Saturday, December 17, 2005

My grandmother's story -- and mine

The lovely Carol said it would be a good thing to tell my Grandmother's story, and some of my own as well. I've taken some liberties with the details, some of which I forgot and others of which I never knew. But that doesn't stop me from making them up.

This story begins in Korea, when my grandmother was about 17. She knew from the servants' whispers that something was up. Her mother came to her. "Listen to me. Your father is going to suggest something to you. It might sound interesting and exciting, but you should absolutely say 'No' because you have no idea what you'd be getting yourself into." You can see it coming already, can't you?

The proposition was to get on a boat for Hawaii, where she would marry a nice-looking young man (he had sent his photo). She thought about it. Their house had been burned down once before (apparently some traditionalists didn't like the idea of Christians in their neighborhood), and life seemed to her a little boring. The man looked nice, and she thought Hawaii sounded fine. No snow there in the winter! So, against her mother's advice, she left.

It must have been quite a shock when she realized what it would mean to board the ship alone. I wonder when she realized that she would never again have a servant to command. At the end of the voyage, her husband-to-be greeted her, but he was several decades older than the man in the photo. A friend of his had posed for the picture! But now she was in Hawaii, and that was that.

Soon she was a young widow who picked pineapple to support herself and spoke no English. Friends set her up with a young man, and they married and started having children. Shortly after the birth of her seventh baby, she found herself again a widow, living in plantation housing, and working in the fields. One day, when she was in the fields, the baby came down with something at the sitter's, and never recovered.

My mom, aunts and uncles grew up in rural Maui. There was no snow, but there was plenty of work. As the older kids got jobs, they would turn over their earnings to Grandma, who saved it up; when she moved to Honolulu and bought a house, she did not take out a mortgage. Somehow she had managed to save up the full price. That house is worth over a million dollars today.

Long after Grandma died, I heard that my mom and her sisters had gone to boarding school. How could Grandma have afforded that? I sure don't know, but when I heard that, I gained a greater appreciation for the high value she had placed on education.

About that house: there was an apartment, what might be called an "in-law unit" today. (I don't know exactly when she sold the house to my parents.) She lived there, and when we were growing up, she was often in charge of us. She spent a lot of time trying to pass on her values, and to warn us about what lay ahead. "This world goes by fast," she said. Was she ever right! It seems like only yesterday when she told me that, one evening over dinner. It might have been one of those nights when I decided to eat with her in her apartment (she didn't always eat with us in the house.)

One day, I came home from school with a report card. What was on it, she wanted to know. I had one "A" and the rest "B"s. She wanted to know why not one "B" and the rest "A"s?? My mother had routinely gotten straight As, and had spent a year abroad on a Fulbright fellowship.

One day, Grandma came home and announced that she was now a US citizen. She had signed up and taken the class, then the exam, without telling anyone about it -- until she was sworn in.

Later, she moved to an apartment near the Ala Moana shopping center. She never drove a car, but took the bus everywhere.

My parents shared Grandma's esteem of education. They told us kids that they'd pay for four years at wherever we wanted to go. I don't know how they managed to do it, but they saved up. Growing up, though, I never thought we were poor. We ate out once a week (my sister reminded me of that recently); We had two big famiily vacations - getting on airplanes and flying all the way to the mainland - when we were growing up. We also had camping trips and a lot of picnics. We did go to the neighbor islands, too, but I'm sure we didn't travel every year.

I was very fortunate in high school to have a math teacher who believed in me. My high school didn't have a calculus course -- I don't think there were any AP courses at all -- so she encouraged me to take courses at the university. I went to summer school to get some requirements out of the way, and by the time I started my senior year I had almost enough units for graduation. That year, I took a full load at the University of Hawaii (seven minutes on a bicycle from my parents' garage!), which cost a whopping $120.76 per semester iirc. I remember complaining to one of the profs about the price of one of the textbook -- over $10, and no used copies were available.

My math teacher, a staunch 7th Day Adventist (I was a devout heathen at the time) strongly encouraged me to go to Stanford. She must have written a great recommendation because I got in. With the head start on my classes, and taking a full load the next summer (at UH), I finished in two years. This was real important to me because Stanford was ridiculously expensive: over $1100 a quarter just for tuition (and there were three of them in an academic year). I was convinced this was a scam to get more money out of us, and was eager to get my parents' money's worth. My youngest sister went to USC, where she finished her undergrad work in three years. A couple of months ago, at my parents' anniversary party, my dad remarked that everybody in our family has a degree -- except him (he ran out of money). They didn't run out of money for us, though. They saved and paid the bills and never took out loans for college. Did I mention that somehow I never thought I was poor?

When I was about to graduate from Stanford, Grandma got together with my parents. She was done traveling, she said, but she wanted to spend some money on a present for me: she gave them four thousand dollars -- for my first new car! It's difficult to imagine now, at the beginning of the 21st century, what that meant, but I happened to run across one of her old payslips from the pineapple cannery (she had "graduated" from the fields at some point). They paid her a few dollars a day at the time she was retiring.

My parents were astonished by this -- my mom said something about not being fair to the other grandchildren. Grandma was incensed. "Isn't this mine to do with what I want? Do you want to wait 'til I die and divide up what's left?" she demanded. My mother was taken aback (maybe some day I'll ask her about it), and said something or other. Grandma would not be mollified. "What meaning that?" she asked. (I don't remember how it was I got to hear this conversation, but I clearly remember her exact words -- "What meaning that?")

Some years later, she broke her hip and moved back in with my parents. She died at 89. Sometimes I wish I could ask her opinion about things.

Out of college, I got a job with HP, where I worked for 26 years. I started with my parents' view of money. It's OK to have a little fun, I thought, but you'd better save, because you never know when a rainy day will come. But then, something happened: I met Jesus. And I read William MacDonald's True Discipleship, wherein he claimed Christians shouldn't have savings accounts, especially not savings accounts for a rainy day. I memorized verses like "Sell your possessions and give to the poor" and "Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal." In perhaps an over-reaction, I emptied my savings accounts. Donor relations people visited me and invited me to lunch a couple of times. Apparently they didn't realize I was making under $30,000 a year, so the bonanza they'd just seen from me would never be repeated.

Since that time, I've taken a more stewardship-oriented view of money, a trend which only accelerated when I married the lovely Carol and we started having children. The kids are getting to the age where our pitiful efforts at college-savings plans look, well, pitiful. College will cost me about ten times as much as it cost my parents -- per kid! The other day, my younger daughter saw a statement from one of the 529 plans -- with some $20,000 in it. She was impressed that we had that much saved already (ha! that's not even half a year's expenses at a private college today, let alone when she's in college). But that $20,000 represents saying "No" two hundred times to some $100 expense.

There's going to be a lot more of that around here by the time the kids get through college.

For now, though, we take vacations at least once a year. Sometimes we go skiing, sometimes we go to the mountains for a week (or so) with friends in the summer. This year we went to Europe. Jenny has gone on some academic program every year since 2003. Sheri takes dance and art lessons, and will travel to the South with a school group early next year. When I was growing up, skiing and international travel were only for rich people.

Yet with all that, I sometimes worry that we are, as Garrison Keillor said, "somehow less than our parents, and are giving less to our children." In his monologue from 1989, his "classmate" was talking about the knowledge of some really important things. "How did a child grow up in my house without ever hearing 'O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless streets / the silent stars go by'?" he asks.

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