Monday, January 21, 2013

Rest In Peace, Marilyn Argenti

Last week, I spoke about my mother.  I described how she had been struggling mightily after open heart surgery.  I am very sad to have to say that she passed away yesterday, during the early morning hours.  She will be greatly missed.

My mom was one hell of a woman.  She lived through many things that would have defeated a lot of people.  Her family struggled with poverty during the Great Depression.  She saw two brothers go off to World War II (thankfully, both returned home safely).  She had a failed engagement at a young age. Her first baby was stillborn and she had a subsequent miscarriage.  She told me that she had made her peace with being childless before finally becoming pregnant with me after about six years of marriage.  She dealt with having Hodgkins' disease in her thirties, while she and my dad were in the midst of building their own business.  She raised three daughters and had five grandchildren.  She nursed my dad through leukemia and was with him when he died.  And she lived (pretty independently) for three years after suffering a heart attack that -- according to her doctors -- would have killed most people.  My mother was tough.  Much tougher than I. 

In fact, she would often say as I was growing up, "You have to be a little bit tough in life."  And one of her favorite stories to illustrate this was of her oldest brother, who enlisted in the Army during the Second World War.   He wrote home to their mother and basically said, "I am going to join the paratroopers.  I hope I have your blessing.  But, if I don't, I'm going to join anyway."  Join he did, and he was part of the 101st Airborne when they invaded Normandy on D-Day.  (If you don't know what the 101st Airborne is, and if you don't know what D-Day is, and if you don't know what the Invasion of Normandy is -- then your education is sorely lacking and you had better find out. )  This uncle of mine told my father that he considered every day of his life after D-Day to be a "bonus".  That was how bad it was falling out of the sky in a parachute on that fateful occasion.  My mother liked to tell this story as an illustration of being "tough" because she considered her mother to be tough for being able to handle this.  After all, how many mothers these days are considered tough when they have to send their sons off to college -- where they have meal cards and sports facilities and counselors to talk to if they get home sick?  And -- just so you know -- I am in a glass house here.  I shed plenty of tears after dropping my son off at school.  My mom also considered her brother to be tough for volunteering for this job.  No shit, right?

Along with teaching me to be tough, my mom taught me to create an orderly and enjoyable home life.  A place of respite for the family to return to after a "day in the trenches".  No matter how hard things got -- in my father's job, in our family finances, with anybody's health, in the extended family, with Richard Nixon and his antics, with Jimmy Carter and his inane moving of Daylight Savings Time so that everyone's lights were on during the day instead of in the evening (anyone remember that?), with gas lines, with the sexual revolution -- my mother made sure we had a secure, dependable, and usually fun domestic life.  Each and every day she made most excellent meals, our clothes were always clean (ironed, even), and there was a routine to the housekeeping so that things were pretty darn spotless.  We had swimming lessons, music lessons, and great birthday parties.  She also sewed most of our clothes when we were growing up.  She even made us "belly tops" -- our term for halter tops or half shirts -- the ones that show your tummy off.  Take that, modesty police. ;-)

My mom was also an avid movie buff and reader of books.  The movies she liked?  Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, James Bond, the Mad Max series (she had a crush on Mel Gibson), and Woody Allen.  The books?  All the most popular fiction the library had to offer and Rose Kennedy's autobiography.  There is also a closet in her room full of what my husband calls "bodice rippers".  You know -- those paperbacks, whose covers are graced by illustrations of beautiful people with their clothes falling off.  My mother always insisted that it was a waste of money to buy books, especially if there was a good library in town.  But, she obviously made an exception for these romantic tales and anything by Ian Flemming.  My sisters and I are going to have to battle it out over these... Tee-hee. ;-)

My mom, as you can see, was quite a spirited lady.  And I'm sure St. Paul is now finding this out.  She always had a few issues with him.  And I'm sure he is hearing from her even as I type.

May you rest in peace, Mom.  See you on the other side.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


My parents never had much money, but they were good with what they did have.  And they passed their wise habits onto their kids.  They tried, anyway.  At one time, I worked in a loan department at a credit union.  Eye-opening experience.  And I have always been in charge of our household budget.  We could be tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt or I could be running a money-laundering operation, and my husband would never know it.  He is an engineer, so his mind tends to be on more lofty things.  Hopefully, I am a person of good character. Also -- I really don't understand money laundering well enough to actually do it.  I suppose I could find a partner...

Anyway, for what it's worth, these are some things I have learned along the way about the green stuff.

