The Women in My Family Had to Be Good With Money

How my mother, grandmother and I saved, schemed and sacrificed to gain independence from our controlling husbands.

The Women in My Family Had to Be Good With Money

“If you write the check for five dollars over, they’ll give you cash back,” my grandmother told me, scrawling her name and ripping the paper out of the checkbook. “Then you can get some money for yourself.” She took the five-dollar bill the clerk handed her and tucked it into the inside pocket of her purse, between the coupons and crumpled tissues. “Just make sure you do it every time, so your husband thinks that’s really what the groceries cost.”

I was twelve, in that liminal state between childhood and womanhood, still playing with dolls but also shopping for training bras. Eager to soak up lessons about what it meant to be a woman, I watched, and learned, never once questioning why a woman who had a job had to hide money from her husband.

My paternal grandmother Pat graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in chemistry in the 1940’s. When we’d talk about her college experiences she’d laughingly tell stories of how, right up until her senior year, her advisor urged her to switch majors to home economics. After all, women with degrees in the sciences didn’t find husbands.

Despite that handicap, she married on August 12, 1950 at the age of 19. For a few years she actually got to work in her field as a chemist for Anheuser-Busch, in Wisconsin. “One year,” she’d tell me, “there was a problem with the hops coming in flat. I needed to take some cases of beer home with me to study. But I was a married woman with a young child! It would have been a scandal if I’d been seen with beer in the car. I wrapped the cases in blankets and hid them in the trunk. The whole drive home I was terrified I’d be pulled over and have to explain myself.” But the children kept coming – four in total – and working full time became difficult. My grandfather made the case for her to get her teacher’s license and switch to teaching elementary science. After all, she’d still be using the science background she loved. And it would be much more practical for her to have the summers off when the kids weren’t in school, too.

In my experience, I have noticed that men rarely steal women’s dreams by forbidding them outright. Instead, they take our dreams slowly, over time, by urging us to be practical, by appealing to common sense. Like sand irritating an oyster, they wear you down. Only, instead of eventually producing a thing of beauty – a pearl – they remove your sheen and leave nothing but grit.

My grandfather wore my grandmother down until she, a woman who had the strength to pursue a degree, who’d been employed as the only woman in her lab at a major corporation, left the career she loved to become a fifth grade science teacher. While I can remember the glee with which she told me stories about her chemistry classes in college, and the countless times she told me about the beer, I cannot remember a single thing about her years teaching.

If the stories we tell each other define and illuminate our lives, so, too, can the stories we leave out.

Despite the strength of the woman who raised him, my father followed in my grandfather’s footsteps. He controlled my mother’s life so thoroughly that he timed her commute home from the school where she taught. If she showed up late he’d meet her at the front door.

“Why are you late? I checked the traffic reports, there were no delays on the bridge.”

I’d sit as silent witness on the bottom stairs, my fingers digging into the red plush carpet, watching my parents framed under the entryway’s arch. She’d stand, hands clutching at her purse’s strap, body angled away from him. Weariness in the hunch of her shoulders.

“I had to stop for gas.”

He’d hold out his hand, gesturing impatiently. “Show me the receipt.”

And my mom, with a sigh, would dig in her purse to produce crumpled slips of paper, handing them over before going into the kitchen to make dinner. Sometimes it was that she needed milk, or to return library books, or that a parent had kept her late at school to talk about a child. The reasons varied, the story only ended differently if she didn’t have proof of where she’d been.

I don’t know why my mother finally decided to leave him, or which bruise was the final black and blue blossom against her pale skin. I do know when she finally took action. We were on a family vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho. I had to go home early, I don’t remember why, so my Dad was driving me back to Seattle while the rest of the family stayed for a few more days.

She pulled me aside when he was loading up the car. “Give this to your grandmother when you get home.” She pressed a slip of paper into my hand. It was a deposit slip, for an account with just her name on it. “Don’t show your father.”

My mother’s parents had money. The land that my grandfather had owned up in Bellingham, Washington, had grown more and more valuable as the city expanded. And, eventually, the farmer who’d milked cows for a living became a millionaire. They were also deeply religious, and believed that divorce was a sin. If your husband hit you, you must have done something to provoke it. If he cheated on you, you weren’t satisfying him sexually. Time and again they’d urged her to stay with him during heated discussions in the kitchen while I played in the other room, pretending not to be listening. And, of course, one must think of the children. They had the financial resources to help her, but they didn’t.

I bore that deposit slip back with me to Seattle like a hot, fiery coal burning through my pocket. I was only twelve; I didn’t understand why my mother was sending me on this mission. I only knew, deep down, to keep my mouth shut. When my dad dropped me off at my grandmother’s the next day so he could go to work, I waited until my grandfather had left on his daily bike ride to hand it to her.

I remember so clearly the way her lips pressed together and tightened, the spark of anger and determination in her eyes. The way her hands smoothed the small, rectangular piece of paper in her lap, ironing out the creases. And then we got in the car she never drove, using a spare key that my grandfather didn’t know she had, and went to the bank. She took the back roads so that we wouldn’t pass my grandfather on his bike. My silence was rewarded with a lollipop, as if I was half my age.

Much later, after my mom used the money my grandmother deposited into her account that day to hire a lawyer, to secure a safe place to live and to move out in the middle of the day when no one was home, my grandfather apologized to my father for giving her the money to leave him.

“I didn’t know about it; Edna told me it was for you two to go to marriage counseling,” he earnestly reassured my Dad, who’d come to pick me up at their house, pressing his hand in a firm, manly handshake.

My grandmother stood off to the side, hands clasped in front of her waist, eyes downcast. The picture of a good, submissive, Christian wife. But I was finally old enough to recognize what I saw in her eyes when she glanced up at her husband: contempt.

