I got the call just after noon on Saturday. My mom asked me how I was feeling (I had been sick almost all week) and if I was making progress on a final paper due on the 17th. It seemed to be a mundane conversation.
Then she paused and said softly, “Listen, Grandpa died.”
My Grandpa Buddy was eighty-seven years old and the kind of guy who seemed to have the proverbial nine lives, surviving World War II, an aneurysm, bladder cancer, fifty years of smoking, and two open heart surgeries before being felled by a sudden bout of pneumonia. He was the son of Russian Jews who fled the pogroms; he was fond of telling frighteningly raunchy jokes, and took the time to communicate with my father (his former son-in-law) even though my parents divorced more than two decades ago. Six days before his death he gave me a compendium of New York Times coverage of the Yankees, dating back to 1901. He had been with my grandmother since 1941, and married since 1943. They had four children, fourteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren together.
And for all sixty-six years of their marriage, Grandpa handled the finances. While Grandma Lennor minded the house, tended to the next generation(s), cooked dinner, and walked their succession of dearly beloved dogs, Grandpa brought home the income, took care of the checkbook, the rent, the Social Security and Veterans benefits, the gas and electric bills, the health insurance, and countless other pecuniary matters. I didn’t know about this division of labor until Monday, when my Grandma said, “I’m angry because he left and there are things I don’t know how to do.” She looked at my mother and added in a plaintive voice, “I don’t know how to deal with money.”
The question I was left with was, will my grandmother be able (or willing) to learn independence at the age of 84? She married my grandfather at eighteen, going straight from her mother’s household where she was similarly unconcerned with financial issues. It was something she — and my grandfather — never felt she had to learn. And for six and a half decades, that seemed to work. This didn’t represent some fundamental power dynamic within their marriage as much as it did the assumption that money was a man’s business, just as children were a women’s.
I now wonder if my mother had her mother in mind when she repeatedly drilled the phrase “never depend on a man for money” into the heads of her daughters, and whether she also was thinking, “never depend on a man to handle the money.” I grew up in a different situation than my mother. Unlike Grandma, she was a full-time working mother who taught herself to manage the ins and outs of financial matters. And my stepmother was the same way, as were my two aunts. My hope is that mother.of.a.lesser.god, and aunts.of.a.lesser.god can help my grandmother navigate her finances, although I can’t begin to conceive of how overwhelming that concept seems to my Grandma, especially right after losing her husband. And I wish so many women weren’t conditioned by society to think that it won’t do any harm to always leave money matters to men. Even without the loss of the partner who handles finances, it’s a relationship component that can only erode a woman’s independence.