"Live within your means," my dad always said.  It's hard to do this sometimes.  Especially if relatives, friends, and neighbors are not doing so, because you might start to feel deprived.  If everyone around you is going skiing -- even if they're putting it on their credit cards -- you might feel left out of the party.  Especially if you were invited to go along.  But, you might end up happier in the long run if you are able to pay off that credit card each month.  So, if you want to do something fun, go ahead.  But, only if all the rest of your bills are covered and you have enough actual cash on hand to pay for it.

I am not saying that all debt is bad.  It has been my experience that a mortgage is acceptable.  But, it should be a mortgage that you can actually afford to pay.  My dad always advocated home ownership.  But, not because your house could serve as a piggy-bank.  His reasoning was that rents go up over time, and end up being unaffordable to people as they age.  He told us kids that we should buy houses and get them paid off before retirement, so that we would have secure homes.  He had seen too many elderly people struggle to pay the rent, even on small apartments.  Now, will my house be paid off before my husband retires?  I am not sure.  But, I have worked to keep the payments modest so that we will (hopefully) be able to afford them, even as we get older.

A reasonable car loan is probably also not a terrible thing.  It all depends on where you live, and how much you have to drive.  I have driven klunkers before -- many times.  But, that only really worked out if I was just driving around my relatively small town and my parents were available to give me and the kids a ride home in the likely event that I broke down.  I had more than one experience of myself and my three little ones riding in the cab of a tow truck enroute to the auto repair shop.  Not incredibly fun.  So, if you have children and if you need to drive a fair amount and if you can afford it, get a decent car.  Even if you have to have a loan.  You don't have to drive the best of the best, though.  A modest car is usually the healthiest on the budget.  Also, you don't feel so crappy if it gets dinged in the parking lot.  Now, though, I must make a confession.  For a while, I drove a fire-engine-red Ford Mustang convertible.  I do not regret it.  And, someday, I hope to get another one.

Student loans.  A biggie these days.  The government-backed ones are pretty good deals.  But, I would stay away from those private loans.  When you start reading the fine print, they are damn scary.  And think about it.  What are your reasons for going to the college or university you want to go to?  Is there a more economical way to get the result you want from your education?  Think these things through carefully before making your decision.  It may very well be worth it to you to go to a more prestigious (a.k.a. expensive) school, but you'd better be sure before you take the dive.  Because you might be paying for it -- in both cash and lifestyle -- for a long time to come.

And those credit cards?  It is fine to have one or two.  Beyond that, I don't see the point.  And pay them off, each and every month.  You'll be glad you did.  This is something I learned when I worked in that loan department.  I used to run the credit checks.  Wow!  And I realized that, often, the people who looked richer were actually poorer, and vice-versa.

This is how I have, personally, used my credit card.  I only have one.  I put the gasoline on it.  I use it for things like airline reservations, hotel reservations, and internet shopping.  BUT, before I use it for any of those things, I make sure that I will have the actual money in the bank to pay it off at the end of the month. 

But, you might say, what if I have necessary expenses that I need to put on my credit cards that I will not be able to pay off each month?  If you are a young person, just starting out, this is what I would suggest you do before this situation occurs.  Because, once it occurs, it is a bitch.  My parents always advised us kids to live at home for a while after college, while we were working, so that we could build up a healthy amount of savings before striking out on our own.  I found that this financial "boost" my parents gave me has been of inestimable value in my life.  I would advise parents -- if they can -- to do this for their offspring.  In the long run, it will pay off for you.  Your kids won't become that of the "boomerang" variety and there will be much less chance of them calling you for financial help as the years progress.  Although, for this to work, parents must be VERY CLEAR that they expect their children to use this time at home in a fiscally responsible way -- appreciating it for the gift that it truly is.  A kid doesn't get to live at home, taking advantage of his parents' generosity, while simultaneously "living it up" -- with fancy vacations to Monte Carlo and shopping sprees to Neiman Marcus.  Hell, no.  And, dear young people, once you "fly the coop" of your familial home, make sure you have a solid understanding of what is "necessary" and what is "optional" concerning possessions.  Think about what you really NEED vs. what you WANT.  It is easy to confuse the two.  And it can be fun to get by with only the "bare necessities of life."  It can be a game, of sorts.  I know of a family in which the dad, for a period of years, earned a very modest income.  His wife was a SAHM, though.  They lived in a little apartment, with no furniture, except for camping cots on which they slept.  They were actually able to save some money, and they ended up buying a nice home for themselves.  But, it took a lot of discipline.  Instead of looking at it as an onerous task, though, they made an adventure out of it.  And their philosophy of delayed gratification went a long way toward helping them achieve financial security.

