All the years of my marriage when things have gotten tough, my husband has always said at least no one is chasing us with machetes. Really? has always been my inward eye-rolling response.
When I was first dating him I asked him all those beginning-of-a-relationship questions, like what’s the meanest thing your father ever said and what food did your mom make you eat and were you rich or were you poor? He said his father never said a mean thing and his mother never made him eat anything he didn’t want. And without hesitation he answered yes to rich. And then he asked me the same questions. I said my father never said anything mean, my mother never made me eat anything I didn’t want but for the money answer, the poverty versus wealth answer, I said, unequivocally we were poor. As we got to know each other better and we exchanged stories, I found out both his parents worked, they lived in a small one-family house, and they had an old clunker of a car. Rich? I thought, hmmm.
So one day I said, what is your definition of rich anyway. And he said, we had enough to eat, we had a roof over our heads, we were warm in winter. Well, thought I, we had all those things. I kept wondering why I thought we were poor and why he thought he had been rich. A few months later as we continued to deepen our friendship, I asked him what his parents fought about. He said, you know, I can’t remember them fighting. They didn’t really fight. My parents fought, I said. He said, oh yeah? What did they fight over? I said they fought over the gas bill and the light bill and the grocery bill and the car payments. And there it was. My family was worried about money and his family was content. His family thought of themselves as lucky and my family thought of themselves as deprived. His family felt gratitude and my family felt envy.
In those early years we started a business that took off like the proverbial rocket. The timing was right. The product was new and I think because we knew nothing we also didn’t know to be cautious, so we took great risks. And they all paid off. We bought a building, we had 125 employees and we celebrated a lifestyle unfamiliar to both of us. We had a pool. We had a beautiful house with a babbling brook and a rushing waterfall right beside our two acres in the middle of a lovely suburb. We went to Greece, we went to Italy, we went to England. We had a Chrysler station wagon and two big fat IRAs. And we bought our little vacation cabin in Chilmark. We had a ball being rich And then (with good reasons but too long to go into here), within eight years money was hemorrhaging out the door. We had to lay off 15 people, then 25 more, then another 30. Soon we were down to 13 of our best workers. The day I brought the books to the bankruptcy lawyer was dark. My husband just kept saying, how did I fail? Where did I go wrong? What can I do to fix this?
I went into complete denial. I walked around in my tennis whites, took a train to New York and bought a ridiculously overpriced sweater at a ridiculously overpriced boutique. Finally I woke up one day and realized, oh, right. We’re broke. Meanwhile my husband kept saying this was the time when we needed money. The kids are going to college. I feel like such a failure. We took a long hike in the woods near our house and the more he beat himself up the more I realized: wait a minute, I’ve done poor I can do it again. I know how to do this. But this time I’ll do it the way he taught me. I turned to him in the middle of one of his do-you-know-how-much Bard College costs rants. He’ll never get a scholarship, and . . . I stopped him, looked him straight in the eye and said, is anyone chasing us with machetes? There was that beat before he could process his own wisdom. And then we held each other and laughed and cried. And then we moved here to our little cabin.
Now when someone asks me why we moved to the Vineyard full time, I often say we lost everything. And then just when they are about to offer some kind of gesture of compassion, I stop them and say, but then we found everything.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart (Hyperion/Little Brown) and is the founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop.