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Gelt and Innocence

A feverish love of collecting masked a family’s shameful truth: There was no money.

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When I was a child living in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the 1980s, Hanukkah was the Jewish Christmas. This was how I explained it to my friends in our vastly non-Jewish neighborhood, and they nodded, confused but willing to buy it. At home, we dutifully lit the menorah, my mother reciting the blessing, a gesture I remember as rare yet fervent. There were also piles of gifts, in accordance with the holiday season. In retrospect, these seem garish, excessive, a symbol of all the work done in my childhood and adolescence to create the illusion of having money, in spite of the painful reality.

In my sophomore year of college, my mother died. Her illness was long, breast cancer that played hide and seek. My grandmother, my co-parent since my parents divorced when I was 7, collapsed under the weight of her daughter’s death. With her went the ability to pay the mortgage on our house.

In the end, our house was foreclosed on. Weeks before, I was told to collect everything—furniture, papers, clothes—I wanted; everything else would be sold or thrown away. I took very little; I had no room for the rocking chair, the loveseat, the vases, the china. For the most part, I don’t regret the things left behind, but although I wasn’t there to see it, I’m haunted by the image of the contents of our home being thrown into a trash bin, leaving the green Victorian an empty coffin.

Walter Benjamin wrote, “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to things. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” I visited my grandmother often in the nursing home where she lived before her death in 2007 at the age of 96. Our conversations during that time orbited around two things—how much she wanted to leave the nursing home, and the location of her antiques.

My grandmother began working at the age of 9, at a now-defunct department store in Springfield. She collected her antiques slowly, strategically, filling first her small apartment and then our large house. There were ornate sofas and chairs, curio cabinets, lamps, tea sets, jewelry, picture frames, dolls. This was meant to be our inheritance, my mother’s and mine, in a world where the order of death would be different. When my friends visited the house, they seemed convinced that behind this museum existed a profound aesthetic and enormous wealth, but it simply wasn’t true. For my mother, my grandmother’s collecting was a nuisance, a sign of an old woman’s decline, the misplaced locus of her love and affection.

During the last years of her life, my grandmother became excruciatingly paranoid. She was convinced that my aunt and uncle were pilfering her antiques, hoarding them for their own children, when in reality, they both used the term “crap” liberally to refer to her collections.

The foreclosure freed us from it all, but my grandmother, beset by grief from losing my mother and confused and hurt by no longer being able to care for herself independently, obsessed about her possessions every day, with no idea what had really happened to them. My aunt, uncle, and I resolved to never tell her, and so I lied, athletically. I told her the antiques decorated my dorm rooms and apartments, I pretended to know the exact locations of things, the story of their journey from our old house to my new life.

My mother and grandmother meant to leave me objects when they died, objects that would provide me with money, with safety, with the knowledge that someone had wanted me to be taken care of, to know that I was loved. What remains instead are notions about money that are twisted, yet enduring.

One: Not having money is shameful. My mother worked hard to create the illusion that we had money and to deflect the reality, even if it meant hiding it from me. She became a single mother when she was 40, after she and my father divorced. Her shame was always palpable; not having money meant that she was a failure, asking for help meant that she couldn’t take care of me, that she wasn’t responsible, that she had made bad choices. I see her situation as complicated by these factors and her illness, but I’ve still managed to replicate her emotions about money. I’m surrounded by people with money, and so I avoid open discussion of my own financial state, although I’m quick to point out the overwhelming classism in the Jewish community. I’ve been willfully financially ignorant, broke beyond comprehension, debt free, well appointed, and terrified, all in the 12 years since my mother died. Ironically, I’ve also only worked for nonprofits, and I’ve chosen to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, so maybe, ultimately, I don’t want to have money. It would mean breaking the cycle, becoming someone else.

Two: Home is fleeting, and money will never be able to buy it. I’ve avoided returning to the town where I grew up, and when that’s been impossible, I’ve been sure to avoid driving past our old house, convincing myself that it had been demolished. Last year, on a whim, I Google-mapped it, and there it was, painted a different color, obscured by overgrown grass in the front yard. I wonder who lives there, if there are any remains of my mother, my grandmother, or me.

The places I’ve lived since then have never felt real, or secure. Transience brings me a strange comfort, and I almost always live in small spaces that other people probably wouldn’t tolerate. I know home can disappear quickly, like everything else.

Three: Possessions are dangerous and meaningless. I think sometimes of my mother’s orange house sweater, which hung on the back of her chair at the kitchen table. As far as I know, it remained there until the house was cleaned of its contents. Out of everything left behind, it’s that sweater that I wish I had taken with me, even if years later, the smell of her would be gone. These days, I make it a point to not be trapped by things, to not be defined by the use or the accumulation of them.