Concerning newlyweds?  My parents' financial philosophy proved to be quite wise.  This is something they repeated with regularity all during my childhood.  They believed that the young couple should pay all of their bills solely with the husband's salary.  Yes, young people.  Even if that means a "hot date" is the taco shop and Netflix and "going out for coffee" is a thermos of Folgers on the park bench.  Folgers is really not so bad if you use 8 HEAPING (vs. level) tablespoons to 12 cups of water, as my daughter has recently taught me.  ( To think I have been needlessly suffering all of these years...)  The other half of my parents' equation was this:  The wife should work full-time until a baby arrives.  And ALL of her salary should be dedicated to savings.  My parents never went in for the idea of a wife without kids not working, or only working part-time.  To go along with this, though, they always believed the husbandly half of the couple should do just as much housework as the wifely half.  And my father never failed in this regard.  Even as I was growing up with a SAHM, I saw my dad do plenty of household chores -- thoroughly and cheerfully.  Why did my parents advocate these things?  It was because they strongly believed in a mom being home with the kids.  And their experience was that the above practices would facilitate that.  If you are a young couple who aspires to have the mommy be at home, the above practices will put you in a position where that dream has a much better chance of becoming reality.  And you will lower the odds that you will end up putting your necessary expenses on credit cards after the new mom leaves the workforce.

Let me tell you, though, my father was NEVER a cheapskate.  And he told the three of us girls, repeatedly, of the importance of being a generous person.  Being frugal does not equal being cheap.  Since he was self-employed, he would look at his bank account at the end of each year and donate a good amount of that to charity.  If a friend visited from out-of-town, that friend would be treated to a very nice dinner -- either cooked by my mom with quality ingredients or at a restaurant, if he could afford it (even if it meant stretching the remaining dollars a bit that week).  My parents were also known for the parties they threw for special occasions -- with wonderful food and drink.  And they did this with great cheer, not resenting the expense.  But, never spending money they didn't actually have, either.  And how could they afford these things?  Because of the habits they practiced the other 95% of the time.  A pretty good trade-off, I would say.

But, when it comes down to it, the most important piece of financial advice I ever heard my father utter was this:


And when I see all of the troubles in the world that truly cannot be fixed with money -- spiritual suffering, mental illness, physical infirmities, broken marriages, strife between peoples -- I realize what a true statement that is.  So, whatever your financial situation, if your problems can be fixed with money, you are blessed.  I don't mean to sound all "high and mighty" here, either.  This is something I have had to remind myself of many times throughout my own life.  It can be hard to remember, when things get tough.  But, it is worth remembering.  Thanks, Dad...

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Making Of Beds

I have not spoken about this online before now, as I just didn't know what to say.  On December 7, my mom went in for elective heart surgery to replace her aortic valve.  Things have not gone well, and she is still in the hospital, with a long road ahead.  So, if you are a praying type of person, please keep her in yours.  Good thoughts and well-wishes are also much appreciated.

That leads me to my story. As I was making my way about my house this morning, doing what moms do -- laundry, dishes, tidying up -- I went into my daughter Bridget's room.  She has been gone for several days, having a lovely visit with friends out on the East Coast.  I began to make her bed, so it would look all nice and inviting for her when she returns.  Her bedspread is of an old-fashioned variety, like the kind my mother has always had on her own bed.  It is a white cotton, with raised patterns of flowers and a decorative fringe around the edges.  Bridget told me a couple of years ago that she had wanted a bedspread like this since she was a little girl -- one like her grandma's.  So, I got it for her as a Christmas gift that year.

And as I smoothed this bedspread out over my girlie's bed this morning, with the warm sun shining in through the big windows, I thought about my mom and the rituals she created around the making of beds when I was growing up.  Our bedding always consisted of the following:  white linens (fitted sheet, flat sheet, pillowcase) -- never any other color; one blanket during the summertime and two in the winter -- always the type of blanket with the satin edging; and a formal bedspread -- never a throw or comforter.  When we were small, my mother made all the beds every day.  EVERY DAY.  And when we were bigger, we were required to make our beds every day, in the way that she carefully taught us.  The fitted sheet was to be smoothed out and the flat sheet was tucked in with tidy square corners at the bottom of the mattress.  The top of the flat sheet was folded down over the top of the blanket(s).  The blanket(s) and flat sheet were tucked under the mattress all along the sides and bottom.  The bedspread was then laid over everything and folded down at the top.  The pillow was then plumped -- not a step to be skipped -- and laid at the top of the bed.  Lastly, the part of the bedspread that had been folded down was pulled over the top of the pillow and tucked in behind it.  Thus, all you could see was the pretty bedspread from the top of the bed to its foot.

