Jeanette Wells’ “The Glass Castle” tells the story of a family in abject poverty. The author’s parents, one an artist and the other a would-be entrepreneur/engineer, move their four kids all over the country. Somehow, the children make a successful transition into adulthood.
Reading the well-written memoir—set to become a movie—over the Labor Day weekend, I couldn’t help but think about my own upbringing and how our parents’ concepts of money and wealth can be so helpful and, at the same time, so convoluted. (Naturally, I was also very grateful that I had not faced as tough a financial situation growing up as the Wells kids had.)
The poor Wells’ kids had very inconsistent messaging from their folks about money. It appears there was no cash for food most of the time.
Yet when Jeanette literally finds a diamond ring on the ground, Mom keeps it to boost her self-esteem. Most days, the kids dream of hot meals as Dad throws back a bottle of booze and goes through four packs of cigarettes.
As the kids get older, though, they figure out that the beat-up house in Phoenix and drilling land in Texas owned by their Mom are assets that could be used to improve their lives. But despite the family’s lack of food and plumbing, Mom says these assets are for keeping, not selling.
Often, their eccentric parents exhibit the “penny wise, pound foolish” mentality, ignoring the family’s immediate need of nutrition or decent clothing in favor of art supplies, an odd piece of furniture or a broken vase.
In my case, I was fortunate enough to grow up with more than adequate food, clothing and shelter. My parents, a Ph.D. chemist and a Ph.D. language instructor raised during the Great Depression, taught me how to save, save, save and save (and to read, read, read and read).
But certain decisions haunted me.
My mother mistakenly thought we’d save money by using the Laundromat down the hill from our house in Texas, rather than getting a cheap washer and dryer for our home. When my sister and I were teens, we were constantly washing clothes in the sink, to be sure we had the item we needed to look our best at middle school and high school.