Many people consider 13 an unlucky number. Not me. My birthday is July 13, so I’ve always thought that was my lucky number. Even more unlucky than the mere number 13 is Friday 13. Once more, I think it’s a good day: I was actually born on Friday 13. Yes, I’ve grown up with all the jokes and comments. I shrug them off. If anything’s wrong with me, I usually say, it’s that my dad once fell asleep while rocking me and dropped me on my head. Actually, he didn’t — he simply rolled the rocker forward somehow, and I rolled on the floor as Dad rolled out of the rocker. But it’s a much better story if I say he fell asleep and dropped me on my head.
I remind myself sometimes lately that I am indeed lucky — lucky to have been able to retire just when I did, the very month that Dad had pneumonia, the month that he could no longer drive, and the month where it became clear that he really was going to need someone to live with him full-time. I am grateful every day for that, because I would have had to leave work anyway — take a leave, or retire quickly. And that the university offered an incentive for those of us who were eligible to retire — a real cosmic thumbs-up to me, I think. Karma can be good to us. It was certainly good to me in fall 2010, when that offer was made. I took it up — was in the door at HR to sign up at 8:15 a.m. the morning the offer was valid. I hoped to be first in line: I was number 8. I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the offer.
The universal crapshoot rolled my way that fall, and I am fully aware of the fortune I was given. Not a fortune of money, though there was an incentive package, but a fortune of time and opportunity.
Much of what I’ve read about the other baby boomers who are doing what I do catalog the difficulties we all face and share, but also the lost wages that result from being the caregiver who drives a parent to the doctor, or takes off to stay with ill parent, or run errands, or any of the myriad tasks that we perform at the drop of a hat. When I worked and had to miss class, I could teach online. I was also close enough to commute many days. I didn’t actually lose wages, though I’m sure I lost efficiency and focus. But in reading about others, I’m far more conscious once more of just how fortunate I’ve been in the situation.
This afternoon, driving back from Lake Charles, I thought about the role good fortune has played in my life. Along with my brother and sister, I was fortunate to have a loving family, immediate and extended, one that remains close and in touch. My parents stayed together, through difficult times, and provided stability and modeled responsibility as well as fostered life-skills that continue to pay off. We never lacked for food or clothing; we were never conscious of lacking anything, in fact, though now I realize that my father’s salary as an electrician just didn’t allow for a lot of extras. Yet we had allowances and toys and books. Always there was money for books.
We grew up knowing that we’d go to college, never doubting that. Yet my sister had friends whose fathers were well-to-do rice farmers who wouldn’t send their daughters to college — that was a waste of money. Years after I had a Ph.D., a family friend commented to my dad that he’d wasted his money — after all, I hadn’t “caught a husband.” Dad simply pointed out that I supported myself, had a job, and owned my own home. My father grew up on a red-dirt farm in East Texas during the Depression; though neither of his parents went beyond 3rd and 6th grade, Dad and his brother and sister all finished high school when many of their cousins didn’t. He had two semesters at the University of Texas; his brother finished post-secondary studies. My mother graduated high school and went to business school. For us, education was important; Dad saved for that, and all of us went to college.
Blue-collar income, but middle-class values about education. I also came to know just how fortunate Kay and Phil and I were in another way — we were never told what to major in. Instead, we were told to major in something we liked and enjoyed, because we’d be working and needed to like what we did. Rather than having “success” defined by material goods or high salaries, we had it defined by job satisfaction and by our friendships and family and personal morality. Doing right, living right, and being able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning: those were important. Going along with the crowd or keeping up with the Joneses wasn’t.
Responsibility and independence were important for us– and not just things that were given lip-service. We saw them modeled for us. Dad worked a job for which he was on call 24/7. Mother kept house and was the financial whiz who kept the savings and bank account records and managed to save something every paycheck in a Christmas account at the bank. She used layaway; there was certainly no shame in frugality. We had chores around the house; our allowances were earned. We saw Mother and Dad both read and watch television and keep up with current events. Being the headstrong kid of the 60s, I remember many evening meals that I probably spoiled by disagreeing about politics and Viet Nam. That others weren’t encouraged to speak their minds politically — even to differ with their parents openly — didn’t occur to me until I was an adult. Thinking for ourselves, being politically aware and being tuned in to the world around us: yet more good fortune in my life.
As I sit here in my bed in this chaotic mess of a house, I realize just how fortunate I have been my entire life. It’s not a crapshoot, I think. There’s some kind of a plan, though of whose devising I’m not always clear. I just know that there is one.
And when I go to bed and night and say my prayers, I always remember to be thankful for the fortune I’ve had and that I have still.
Good fortune. Good luck. Having grown up in a family where tough times were to be fought through with grace, I try to be equally graceful about the times I’m discouraged by just how much there is to do. Today was one of those days where I just wanted to put my head down and cry. I left Southwind feeling as though somehow I’d failed Dad by not having taken care of something, even though I know I can’t do it all, not at once.
I wanted to scream. I didn’t. I just got in my car, let a few tears out, and drove home to Egan, unpacked the car, and came in. Tomorrow, I’ll get up and tackle the chore of packing the books and other things in my room. I’ll manage to find someplace to stash the boxes I’ll fill, though right now I can’t imagine where that will be.
I’ll balance the checkbook and satisfy Dad’s need to know exactly what I’ve spent so far and exactly what’s in the bank. A guess-timate doesn’t satisfy him. I know we’re not broke; he needs to know exactly what’s there.
Tonight, I’ll just take some deep breaths, read a little, and turn out the light at an earlier hour than usual.
And I’ll remember to be grateful that there is a checking account, and savings, and that I have the opportunity to balance the checkbook knowing there’s enough money. Not a fortune, true, but as my late great-uncle Ben would have said, “a right smart.” That means enough, sufficient.
Gratitude for sufficient means, for love, and for another day to tackle the hard stuff.