A Table is More than a Table
“Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.”
—M. Scott Peck
I grew up in two different households; my father’s in my early childhood and my stepfather’s after the age of thirteen, but in neither did I accrue an awareness about money, saving, budgets or planning. This was, apparently, the territory of grownups, particularly males. Though I’d put myself through graduate school, I never balanced a checkbook, nor, did I hesitate to put something I wanted, rather than needed, that was outside my bank reserves, on a credit card.
My first real lesson in finance, one that I was finally was able to apply into my thinking, came from my friend Fran.
Not long after Erika helped to change the trajectory of my life, I attended graduate school, met my first husband, and began a career in education. But just because I was technically a ‘grownup’, I didn’t have grownup skills. My husband, who’d grown up in less secure financial circumstances than I, also had no clue about money.
In our second year of marriage, I unexpectedly became pregnant with our first child. It was a bit of an adjustment after a lofty plan for two doctorates and careers that we felt would change the face of education, but we quickly adjusted to our new reality. My husband later earned his advanced degrees, but I, after having our daughter, then son, reversed my priorities. Family first, possible career advancement later. Maybe.
I found myself in an unfamiliar world, as all first parents do. It wasn’t the baby minding, nursing and nurturing I found puzzling; it was everything else you had to do at the same time. I’d never been an organized person on any front, whether it was with lesson plans or planning meals, and my husband didn’t cook, so I was left to untangle the multiple and labyrinthian tasks of house management, child management and teaching duties.
In my first teaching job as a special education instructor, I met a fellow teacher, Fran, also married to another educator (my husband was a school psychologist). Fran had the red hair of Lucille Ball but in her case it was all natural, and an explosive laugh that always surprised me.
We were all friendly but became more so when we ended up in our first Lamaze class. Sitting in a room with other couples and discussing the A, B, C’s of basic body functions is a real bonding experience. Then, our two daughters were born within two weeks of one another, and both, we discovered early on, would share the same name. After our daughter’s births, Fran and I spent a lot of time together with our babies, thrilled to be sharing the delights and challenges of new motherhood. Our second children arrived two years later, again two weeks apart.
That was what Fran and I had in common; our new motherhood. Everything else? Diametrically opposed. Fran had the cleanest house of anyone I’ve ever known besides my beloved mother-in-law, and that title never changed in all the years she was an at-home parent, eventually of three children. While I had been fired by a cleaning lady we couldn’t afford once I had my second child, (“Mrs. G, I simply cannot function in a home where the mother does not dispose of dirty diapers properly”), Fran somehow disinfected her household with every diaper change, whistling like a bluebird from a Walt Disney film, with nary a diaper, or scent of a diaper to be found. I barely put food on the table at every meal; Fran had her menus planned a month in advance. My laundry tasks averaged weeks behind schedule with piles not based on color, but the level of exhaustion I was feeling when I threw them in the general direction of the washing machine. Fran’s laundry room was so empty and sparkling, it always seemed like I heard a little self-satisfied chuckle whenever I looked in, hoping to sight a spare pair of dirty underwear caught behind a door.
This efficiency always impressed me, but it wasn’t what changed my life perspective.
Fran and her husband moved away from our area of the state when their children were school-aged, and consequently, in the next decade or so, we saw one another infrequently. When they bought a brand-new house, though, I brought my kids down to visit for the day. Fran gave me a tour of what was, of course, an immaculate home, one that nearly tripled the square footage of their first starter house.
When we came to the dining room, it was empty.
“Didn’t you have a dining room table?” I asked.
“There was no room at the old house – remember? We just had that little table in the kitchen.”
“When’s it coming?” I asked, surveying the room bereft of even a chair.
“We’re saving,” she answered.
Time passed, with communication via Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. Once again, anxious for a catch up, I toted my kids a couple of hours down the freeway for a visit with Fran and her family. All our children were bigger, of course, but happy to reconnect. As we sat in her family room chatting about our current lives, I noted the dining room was still empty.
“Are you still saving for a table?” I asked, thoughtlessly.
“We have a certain one in mind,” Fran said.
“Why don’t you just buy a cheap one in the meantime?” I offered.
“There’s one we’re saving for,” she answered.
Both of our families were struggling with money. I had gone back to work and Fran remained at home, plus had added one more child, so their economic status was more challenging. But the bottom line was, neither family was flourishing financially. Money was tight, and it felt like the demands always exceeded the reserves. At our house, if there was an item, we couldn’t afford that we wanted, we charged it. We had absolutely no money sense, nor sensibility. We simply didn’t know better. But Fran and her husband Jan, from the onset of their marriage, had a budget, a plan, and a disciplined execution.
The differences between the two families had been evident for some time. Fran and Jan had one car they shared during their first few years of marriage; we’d had two, both bought on time. We bought a dining room table at Goodwill, still one we really couldn’t afford, because we couldn’t imagine going without. Fran and Jan did not. We were always behind on bills and never able to have an honest conversation about establishing a budget and implementing it responsibly. It bothered me greatly, but it was the pattern we’d established, while our friends somehow organized and implemented a plan to manage their money.
Fran and her husband didn’t buy that dining room table for quite a while. The room remained empty, the family eating in the kitchen, happily, and debt-free.
I realized much later what an indicator that level of commitment and sacrifice meant; not about financial management, but specifically about how a good marriage works. The empty dining room at Fran’s house came to symbolize not a lack, but a richness I learned to envy. Recalling that missing table served as a reminder about what really matters; not things, but commitment to values; not immediate gratification, but communication and sacrifice.
I wasn’t able to apply those lessons for many years, but, thanks to Fran’s example, I learned to look beyond choices in life and to examine their motivation and meaning, adjusting the balance between want and need. It was one of many takeaways she provided over decades of friendship. Plus, that remarkable laugh.
New to the series?
Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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