There was a three-week period of time during which I cast aspersions on a young relative, accusing him of being spoiled and lacking basic life skills. I found out that I live in a glass house and that I’ve been throwing stones.
When I was in high school, I ran around with a pack of smart girls, most of whom are still close 25 years later. I’m not one of them. I have a tendency to flee from chaos and instability and drama, and the 20s were turbulent for a few of these girls. I’m not proud of this tendency, and it leaves me in a poorer condition, because I’m not one of those people who has a ton of friends from childhood whom I see all the time.
When I moved back to Dallas in 2010, I reconnected with one of these girls, primarily through Facebook. I’m pretty good at Facebook. Maybe because it’s a form of writing, maybe because I’m the right amount of narcissistic, but my Facebook page expresses who I am in a way that’s enabled me to get closer to people who were less friends than interesting acquaintances I wanted to get to know better (see TCF 2013). In any event, Katy invited me to dinner with her husband and son, and over the past couple of years, our relationship has evolved into a real friendship between adults rather than a string of opportunities to reminisce.
Last fall, a few of the pack threw Katy a birthday party at her home. The most recently I’d seen any one of them was 1997. I worried about whether seeing them again would be awkward or uncomfortable, but when I got there, I was reminded that we’re all around 40 years old. We have all learned better manners and poise.
The three hostesses, a couple of other guests, and I ended up in a conversation about toys from our childhood. We talked about Fashion Plates and Barbies and the Barbie head with hair you could style and Play-Doh. None of us had all of them, but we all played with them at one point or another. To my surprise, the discussion developed an underlying edge about being a “have” or “have not,” including a contest about who grew up with the least stuff, and then someone made a pointed remark about living in the “right zip code” and looked right at me.
And in that instant, about 376 things popped into my brain: “Does she mean me? Do I live in the ‘right zip code’? Is there a wrong zip code in Plano? Is she calling me rich and spoiled? That’s not my fault! My parents worked really hard.” All of this ended up with me feeling defensive and apologetic. We moved onto other topics, but the emotions she triggered hovered in the background. I thought about my parents’ house, which I realized at that moment could be called large. I thought about the hostesses decorating Katy’s dining room and calling it Tuscany, and several of the guests saying it was probably as close as they would ever get to Italy. I thought about how I’ve been to Tuscany half a dozen times and how I was going to Buenos Aires for a long weekend at the end of November to maintain status with an airline. I thought about visiting another friend at her mom’s house and how the house wasn’t as big as it was in high school.
I remembered being in Korea with my mom and seeing the doorway to the house where she grew up. I remembered going to a museum devoted to remembering life in Korea in the 1940s and 1950s and then seeing a 1:1 model of a typical home and Mom exclaiming that it was exactly like her childhood house where she and her three brothers and sisters grew up. Mom grabbed my arm and led me around an area of about 750 square feet and pointed to the outside pump for water, the outhouse, and the rudimentary kitchen. She remarked that she almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning after mishandling the charcoal cooking cylinder and that one of her friends from high school did die from the same thing. Things that both my parents said and snippets of stories they told me as I was growing up came back to me, like “I wish I could have taken piano lessons when I was a child,” and “I had to pawn the watch I won for being the high school valedictorian so I could pay for the train ticket for the university interview. It was the first watch I ever owned.”
As each moment flashed into my brain, the truth dawned and then solidified: I am rich and spoiled. Not only was I never hungry, but I had a favorite cut of beef. My Play-Doh was the kind that was trademarked, not the kind you made at home with cornstarch and salt. I practiced playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a baby grand piano. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t flaunt my wealth as a teenager because I didn’t know we had it, but I suspect that the fact that I took all these things for granted until nine months ago at a birthday party spoke volumes.
What I struggle with is how much of this I should feel guilty about or apologize for or regret. My parents came to the United States with nothing and earned every privilege they gave my sister and me through backbreaking work and sacrifice. As a result, I got a better start than most people do, but I didn’t fritter it away, either. I worked, not as hard as my parents, but I graduated from college, got myself into and through law school, and have held several jobs with progressively increasing amounts of responsibility and associated salary. I own my own business now, and while I understand that the environment helped with that, I also know that if my business is to grow and succeed, it will be up to me and the talent and skills that I have.
In retrospect, I don’t think the reference to the “right zip code” was an accusation. It was a funny thing to say in a conversation that was bouncing and zinging like the best conversations do. Because we were in an election year during a recession, class warfare hovered in the background and colored the topics that arose in discussions. I don’t have an easy answer for the widening divide between the haves and the have nots, but I’m glad to have had the reminder to be grateful for my blessings: the material ability to travel overseas and to buy Fashion Plates from eBay; and friends who remind me of who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.
You should not feel guilty at all. We are born into the families that we are, and we think of our lives as normal because we have no other frame of reference. I have never seen you as spoiled — at least not to personality. “Having” does not necessarily make you spoiled, and not having does not necessarily mean that you are not spoiled or bratty. You are wonderful just exactly as you are.
I should have said “especially not to personality.” That’s really what I meant.
First of all, I’m really glad you were at the party. It’s always great to see you. I feel bad that you were worried about coming, though.
Second, I don’t think that in high school and college, any of us gave a thought to about where our families ranked financially (or would have cared, had we thought about it). In hindsight, some of our families clearly had more, and some had less, but I honestly don’t remember ever thinking about that one way or the other back then. I think we were mainly concerned with getting to hang out with each other; secondary considerations were given to whose mom was the nicest, whose parents cared the least that we stayed up all night and laughed loudly at all hours; things like that. We just liked each others’ company.
Third, I have never even for a second thought of you as spoiled. (Or rich, for that matter, although I certainly don’t presume to know anything about your or your family’s finances, as it is none of my beeswax, and “rich” would not be a negative thing were it true.) You are smart, funny, sharp, interesting, and generous. People from all different kinds of backgrounds grow into all different kinds of people, and I like the person you were when we were girls and the person you are now as an adult. 🙂
Compared to my childhood, I often consider many of “the pack” to have had privileged existences. A house in any part of Plano is a huge step up from the shacks in the orchard of Wichita, KS, or the sheds and hovels I rented when I was in my teens. Growing up with advantage is never something I would want people to be guilty for. The only thing I expect is that they have empathy for others and understand the advantage they had. In the end it is all about the person you become. Having too little ruins some people. Having too much can do the same. If you fight though all that mess and manage to be a good person, then you have my respect and friendship.
I obviously have the greatest friends ever, many of whom married equally great men. I try to be all of the things that you ascribe to me; I’ll confess that it’s not always easy. Thanks for reading and for being so generous with your thoughts and words (especially Doc).
I love reading your blog…and being your Facebook friend. I relate to exactly what you said about not having many friends I keep in contact with from my younger years. This post made me smile because I think that you and I have had that interesting Facebook friendship progression, having gone from work colleagues (primarily phone based) to now pen pals of sorts who have shared deep things about their lives. Even though I haven’t seen you in years, I consider you a friend and have a huge amount of respect for your wit, honesty, and way of life.
I feel exactly the same about you. xoxo