While I’m focused on separating the soggy label from my beer on a visit home, my dad recounts my childhood stories. Conjured up is Liz Farkas (my once-best friend), John Matthews (the boy who promised to marry me at 5), but then he mentions one story I wasn’t expecting.
“Remember when you stole thousands of dollars from me and moved to California?”
My beer shatters hitting the concrete.
You have to know that this isn’t the man I grew up with. Age and disease have given him a kindness and a light in his eyes that wasn’t there before.
Growing up, my dad was the type to hit, break, and ask questions later. When you have money, the hole in the wall is a remodel. It’s that you wanted a new television, not that it shattered at the bottom of the stairs. Money makes rationalizing easy. So easy that you don’t notice the nervous wife or the three shaking children behind her.
But we always stayed. Like many abused women, my mother didn’t work and had been cut off from friends since before I was born. I’d sit with her on the couch as she’d rock herself back and forth in the dark. She’d cry for her freedom, always calling him by his first name. As a child, that’s how I learned to separate them – Frank and daddy. When I reached my teens, the lesson she was giving seemed obvious: If she had money, we could have left. Money made you safe.
So I became a hoarder.
My mission became storing as much money as I could. Luckily, Frank used money to control us – in life and in menial tasks.
$10 for eating dinner at the table like a family.
$5 to get the morning paper.
$2 to put the milk back in the fridge.
Looking back, had I devised my plan earlier, I’d be retired now. But all I wanted was an exit strategy.
The plan was to save my father’s money and use it to leave after college. Avoid getting stuck.
First, I needed a place to store the money I was saving. The pink metallic cash box that sat on my dresser wouldn’t work. Too obvious. I needed something a nosy little brother wouldn’t notice. I grabbed a white envelope from my father’s desk drawer, scribbled GOOJF in permanent marker, and hid it under a piece of loose carpet in my closet.
The Get Out Of Jail Fund was born.
From then on, every time my father gave me money, I’d do the best I could not to spend it. If I got $20 to see a movie – $11 went to the movie, the rest to the GOOJF. The money he’d give me for a new outfit or a CD? GOOJF. Easter money, birthday money, Valentine’s money, Christmas money, Dad’s In A Good Mood money – Saved.
The hoarding continued in college, though it became more difficult. Sure, I got the occasional check to make sure I wasn’t starving, but I was 4 hours away and not around for the day-to-day stuff. Checks were also harder to hide. Since I had set up a checking account before 18, my parents had access. I didn’t think my father would check, but I couldn’t be sure. I’d deposit the check and then withdraw small amounts over time, just in case.
Halfway through my junior year, the money stopped. My father had become suspicious of the boy I was dating in California and feared I’d save up and leave. I didn’t tell him I planned to move west once I finished school, but he knew. He believed that if he didn’t give me money, I’d be forced to move back home. Back with him.
So for a year and a half, I spent nothing.
When I graduated, it became time. I sat with my father and told him of my plans to leave. I thought maybe he’d be proud; instead his lip just went thin, just like it always did before he struck.
He had just five words:
“I’m not paying for it.”
But he had.
When no one was watching, I had saved just over $7,000, five dollars at a time, straight from his hand. It would be enough to buy the one-way ticket to California, a car, and to start a whole new life on my own terms.
I had gotten out.
And though Frank was angry, my dad, the man seated across the table now, looks decidedly proud telling the tale.