In kindergarten, I went to my grandma’s house every day after school. We’d watch old Cary Grant movies on the black and white television or she’d pay me in caramels to practice reading aloud to her. My grandfather was present in the background, sitting at the kitchen table hunched over receipts and bills, plugging numbers into a calculator. The unspoken message was that my grandfather handled the money and that it was thanks to him that my grandparents were wealthy.

At the time of her death, her estate was valued at four million dollars. I know because I found the accounting shoved into a box of papers when I had to assume the position of his co-guardian. Why? He’d mortgaged the house and the family trust and racked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt.

The accounting he’d thought he was doing? Busywork my grandmother gave him to maintain the illusion that he managed the funds. She’d spent years of her life managing everything, growing their assets and setting it all up in a trust, while letting him think he was the one in charge.

As far as I know, the only time she let him know who really ran the show was when she gave my mother the twenty thousand dollars for “marriage counseling.”

It took my mother fourteen years to leave my father, trapped by religious and societal pressure, shame, and fear. It took me eight to leave my own abusive husband, unwilling to give up on a marriage I thought had to work for many of the same reasons. We had a child; I wanted him to have an intact home. I was ashamed of the mistake I’d made in marrying my husband, and didn’t want to admit to friends and family how bad it had grown, what lurked behind the smiles in annual Christmas cards.

He never hit me. He only threatened to, and admitted once that he would have if we hadn’t been in public at the time. His verbal abuse escalated to the point that I avoided restaurants where he’d berated me, ashamed to see the pity in the waitresses’ eyes. When I got home from work I approached him carefully, with questions couched to gauge his emotional state. Was he angry, had he had a good day at work? Would I have to sleep with him, staring up at the bedroom’s ceiling and hoping he’d finish soon, to stop him from yelling at me in front of our son?

I managed his temper, trained by a lifetime of soothing unpredictable men.

But I heard the cadences in my voice as I offered up alternatives for an unacceptable dinner, admitting I was a terrible cook. I felt the ways I twisted my body to be small, to be less than, to disappear, while he yelled at me for being stupid and wasting money on a violin I’d bought before we’d even met.

Like my grandmothers and mother before me, I was untrustworthy and bad with money. Sure, I’d bought a house on my own when I was twenty-eight, but it was in the “wrong neighborhood” and needed too much work. And I had over a hundred thousand dollars in 401K accounts, but I was too conservative with my investment choices and we weren’t going to have enough money for our retirement. And I’d kept our credit cards at zero balances, even when he was unemployed, but that was because I was cheap and wouldn’t let him have any fun.

I learned that defending my choices only made it worse. So I stood there, and I took it. After a while, I even started to believe it. Friends told me they hadn’t seen me smile, or heard my laugh, in years. I’d lost my sparkle and my sheen. There was nothing left but grit.

During one of our final arguments he cornered me in the kitchen, trapping me in the space between the stove and the sink. I timed him by the minutes ticking on the oven’s clock while my three-year-old played with Legos at my feet. Eight minutes. Hunched over me, hands planted on the counter. Ten minutes. Striding back and forth in front of the stove, ranting about my poor performance in bed. Blocking the path to the door. Fifteen. I was shit with money, bought too many clothes, never let him enjoy himself. When he had finally wound down and stormed out of the room, my son stood and held up his arms.

I picked him up, both of us shaking, and felt his legs wrap around my waist and his breath warm against my skin. We stood while another five minutes ticked by and I whispered over and over in his ear, “I’m so sorry, baby.” And then he pulled back, patted me on the cheek, and broke my heart. “That’s okay, Mommy. Daddy has a temper.”

When I looked in the mirror that night I saw my mother’s face. Not just in the Scandinavian cheekbones, the shape of my eyes, or the curve of my chin. I saw her, and the women who’d gone before her. And I was done.

I took money from a 401K account I knew he couldn’t see because I’d “forgotten” to update the password in Mint. I left work at lunch to meet with a lawyer, putting my phone in airplane mode so he couldn’t use the location app to track me; he’d done it before. I walked my mother’s paths, I followed the rules I’d absorbed, and I stayed dry-eyed throughout it all. I found a bitter satisfaction in using the money she’d left me when she died to arrange my freedom.

But he’d always promised to make my life hell if I ever left him. He’d told me he’d take me for everything he deserved. “You’re the love of my life,” he’d say, “of course that’ll change if you ever leave me,” tossing in a dark chuckle and a “just kidding” as an afterthought. I believed him, at least the part with the threat, and I knew he’d contest ownership of all the money I’d carefully hoarded.

That was when my paternal grandmother’s lessons came in handy. In the months before I left my husband, I was grateful that all the household and grocery shopping had always fallen on my shoulders. “Would you like cash back?” the clerk would ask, and I would chirp, with my most casual smile, “Yes, five dollars, please.”

It was only when I found myself in the spare bedroom’s closet, stuffing bills into a crumpled envelope, that I finally lost all the composure I’d carried with me. Sobbing, with my arms wrapped around my waist, I collapsed in the midst of boxes of yarn and craft supplies. I’d worked so hard to not become like my mother and grandmothers, and somehow had ended up in the exact same place. But I must also acknowledge that I have their strength, their resourcefulness, and their gumption, too.

I still keep an envelope of cash hidden in my house. It’s my fun money, for going to the movies or out to drinks with girlfriends on nights that I don’t want to stop at an ATM. But it’s my house now. The bank accounts are mine, the car is mine, and the retirement accounts are mine. I worked for them. I saved for them. I even control my son’s college savings account. And why shouldn’t I?

Like the amazing women who came before me, I’m good with money.