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Gelt and Innocence

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

Chanel Dubofsky
December 03, 2010
Liz West/Flickr
Liz West/Flickr
Liz West/Flickr
Liz West/Flickr

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.