convertible.

My mother was the total fiscal opposite of my father. She lived to spend money. I think it was her revenge for my father’s despised frugality. She taught piano to local kids after school, so her days were free and she spent them shopping. When I was young, we spent days and days in furniture stores, for years, it felt like, looking for the right end table. As I got older, I’d get home from school and find an A&S bag on my bed with four sweaters in it, in a couple of different sizes, different styles, to try. My mother would return the ones I didn’t want. There was no limit to her spending. Passion for fashion was the only thing we really had in common, so that was our mother-daughter bonding time. In junior high I authored an outfit chart, organizing my wardrobe so that I could avoid repeating outfits during the school year.

And now I worry that Matt and I have stepped into my parents’ fiscal roles. We’re different – Matt’s not cheap and I don’t do any vengeful spending, but Matt does make the bulk of the money and I do most of the shopping. For the past three years, we’ve focused on paying off debt. For the first 2 ½ years, we focused solely on the credit card. Just days after we got it to zero, I found a vacation deal we couldn’t resist. A week in Hawaii, a few days at sea, drops us off two hours from home and the deal clincher – free babysitting! All it took was a few grand on the credit card. So now we’re back on the hamster wheel of debt. And when we focus on curing debt, we don’t spend money on the things we want until the debt is paid.

It’s not the debt or even the refusal to spend money that worries me. It’s the obsessive focus on funds that carries me back to frugal hell. Ninety percent of my father’s conversation revolves around money. Always has. If he’s not specifically discussing money, some part of the dialogue will take a fiscal turn. For example, he might say something like, “Mrs. Brown died last week. I saw it in the paper. The service was today at the funeral home in Mahopac. She was a nice lady. She had a Maltese she used to walk around the neighborhood. I was going to go but why would I? I don’t know her family. I didn’t send any flowers because why should I spend $50 for three carnations to sit on top of a grave?”

Matt and I don’t talk like that but I have caught myself throwing financial statements into non-financial conversations and it scares me. I also tend toward deprivation if I feel money’s tight. I won’t buy that bottle of water no matter how dire the thirst. I have free water at home. I’ll go without eggs and coffee until I feel flush again. I’ll make myself crazy crossing off un-bought groceries from my list because I’m afraid I’ll spend too much and be left with nothing. I get obsessed and I can’t stop until I have money again.

Matt doesn’t freak out on spending. He freaks out on budgeting. He’s a mathematician by nature and an accountant by profession, so he can boil everything down to dollars and cents. Once or twice a month, he sends me a spreadsheet detailing our finances. If we’re considering a purchase or a fiscal change, spreadsheet frequency increases to once or twice a week, sometimes once a day. Matt can discuss money and fall asleep within minutes. We had to have a talk about that because he’d get me all riled up about finances before bed and then I’d be up for hours, all those new numbers swirling in my head.

I hate spending so much of our lives focused on money. I swore I’d never be like my father. His obsession with money permeated every conversation, every lifestyle decision, and every minute of my young life. I don’t ever want to live like that again.

Because I’m so afraid of living like that, I tend toward paranoia when I assess my own behavior. I just posted about half price Easter candy on Facebook – am I becoming my father? But the truth is, we don’t live like my father. The truth is that we could have foregone the Hawaiian vacation, as my father chose to forego his trip to Argentina. We could have chosen a zero balance over a new adventure and a lifetime of memories, but we chose the trip. In other words, we chose a life well-lived over our bank account.

My father expends all of his energy trying to hold onto his money. Even now, he’s depriving himself of the pleasures of life just to maintain his bottom line. I may never be able to shake the habit of injecting money into conversation, and Matt will never stop analyzing figures, but our priorities are in the right place. I’m sure that at the end of our lives, if we face a choice of a trip around the world or a healthy inheritance for the kids, we’ll choose to pack our bags. And we’ll have taught the kids a lesson far more valuable than any inheritance. Our kids will still learn that money is important – we need it to survive – but it’s far more important to spend money on life than it is to spend life on money.