Ideas about money are really just ideas about who you are and where you have been. One of the worst things about the cycle of financial need is the inability to conceive of another reality, the perpetual feeling of being at a dead end, the bald, quivering fear. There must be an opportunity for interception, reversal, potential.

There’s a Jewish saying about deriving benefits from the illumination of the Hanukkah menorah; you should not even use the light to count your money. I imagine the three of us hovering around the flickering, inconsistent light of the candles that burn out quickly, struggling to see ourselves and our lives clearly.

Chanel Dubofsky is a writer living in New York City.

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J Carpenter says:

A thoughtful, soul-filled piece—thank you. I’m sure your words and story speak for others as well. May we all be ever aware of the many needs of others, financially, physically, and spiritually; may our awareness turn into deeds of kindness and support, as we seek to “love God, love neighbors.” Blessings—

Benjamin Entine says:

How heartfelt and compelling a tale–and spot-on about many of the insights you describe. I wish I could address more in real conversation but will limit myself here to one: You query whether any part of you, your mother or grandmother remains in that house; the poet-philosopher Gibran wrote that the soul hovers over the places that one loved. Your Springfield home remains one such place, where you both gave and received love from three generations of your family. The antiques were simply an ineffective means to translate that into financial security–the contents may be gone but no doubt three loving souls remain. Dr. Benjamin Entine, Ph.D, J.D., Lynn, MA

I feel for you, it is heartbreaking to see your world dissolve at such a young age like it did. I had a similar experience with a beloved Uncle, who when he passed, had his belongings put up to auction.

I watched tokens of world travels, pristine examples of past technologies, and unique furniture and fixtures pass into the hands of people who could not care less and had no understanding of what they had just paid pennies for.

I wish you peace and healing….

What a moving story. Thank you for putting me back in touch with the legacy of my own mother and grandmother. Regardless of individual differences in life circumstances, the kernel remains ever so true.

Blessings on you, now and in the future.

Rachel Polsky says:

Only after reading & enjoying this poignant piece, I noticed it was YOU CHANEL who wrote it!! What a nice surprise! I would really love to catch up together–hope all is well with you. חנוכה שמח :)

Thank you for this beautiful memoir. I grew up well-to-do, and always expected to have money. In my 30s I left my well-paying law firm partnership to hang out on my own shingle. I was married with three kids, living in a large home in a fancy suburb, and for three years we knew what it was like to be poor——at least in comparison to our friends and neighbors. We ate out only on birthdays; you may laugh, but it was a hardship for us. Owing to my wife’s resourcefulness and ability to squeeze a nickel yet remain hopeful and cheerful, we scraped by. In those three hard years I learned that the value of money is not what it buys for display but what it offers in the form of security. In short, I finally grew up. I learned not to care what make or year of car I drove, what fancy watch or designer suit I wore, what ultra-chic vacation we took. I worried about mortgage, doctor bills, insurance premiums, office rent, payroll, food on the table——things I’d always taken for granted.

After about three years my practice started to grow, and within a few years I had a healthy and rapidly growing bank account——not a goal, but a simple by-product of work I enjoyed and did well. Now, many years later, I may be a rich old man, but I’ll be always be grateful for the years of struggle, and the lessons my wife and I and our kids learned from that struggle: (1) Money’s a necessity, not a god; (2) don’t fake it; (3) beyond a certain point, money doesn’t buy happiness; (4) there’s little, if any, correlation between intelligence and wealth.

Ruth Gutmann says:

I identify with Chanel Dubofsky’s feelings about possessions. There is danger in getting attached to inanimate objects that can, theoretically, be replaced. I experienced it in the holocaust. Your grandmother’s dream however was loving and admirable in every respect. That makes it different from the mourning for things “of value” I saw.

Rachel says:

Chanel, your piece really spoke to me. Thank you.

Highlander says:

Chanel,

You have a good soul.

Regardless of your worldly possessions, that makes you richer than the vast majority of us.

May GOD bless you!

Yonatan says:

Thank you, and Happy Hannukah!

Gabe Gorritz says:

During the darkest season we are given a celebration of hope and lights…to persevere to the wick’s end is painful and though it will soon be dark again we are not without the hope that tomorrow a new set of candles, each day adding another flame to the candelabra will carry on and add to the light where the previous left off.

What isn’t temporal in life?

Even tradition can be altered, disrupted – extinguished. But much like the candelabra we start again. The evidence of flame – life! – is present in the dried wax from the night before and will be added to with another burning. We burn our brightest when our light is focused on the purpose of why it burns.

It does so because that which is not temporal, but eternal burns far more brightly and inwardly as we seek Him. The rest is to be used, cared for, and protected, but never worshipped. The Light alone is the focus. He is the only one to dispel the dark.

Blessings and love.

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Gelt and Innocence

A feverish love of collecting masked a family’s shameful truth: There was no money.

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