Losing the Keys

David Gartland

MY MOTHER AND MY future mother-in-law met at a funeral 37 years ago. They started discussing their respective families. It was during that conversation that they realized they each had an unmarried child, and they decided it would be nice if their two children got together. Thus, on that fatal day, my life was changed forever.

One of the stories I heard early on about my mother-in-law was how she lost a house to foreclosure. My father-in-law diligently handed over his paycheck to my mother-in-law every payday. My mother-in-law was the one responsible for paying the bills.

One day, when my future wife was six years old, she walked home from school to find a “for sale” sign on the front lawn. The doors were locked and no one was home. My wife freaked. She thought her mother, father, older brother and younger sister had left, and forgotten to take her. She started crying and began walking to her uncle’s house down the street. At about this time, her father was driving up the block and stopped to find out why she was crying. When he got to their house and saw the sign, it was his turn to freak out.

My in-laws were both born on 116th Street in Manhattan, just south of Harlem, to immigrant parents. My father-in-law was Italian. My mother-in-law was Chilean. They lived in separate apartment buildings. As my mother-in-law described it, “In the neighborhood, everyone was poor, but we were all equally poor, so we didn’t consider ourselves poor. We were just like everyone else.”

After serving in World War II, my father-in-law—like many GIs—wanted a better life. He got a job working in the aircraft industry building airplanes. He met a girl from the neighborhood and got married. They started a family and wanted to move up in the world by buying their very own house in the suburbs of Long Island. Life was good—until it wasn’t.

My mother-in-law had a soft touch for people in need. Their next-door neighbor was struggling with financial problems, and my mother-in-law wanted to help out. Instead of paying the mortgage with the money her husband was giving her, she gave it to the neighbor. Apparently, this went on for a while until the mortgage company foreclosed.

My wife has often described her family life as exactly like the TV show All in the Family, with my father-in-law as Archie Bunker, and often yelling at my mother-in-law, who played Edith. Indeed, I often witnessed these Archie Bunker-like rants by my five-foot-tall father-in-law.

What I wanted to know: If my father-in-law would scream at his wife for every mistake she made, why didn’t he divorce her after she lost the house that he’d worked so hard to save up for?

His answer shocked me: “Oh, she was young and she just wanted to help the neighbor.” That’s it? I couldn’t believe Archie Bunker was saying this.

I immediately got nervous and wondered if this financial thinking was hereditary, and whether my wife had inherited this same defective gene. From that point on, I’ve handled our finances. I’m happy to report that we live debt-free.

But that isn’t the end of the story. My in-laws became ill in 2021 and were forced to sell their home in a 55-plus community in Sun City, South Carolina, and move into an assisted living apartment. My sister-in-law asked me to help her go through their financial papers to see if there were any problems.

Even after her early hiccup, my mother-in-law had continued to handle the family finances. In reviewing their credit card statements, I discovered that my mother-in-law had set up auto-pay, so the utilities and other bills were automatically charged to their credit cards. The credit cards, in turn, were automatically paid from their checking account, which was where my father-in-law’s monthly pension and their Social Security checks were deposited.

My mother-in-law was the last person I’d imagine teaching me a positive financial lesson, but she did. By reviewing what she’d done, it made me realize how simple your financial life becomes when you know your bills will be paid. It frees you up to focus on enjoying other aspects of life, which is what my in-laws had done. My mother-in-law’s rationale for this arrangement: When they were traveling, she wanted to be sure the bills were paid while they were gone.

My mother-in-law passed away in 2022. After her death, my father-in-law never got the hang of paying the bills. Instead, that responsibility has fallen to their other daughter—my sister-in-law.

David Gartland was born and raised on Long Island, New York, and has lived in central New Jersey since 1987. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math from the State University of New York at Cortland and holds various professional insurance designations. Dave’s property and casualty insurance career with different companies lasted 42 years. He’s been married 36 years, and has a son with special needs. Dave has identified three areas of interest that he focuses on to enjoy retirement: exploring, learning and accomplishing. Pursuing any one of these leads to contentment. Check out Dave’s earlier articles.

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