My husband and I took a spring break trip to the central coast of California, and we included a stop at the Hearst Castle—William Randolph Hearst’s 90,000 square foot, 61-bathroom home on 127 acres at the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Hearst was still expanding it when he died in 1951. It was never enough.
We bought a tour called “Upper Rooms and Suites” (since the size of the building makes it viewable only in chunks) and got to see, among other things, Hearst’s bedroom, boardroom, and library. As you might imagine, I got to thinking about money. Not in the context of Hearst being greedy or wasteful or ridiculous. More in the context of how much I’d love the chance to be rich myself.
I love money. Or, I love the idea of having lots and lots of it. As anyone who grew up in church (and most everyone else) has heard, the love of money is the root of all evil—or the root of “all kinds” of evil, depending on what version of I Timothy 6 you’re reading and what you’re trying to rationalize.
My relationship with money is complicated and strangely emotional. I imagine this is true for a lot of people, maybe most, but I suspect it’s more fraught for those of us who either grew up with lots of it or with virtually none of it. I fall into the latter category, with the kind of childhood that was full of hand-me-downs and twelve-for-a-dollar ramen and the specter of all the things our family didn’t do or have because we couldn’t afford it.
Our situation was a result specifically of the issues my parents had because of my father’s drinking. Multiple interstate moves, employment insecurity, and starting over again and again eventually eroded the financial stability they’d started out with as young adults. By the time they were raising my sister and me, they’d moved to the edge of that stability.
Other than “no” and “we can’t afford it,” we didn’t really talk about money. My sister and I never learned how to talk about money or think about money, how to spend it, how to save it, what it did or didn’t represent.
Now, the neighborhood near Golden Gate Park where I grew up was hardly a ghetto. This was the seventies when a family like ours could still rent something decent. So I didn’t have to endure all of the additional burdens of poverty that come with living in bad neighborhoods. We played in the streets without much danger and most kids I knew had nice houses or apartments and two parents. Our schools were great, and I had lots of free experiences that made life fun and gave me advantages.
I understand that I had a lot. But these things are relative, and all I saw around me were the toys and clothes I didn’t have and that we didn’t have a car and that I couldn’t join the Campfire Girls because of the cost of the uniform. I knew that sometimes people from our church slipped envelopes of cash under our front door to help us buy groceries, or passed on bags of clothes they thought we could use. In retrospect, I know that feeling of being a “have not” was greatly exacerbated by the abandonment that came with having a drunk father and a mother trying to deal with him.
Still, my identity of “growing up poor” is one of the identities I tend to cling to. Being poor isn’t something to be competitive about, but I sometimes am. All these identities we carry fuse themselves onto our pride in some clumsy way. We wind up defending even the identities we most despise if someone tries to take them away.
I had this friend who would often describe himself as “poor” or “broke,” meaning he didn’t currently have an income above poverty level. But he had five figures in savings, and his parents had paid for his college education and continued to gift or help with major purchases. When he used those words about himself, I really bristled. I felt like he was taking something away from me, or that my life experience was being trivialized. It felt like an attack on my identity.
Likewise, when I describe myself as “poor” or “broke,” a friend might furrow a brow and intimate that I make enough, that between my husband and me we should be able to provide for our needs and save and be just fine. Boy does that piss me off.
But the ramen, my God the ramen. The smell of thrift-store clothes never washes out; I can smell it right now in my memory.
Of course my friends are right. I have always had enough. The lack of material things would have felt very different if we weren’t dealing with an addict in the family, I know that.
Despite my rational knowledge of the truth, I am prone to spin from wanting to be secure to wanting to be “just a little bit rich” to fantasies of Hearst-like wealth that would finally, finally make me feel taken care of. I am so much more able to trust that God will provide for me and clothe me like the lilies if I have a nice fat chunk of change in the bank.
I suspect, though, that like the generation that lived through the Depression, I would feel financially insecure no matter what, because money, to me, is more than money. Money is the father who provides for your family, and the assurance of being accepted because you have the right things. Money is love.
So maybe it’s not that I love money, it’s that I think money can love me. Put it like that and it seems obviously silly, but it’s what we do with all idols. It’s not so much our love of those things that is the root of the dysfunctional relationship with them—it’s the belief that they can love us, approve of us, save us, redeem us.
We build our castles, and they will never be big enough.
This post originally appeared at Good Letters on April 22, 2015.
Former Good Letters contributor Sara Zarr is the author of six novels for young adults, most recently Gem & Dixie. A National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner, her books have been named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, the Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library, and Log Angeles Public Library.