Can I Become My Parents?

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The Poor Princess and Nancy Botwin uniting forces in 1994, Paris

Most of us, Nancy Botwin and myself foremost, think we’re oh so superior to our parents. If our mom declares she got a gorgeous pair of Jones New York pants for only $20 at Macys, we say, “But we would never wear Jones New York.” If my dad  goes on about all the different kinds of pizza and pasta he enjoyed at Tomato’s, we say, “Buffet food is gross.” Even if it’s something we genuinely like–say, dinner at Yard House–we’re sure to find a reason to mock my parents for going (“Girls, we just had half-price appetizers at Yard House. You can too, if you go right now!” “WHATEVER, Mom, we’re not having dinner at FOUR PM! You’ve got to be kidding!”).

Yes, they were both child-refugees. Yes, when my mother was growing up, her daily lunch consisted of shmaltz sandwiches because the meat was too expensive, and my dad spent his teenage years living in a tent. I get it. But they spoiled us, and as a result, we’re . . . spoiled.

Which is not to say they didn’t rub off on us at all. When I was in my 20s, Nancy Botwin and I were out for lunch at a French bistro. When the server came around to take our drink order, I, secretly craving a Diet Coke, immediately and unhesitatingly said, “I’ll have water.” I didn’t believe there were any other options.

“You know, you can order a drink,” declared my sister. I looked at her as if I were Pope Gregory IX and she a heretic, a JEW (oh wait, she’s both . . . well, you know what I mean). It had been drilled into us every time we had gone to a restaurant throughout our childhoods that a single restaurant soft drink costs more than a 2 litre bottle of pop purchased in a grocery store.

I reminded my sister of this fact. “On the other hand,” she declared, “It’s only a couple of bucks.” Clearly I was seeing the influence of her new, spendthrift husband.

Said brother-in-law, The Dentist (Nancy Botwin is also a dentist, but seeing as she only works on average a day a month, I decided to name her after other attributes of hers), has recently decided upon a plan to write a book about my parents and how frugal (not his word) they are—or rather, co-write one with me (a plan which has me doing all the writing and him doing the “inspiring”).

So I searched my brain and came up with the name “My Free Bagels.” Here’s how it began:

My Free Bagels

“October 28, 2010. My dad has had a hard couple of years. After finding out he had cancer, and undergoing a very drastic surgery and chemotherapy, he was told his chance of survival in the following two years was only 20%. The man who had been invincible—once a solider in the Israeli army during the Sinai Campaign, a member of the Bat Yam motorcycle gang B’nai Yam (the mermen, The Scientist insists on calling them), a welder, a man who could fix any household problem from a jammed door to a broken dishwasher—suddenly became old.

“But he survived. And on October 28, 2010, he turned 75, and he beat the odds—he had survived the two-year mark. It was time to celebrate. So he got bagels.

“I read a lot of books, and I see a lot of films, so I can imagine the way some people might commemorate such a day—a trip to an exotic land, a dinner at a Michelin 3-star restaurant, a party for family and friends—but my parents are not ‘some people.’ They are my parents. And if a bakery—let’s call it That’s a Bagel—is willing to give out a half a dozen free bagels on people’s birthdays to bring new clients into their stores, or reward old loyal ones, you can be sure my parents will head across the street to get their free bagels. And then they will get in their car and drive up that street to the north location for their second set of six. And further up north for the next six. And then across to the east to visit another location. And, time permitting, they might also have headed down to the locations in the south end of the city, but alas, there was a clearance at one of the grocery stores on kosher meat that they had to get to, and my mom had just finished her seventh MAC product, so she had to go to the mall to trade in her seven empty containers for a free lipstick. All in all, it was a very, very long day. But happily: a very productive one.”

That was the opening anecdote of the book I was going to write. I sent it to Nancy Botwin, who has the attention span of a fruit fly in a glass of dish soap and vinegar (I don’t know what the attention span of most fruit flies are, but if you put a fruit fly in a glass of dish soap and vinegar, it dives in, attracted to the smell of the vinegar, and gets trapped in the soap and dies. So I figure, at least for that fruit fly–pretty short). “Too many details,” she complained. “Just tell more stories. The Dentist has lots of good ones saved up.” Then The Dentist got on the phone to start relaying them to me.

But here’s the problem: my “frugal” parents? They have it right. The Scientist and I earn a lot less money than my parents did, despite six degrees between us (that’s five more than my parents have). Now, they’re spending their retirement in their beachfront condo in the sunshine state (when they’re not on a cruise–they’ve been on 49 to date!). So–I guess they can teach me a lesson or two about free bagels . . . and other stuff.

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13 responses »

  1. I want to know the tips they shared with you! Share the secrets of their frugality! It’s the Great Recession — we need this information!

  2. I’m expecting Nancy to say that the gas costs more than the bagels, heh heh. And, although you didn’t mention it, I’m sure your folks were most generous with all those bagels when it came to sharing them.

    Your parents rock, PP!

  3. we are – unluckily – the generation who won’t exceed our parents. No “steal” on a house in Easthampton; no “hey there’s a new development being built on Captiva” and no job security, either (remember the days when–well, men, really, not so much women–worked at one company for decades and decades and then retired to live on the fruits of their labors?)
    What’s a gal to do? Blog about it, of course : )
    And I guess consider ourselves (as women) lucky that we have more options than marriage and secretary and hats?

    • I was going to quibble with this–my point would have been that if you started lower down on the scale, there was still mobility. But then I thought of my 8 siblings and step-siblings, and more than half of them *are* worse off than their parents. So the contraction does extend below the landed class. My dad and stepfather both had better benefits than 5/8 of my siblings, and my stepfather was–as you say–able to retire at 55. So while no one on my family has ever been to the Hamptons (despite living on Long Island), you’re still right!

  4. Somehow I thought my previous comment was going to thread in a line from Quinn’s. Ah well, my more general comment is: holy shit, this is wonderful writing and I want to pre-order your book on Amazon right now! Don’t listen to Nancy–write the book you started. Please!

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