Impulsive Spending

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Since before I can remember, I’ve spent every Sunday at the church with the old, Russian minister, the one who cuts hymns short if he doesn’t particularly like them, and writes a lesson plan on Saturdays so that he can be sure not to follow it. The one who, when he puts some words in an order particularly attractive to my mother, is quoted almost daily by her: waking me up, calling me after school, over dinner, and again in the after-meal glow, on evenings she finds particularly “spiritual.”

Just before the end of his series, that minister sends around a smelly purple bag, with worn wooden handles. Every week, when it comes around to us, my mother rips another lavender rectangle from her checkbook, clutches it between her palms, and places it carefully into the center of that awful stench. I cringe as I pass it on to the wrinkly woman next to me, impatient to distance the thing from my nose.

Some Sundays, if it’s tax season, or if we’re planning a vacation, my dad, frail next to my mother and at the same time a foot taller, will ask about the number on her morning rectangle.

For us, money may not be particularly tight, but we fall victim to the archetypal American problem of spending too much money on our house, and car, and second car, and third—so that there’s not much left for those “rainy days” my dad learned to watch out for from his dad. My mother proudly proclaims this week’s numbers, and his eyes point blankly toward a stain in the carpet, obviously seeing something else. He reminds me of the way he looks when he sits down on the striped blue couch and listens to the other numbers, the ones they call out for the lottery on the radio.

My mother’s, I know, is the kind of charity that really means something, that is shipped first class from one heart to another. To receive a gift from her is an honor, and even the way she gives me five dollars for lunch makes it seem like the five dollars between bankruptcy and self-sufficiency.

My dad’s eyes can see the stain again, and they are starting to point forward. Just as he opens his mouth to respond, I quietly excuse myself—but I can’t help thinking. As I make my way down the hallway, and my fingers reach for the smudged knob on my door, I can still clearly hear my father’s frustrated voice, which he forces to stay level, but is still somehow piercingly loud if it’s coming from the opposite end of a dinner table.

As he talks about the mortgage, that ticket from a week ago that’s going to raise our insurance, the recession, the car for me that we still can’t afford, I shut the door and sit down in my bed, to rest my fingers on my temples. I can’t stop it. My thoughts are already in motion.

My mother’s passion for giving selflessly is beautiful, and heartbreaking, and if even half the people in the world were like her, we would have very few problems. But “passionate” is sometimes a synonym for “impulsive,” and for my mother, the two can be indiscernible. Charity needs to be calculated carefully, but not too carefully. Donation for the sole purpose of being humane is wonderful, but when kid in Africa gets to hide his bones a bit better, what matters to him is the loaf of bread—not the message it brings. And in a capitalist, logic-based society, tax deductions, and other things like them, effectively buy those loaves of bread. There may be a valid debate between logic and passion, but when giving from either source we must remember that survival must come before that debate can even begin.

So I return to the dining room to take care of the children.





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