Tuesday, April 6, 2010
To save money, Hetty Green ate her oatmeal cold. Rather than squander soap, she only washed the hem of her garments. When her young son injured his leg, she dressed him in rags and carried him to the charity ward.
Dubbed the Witch of Wall Street, Hetty died in 1916, the richest woman in America. In relative terms, when individual wealth is compared to the overall GDP at a given time, Hetty ranks a little below Bill Gates and well above John D. Rockefeller.
Her son, leg amputated after lack of proper medical care, dedicated his life to squandering the family fortune. It wasn’t easy. Eventually even his toilets wore diamonds.
How much life do we spend just trying not to be our parents. To what ends of the earth would we not go.
I grew up in the subdivisions, the equivalent of today’s gated communities. No matter where in America we moved, the same three or four models followed us across the country: French Provincial, English Tudor, American Colonial -- each distinct from the other primarily in the roofal and garagal areas. The street names always sounded like air fresheners: Lavendar Hill, Heatherton Road, Cedar Glen. “Lemon Mint Lane -- Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” My mom would say.
Things could never be new enough, we could never change houses fast enough, for Mom, who spent her childhood in old homes with old things. Our houses functioned more as placeholder than home, what with the rolled out sod and shoulder-high trees. By the time all the painting was finished, it was time to move.
If you can’t go home again, then which of the dozen or so places can I not go home again to? I began to wonder what it felt like when roots ran deep.
When our family drove through a town, the real part of town, 3rd Street for example, on the way to our air-freshener avenues, we’d pass old craftsman or farmhouses built around the 20’s or 30’s, houses that looked like they just might have an Atticus Finch somewhere close by, houses with giant sycamores in the front yard, and tire swings, and people on porches.
I knew families that moved around the country made more money. That I would go to college was a given. With every new city, our future became that much more secure. And families that didn’t move, well, they were the people on porches. Still, I envied them – oh many things. The tree tall and strong enough to support a swing. The porch with its sofas and chairs, a place to sip ice tea on hot summer evenings with the same neighbors, year after year.
It never occurred to me that the kids on porches might have some dreams of their own. Dreams different from mine. Dreams of new houses with the smell of fresh paint and new sod. A place free of baggage, where everything, even treetops, seemed within reach.