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What is the single greatest thing that your parents have ever taught you?
My parents were not wealthy. Neither graduated from high school. My dad worked nights at the check-clearing division of a bank; my mom was a housewife and part-time assistant to a dentist who had a nearby office; her dad was a coal miner in Pennsylvania. Our family lived week-to-week, although I never realized that when I was a child. I later learned that spaghetti on Friday was not only due to the non-meat dictum of Catholicism at the time, but also because the paycheck from last Friday was almost used up and there was no money for meat.
Yet my mom told us we could go to any college we got into. I went to Columbia, my older sister went to Harvard, and my younger sister went to Stoneybrook. Scholarships helped, and we were expected to have summer jobs, but my parents never told us how deeply in debt they had gone because of college loans.
Spaghetti on Friday was because the paycheck from last Friday was almost used up and there was no money for meat.
There were also many little acts of generosity, small amounts given when I was in need. There was no wasted money — I was not indulged. As a child, for Christmas, I could ask for a microscope or telescope and they accommodated; this was before the day when these devices had become as cheap as they are today. They generously supported my early interest in science.
When I got a part-time job in college, I was allowed to spend all that I earned. I saved to take a half-summer trip around the country with my friends, and when cash ran low, my mom — without asking — sent me some cash to help our trip.
Later, when my parents grew old, we helped them to move out of the Bronx, where the neighborhood had become dangerous for them. Later, we arranged for them to move in with us in Berkeley. It was wonderful to have our children get to know my parents.
As my parents grew older, we had to take care of their finances. It was only then that we saw the records of their attempts to save money, and the loans they had taken out to enable us to get to college; loans that took 2 decades to pay off, and which had been kept hidden from us.
My parents were incredibly generous, but never let on, so we never felt in debt to them. That is what I now recognize as the truest and most meaningful generosity. I give my parents and their unspoken generosity much of the credit for anything good I have achieved or will achieve in my life.
Richard Muller is a professor of physics at UC Berkeley and the author of “Energy For Future Presidents.” You can read more from Quora here:
- Are there any lies that your parents told you as a kid that you believed for longer than you’d like to admit?