Now, this bedmaking technique was required on Sundays -- no exceptions.  During the week and especially on Saturdays, though, a slight variation might be allowed.  This variation consisted in doing everything exactly as stated above, but the bedspread could be folded in thirds, neatly and precisely, at the foot of the bed.  My mother considered this the "less formal look," hence the "never on Sundays" rule. 

Each evening, also, had its ritual concerning the bedding.  Between 5:00 and 5:45, as my mom was preparing the dinner, one of us kids was assigned the task of "pulling down" the beds.  If the bedspread was covering the entire bed, it was pulled down and folded in thirds (as described in the above paragraph).  The blanket(s) and flat sheet might also be folded back -- neatly, always neatly.  And the pillow was again plumped.  Thus, all was arranged for a tired little (or big) person to go to sleep at the end of the day.

It is probably apparent to you that my mother has always been quite the homemaker.  And one of the things that makes me especially sad about her hospitalization is the fact that I know she is missing being at her house and doing all of the things she enjoyed doing there each day.  My mom has never considered any of these things to be onerous duties.  She has thoroughly enjoyed her role of making the home a clean, lovely place to be.  And, even though I have not emulated her entirely, her example has been of enormous value to me in creating my own home for my own family.  And the remembrance of my mom's ways has always given me a happy heart.  Nobody's growing up is a perfect thing -- and sometimes my mom's "extreme homemaking" could be irritating.  But, it was also heartwarming -- and a valuable skill not easy to learn or emulate.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Some Thoughts About Blogging

I read a beautiful mom's beautiful blog post yesterday.  She spoke movingly about her eldest child's recent wedding and how proud she is of her lovely family.  She also discussed how, over the years, many people have been critical of her for the lifestyle she has chosen -- that of a devoutly Catholic homeschooling, homemaking mom.  She told of the conclusion she has come to -- that she is no longer going to let the naysayers get to her.  She has decided that listening to and getting upset by the negative voices is a waste of her time and energy. 

"Kudos!" I thought.  And then I was going to comment on her blog post, telling her how much I was moved by it and how happy I was for her that she has decided not to let the meanies get her down.  And I found that she had closed the comments -- not allowing anybody to say anything to her about that particular post. 

And I sort of snickered.  I mean, I guess that's one way to handle it.  You can't let people's negative comments and opinions affect you if you just don't allow them to say anything to you.  Right?

Now, don't get me wrong.  I, too, am a very sensitive person.  I like people to be happy with me and say nice things to me.  I don't like bullies -- cyber or otherwise.  I sometimes get teary if I feel unjustly criticized.

But, this is the thing.  This lady is a fairly high-profile blogger.  She seems to be willing to put herself and her family "out there" on pretty much a daily basis.  I have recently been doing that, too.  And I figure that if you are going to do that -- if you are going to posit your thoughts and opinions on religion, politics, friendship, education, marriage, family life, etc. on a public blog, then you need to allow other people to speak to you.  Even if they don't agree with you.  Even if they think you are downright wrong about stuff.  Otherwise, it isn't really fair.  You get to say your side -- quite confidently -- but, you accuse others of being hurtful if they disagree with you.  It's almost like saying, "My way or the highway."  It's like saying that you aren't willing to consider that you might possibly be even a little bit wrong in any of your choices.  This strikes me as maybe a little bit prideful.

Now, I'm not saying we have to put up with people who are being purposefully rude.  Comments that are just nasty should be deleted -- unceremoniously and without tears.  Some people who travel the world of cyberspace are simply looking to be mean.  They are not interested in any real exchange of ideas.  But, we should work on not letting those people get to us.  Their opinions about us don't matter, because they aren't looking to have an intelligent discussion.  They are just looking to make us cry.  And, if we cry, we let them win.  And they are not worth the price of the kleenex we blow our noses on.

