“What would you do with $5,000? Would you buy one of those purses or would you take a nice cruise?” The thing about my nana is that it was never really all that hard to tell exactly where she stood on an issue. A master of both Italian guilt and loaded questions, if she wasn’t flat out telling you not to tell her what to do, she found less than subtle ways to hit you over the head with clues.
I remember the first time she asked me this question. I was eighteen years old and the Takashi Murakami Multicolore monogram Louis Vuitton bags were all the rage thanks to Jessica Simpson and a little MTV show called Newlyweds. Nana was peering over my shoulder as I tried to explain to her just exactly how online shopping worked. She didn’t have a computer, so it was all some form of techno-sorcery as far as she was concerned. And we weren’t buying the bag, of course, but we were having a good time window shop spending money that neither of us had. My minimum wage job and her Social Security check could get us to Target, if we were lucky. So that’s why I dismissed her question as nothing more than a mental exercise. Kind of like when she’d ask, “If you were rich, where would you be?”
Almost ten years later, she died. My world crumbled. And then I learned that question wasn’t just a mental exercise. Imagine my surprise—and infinite sadness—when I learned that I was in her will. We all were. Her estate, one cigar box of a house bought as a widow in an era when women simply didn’t buy houses and all of the treasures contained within, was to be split among her children only after each grandchild received $5,000.
For those of you keeping score, her estate wasn’t much. Her end was just as financially humble as her beginning. She’d scoff at my school reports of the Great Depression: “We were poor before. We were poor after. What did we know?” But her estate was also everything.
It was the hallmark of a woman who raised three kids after her husband died not long after the war. It was the triumph of a factory worker who took two and sometimes three buses to and from work for decades to make ends meet. It was also a place of permanent refuge. She’d take back more than one grown child, and later grandchild, when their lives got stormy. It was the place she took her last breath. In short, her house was her everything.
And I wanted nothing to do with it.
It turns out, though, that ripping up the first check and refusing to deposit the second doesn’t actually fix anything. Begrudgingly, I took the money and plopped it in its own savings account. Where it sat and sat. And still it sits today.
I’ve kicked around the idea of spending it from time to time. I could buy that purse. I could take that cruise. I could take it to the casino and go out in a blaze of glory on the penny slots. In fact, there are days when I can almost hear her begging me to recreate her beloved road trip to Vegas back in its heyday when she listened to Elvis croon live and slipped the ashtray into her purse as a souvenir.
But none of those ideas do justice to the magic of that teeny house. Maybe I’ll think of a good reason to spend it one day. Or maybe I’ll pass it along to a grandchild of my own. But in the meantime, I’ll check in on the account from time to time, note the little bit of interest, and smile when I think of where it came from.
So Tell Me…Have you ever had to accept a gift you didn’t want? I’d ask you handbag or cruise, but I already know what you all will say. So, how would you spend $5,000?