My parents were bowlers. I grew up in bowling alleys, both duckpin and tenpin lanes. League play, always. And they were good, too. Lots and lots of trophies. Mom counted some of the biggest names in the sport as her friends. Dad even managed a lane for a year or so, between “real” jobs, and put me to work spraying and sorting bowling shoes.
I myself bowled in a couple of kids’ leagues, and won two trophies of my own.
For a number of years in my youth, Dad had a troubled relationship with money. I suspect it came from growing up lower-middle class, in a tiny bungalow in the poor part of Takoma Park, Maryland, with an insular, intemperate, racist, dry alky of a father, and a sweet, longsuffering, and ineffectual mother.
Dad was an accountant, and a brilliant tax consultant. But for several years, he had trouble keeping a job, and we fell into debt. I remember lying to debt collectors on the phone for him, and all of us hiding from people who would come to our door and demand payment.
At one point our electricity was shut off. It was late autumn, as I recall, and quite chilly, so we burned what wood we had for warmth and light in the evening, and when the wood was gone, Dad went to the bowling alley and came back with boxes of bowling pins, old castoffs they were going to get rid of anyway. The plastic coating and the hardwood beneath made them superlative fireplace fodder.
One night I remember my mother and I sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (of course she couldn’t cook a real meal, since everything in the house ran on electricity). She took my face in her hand and turned it so that I looked deeply into her eyes.
“There’s just one thing to remember,” she said. “We are not poor.” When that sank in, she finished her thought: “We just don’t have any money. There’s a difference.”
I thought of the “poor people,” those folks in town who had old cars and junk in their yard, and let their children run around like banshees. We had pride. We kept a nice house, I always wore clean clothes, always held the door for others, always had respect for others. We were not poor. We were never poor.
Somehow it sank in that poverty was a state of mind, a way of looking at the world. I’m guessing wealth is, too, but that hasn’t sunk in yet. My father’s fears are an inheritance I wish I had never received.