But, if reasonable people disagree with us about things -- even if they are a bit vociferous about it -- they can be worth listening to.  As I was raising my kids, I made certain choices and judgements about what would be best for them.  I was pretty confident in those choices and judgements.  And, as I look back with hindsight now, I can see that I was very wrong at times.  Even as I was feeling quite righteous.  And there were people who did try to talk to me, who disagreed with me.  In my zealous self-confidence, though, I ignored them -- to the detriment of myself, my husband, my kids, and my family life. 

Just because we feel passionately about our ideas does not guarantee that we are correct in our conclusions.  So, if you are raising kids, I would encourage you to listen to the voices of others, voices that might differ from your own.  Yes, in the end, your choices are yours to make.  But, other people might have more insight than we want to give them credit for, even if they might strike us as unfairly critical in their tone.  Most of us, after all, don't really consider how we are going to come across when we give an opinion.  That doesn't mean those opinions aren't worthwhile. 

And if someone really has a hard time with people who post contrarian comments on her blog, maybe a nice diary of the old-fashioned book variety would be a wise investment.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The O.C., Fishing Boats, Manual Labor, And My Dad

I haven't written anything in a long time, as life has been pretty chaotic lately.  Of course, there have been the holidays.  There have also been other things -- family health problems, weddings -- a mixture of the good and the bad.  But, I have missed blogging.  So, I thought I would start out 2013 by talking about two of my favorite subjects -- "The O.C." and my dad.

At one point during the four seasons of "The O.C.", Ryan becomes dejected.  Yes, I know he spends most of his time being dejected.  But, this particular time, he decides it would be a good idea to go off and work on a fishing boat for several months.  Of course, none of the other characters in the show think this is a good idea.  I, on the contrary, thought it was a marvelous plan.  Why?  It reminded me of my dad and his very wise ideas about life and work.

Now, don't get me wrong.  My dad encouraged my sisters and I to go to college.  He told us that it would make life much easier for us.  You see, he had not gone to college.  He went for a semester, after his two years in the army were over, but he didn't think much of the professors and their ideas.  He explained to us how one of his teachers tried to tell the class that nobody and nothing was really there.  That they were all just imagining everything.  Of course, which of them was the real one who was actually doing the imagining was not made clear.  This kind of thing frustrated my very down-to-earth father to no end.  One day, though, when he was at Bank of America depositing some money, the manager came over to him and offered him a job as a teller.  (That is the way getting a job used to work in the "old days.")  My dad jumped at the chance.  And he ended up having a pretty successful career at the bank, but he realized that he was sometimes passed over for promotions or had to work harder for them because he had no degree.  So, he told us that we should just buckle down and get that piece of paper, even if it meant putting up with some "nutty" thinking along the way.

Even as he thought getting a degree was a very important thing, though, my father always taught me about the value of hard work and the wisdom of the working man (or woman).  He was of the opinion that those who are not formally educated, who do the "blue-collar" jobs in our society, are often smarter than those with advanced degrees.  He felt that because they usually do not make much money, and have to work really hard to get ahead, that they develop common sense about how to interact with people and solve the practical problems of life -- like providing food, clothing, transportation, and shelter for themselves and their families. 

And my father's positive opinion of working-class people was proven to me by those individuals I met through him.  After working for 16 years at Bank of America, he left the suit and tie behind to become a general contractor.  He had a partner and they ran a pretty small company, but they would hire sub-contractors for various jobs that they did.  I, therefore, had the privilege of meeting many plumbers, electricians, painters, roofers, appliance repairmen, etc.  My father knew the very best of these working men, and he thought very highly of them.  And they, in turn, thought very highly of him.  When I lived in the Bay Area and I needed something done in my house, my dad would send the very best guy available to my assistance.  The job was always done right, by a polite man who never left a mess.  And each of these men would tell me how great my father was and how much they enjoyed doing jobs for him.  I don't really miss living in the Bay Area, but -- I tell you truly -- I miss those guys when something springs a leak in my home. 

Because of his life experience, then, my dad never thought of it as a negative thing to be a working-class person.  In fact, I remember him making numerous comments through the years about how spending some time digging ditches could be the very best thing for a young man's character.  So, if my son was having some struggles in life and he told me that he wanted to spend several months working on a fishing boat -- saving up some money and contemplating his future -- I would totally and completely give him the green light.  Not only would he learn a lot about himself, he would gain an appreciation of those who spend their lives doing that kind of work.  For, it is a kind of work that does require skill and common sense.  The kind of skill and common sense that it is not a waste of time acquiring from those who might be willing to teach it to you.