Lives of self-denial

My family didn’t have money, precisely, but we felt secure and could prioritize the things we wanted. We didn’t travel at all. Our extended family was tiny and unsolicitous, so pressure rarely came from that direction. The unit-wide crankiness that set in when we did travel made that particular self-denial an easy one. Don’t tell my mother that. She still likes to believe what the posed portraits tell about the few big trips we did take, none of which were longer than a week. Cell-phone cameras did not invent living for the memories.

The rotation of consumer goods through the house was startlingly slow, glacial by comparison to today’s bacterial reproduction of cheap shit. We didn’t have a second car until jobs at odds necessitated one in the late Seventies. The first Super Bowl I watched in color was ’85 — those Bears, possibly the most dominant single season team ever, trouncing the Patriots in a crap game, in vivid color. All our appliances seemed to come from the era of the paneled station wagon.

My father was an audiophile, a technophile, and a passionate designer, builder, and flyer of radio-controlled airplanes. He would have known what to do with a wad. Yet he kept it all in check, knocked down his own appetites and expectations at every turn to a spartan minimum and rarely treated himself to the good stuff, until he quite literally lost his mind. Then he got with the times and started buying like mad, as Ronald Reagan had prophesied.


My mother believed in appearances and respectability, neither of which are cheap. Her degree from Stephens College was in fashion, and her passion was home and garden. Yet she too made without, and still does, long, long after she could have afforded some indulgences and niceties. I have long thought their asceticism was of generational issue, echoes of the Depression — as was my father’s terror of the stock market and any form of risk, really.

My brother and I are modern. We are of the things generation, even as things choke a globe indentured to a things economy.

What did we have when I was young? A pension, health insurance, tenure. You know: Commie things.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.