Taking Care of the Greatest Generation

“You should be making more money on your father’s account,” the nice man at the bank told me three weeks ago.  “The CD isn’t paying much interest — about 1 percent or so.”

The CD contained half of my father’s assets.  The nice man at the bank — with his firm handshake and straightforward gaze — was right.  I needed to make more income off Daddy’s money to make sure there was enough for his monthly expenses at a nearby facility.  So we talked.

Eventually, after about an hour of conversation, I agreed we should put the money in an annuity in a large insurance company.  The monthly income would increase to almost four percent.  We’d have a bigger margin for Daddy’s expenses.  I signed the contract as my father’s power of attorney.  The investment was in a company with the very highest rating, giving Daddy’s money the greatest security possible.

That was three weeks ago.  These days, so much can happen in three weeks.  Banks and brokerage companies can fail.  Fortunes, large and small, can be lost.  Billions and billions of dollars.  Presidential candidates thunder and politicians huddle and markets skid.

I left a voicemail with the nice man at the bank.  I need his reassurance.  But then, if I get it, what will I do?  Who can be trusted?  Who knows what’s going to happen?

I look at the astronomical numbers in the bailout, the heart-churning losses on Wall Street.  Behind them, I see the villains we’ve all come to loathe — the sleazy, rapacious, swashbuckling masters of the universe straight out of Bonfire of the Vanities.   The same greedheads who crowded Manhattan restaurants to spend their enormous bonuses on Cristal and vintage wines for the house, who hightailed it to BMW dealerships to surprise their family members.  It isn’t Christmas, is it, without the keys to a new German car under the tree?

I wish I could blame this frightening mess on all of them, but I can’t.  I see all of us in this country making decisions, large and small, that have brought us to this precipice.  Taking out mortgages we couldn’t afford, living on too much credit or mortgage equity loans, paying attention only to lowering taxes — without any thought of the looming deficit we were leaving to our children and their children.  Thinking the real-estate market would continue to soar and it would all work out.

Looking at the far smaller numbers in my father’s financial world, I see a very different backdrop.  I know where the money he has comes from.  It was saved, dollar by dollar, by my father and mother over a lifetime together.  My father worked steadily at a job he didn’t particularly like.  Both parents were thrifty.  They ate leftovers, they packed lunches, they pinched pennies till you could hear Abe Lincoln scream.  They were both children of the Great Depression and they never forgot what they had seen.  They paid off their house when they could.  When they invested money, it was only with the greatest of care.  They avoided debt.

That’s the money it’s my responsibility to take care of.  It’s money that has a stark emotional history to me, particularly now that my mother is dead and my father is drifting into the later stages of Alzheimer’s.

As I wrote this, the nice man from the bank called me.  He said he’d been on the phone quite a lot these days, reassuring people.  In the case of my father’s money, it is fully insured by the state, he said.  It’s safe.

So, good.  The rest of us — my generation and my kids’ generation — will have to fend for ourselves.  We’ll have to trust the economists who tell us this bailout is necessary.  Hell, who knows about the economists — but if Warren Buffet says it’s necessary, that’s good enough for me.  He’s of my parents’ generation and he’s proven himself, again and again.

In the meantime, for all those high-flying CEOs and masters of the universe, I’d like to reconsider the old idea of public flogging.  (When did we ever stop thinking that was a good idea?)  I don’t consider much in the world to be sacred, but the money my parents and their entire generation worked for and saved is as close as it comes to being sacred to me.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

2 comments… add one
  • It seems like this whole mess has become one big pissing contest. There’s enough blame to go around, thats for sure. But we had better unite,  get this cleaned up, or we’ll all be stuck in that vast darkness of the unknown for a long period of time.

  • Ruth, thanks for your thoughtful post, which makes me think of my parents and grandparents as well, and how they scrimped and saved. I think the so-called bailout should come with buckets of tar so that we can tar and feather those “masters of the universe” you’re talking about. I’d love to see those Brooks Brothers suits with a nice coating of icky black stuff. But it should also come with buckets of blame going all the way back to Alan Greenspan, who got us started on this slippery slope with his “easy money” policies. And all those real estate brokers and mortgage co. reps who just wanted folks to sign on the dotted line, whether they could afford what they were buying. And the builders who kept the bulldozers going long after the market was sated. And the bankers who were happy to pass along more and more of the damaged goods in plain brown wrappers. And yes, the folks who were lured into buying the Whopper rather than the plain little burger they could afford.

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