So much depends on my old red wallet. I am not exaggerating when I say that my tattered Velcro wallet contains my life. My life depends on it. And it is also an an emblem of much hard-earned wisdom and some good stories to pass on to my kids.
I can’t remember where or when I got it. I’ve owned it for years. It provides easy access to my life savings and contains enough documentation and artifacts to reconstruct my person. Friends have noted that someone could steal my identity by stealing my wallet, and I’ve said they’re welcome to it—my identity, that is. The thought of someone assuming the me that is me amuses, well, me. However, I do believe falling prey to identity theft would suck.
I rarely carry paper money. But I do carry a nagging sense of guilt that I may be setting a bad example for my kids on several fronts by my pride over my old red wallet and my insouciance about its contents. I wonder whether it is OK to speak giddily to my kids about my ragged old wallet?
I have held out on “teaching the value of money” to my 9- and 11-year-old kids. The most valuable thing to me in my wallet is a baby picture of my son. I don’t have one of my daughter, and that makes me blue. The photo of my son as a baby always cheers me up … at least until it reminds me that I don’t have one of my daughter. The rest is the dross of modern life: cards, debit cards, the occasional stray cash.
One of the first things my kids learned in elementary school math class was how to make change, and this depressed me. I find math beautiful, and I don’t want them to think it is nothing more than a commercial expedient, or nothing more than arithmetic. Math comprises much more than addition and subtraction in the way my wallet comprises much more than the sum of its contents.
While I may be an apparently imperfect parent on the surface, I’m still an OK dad inside. I ask my kids to not wear the same clothes every day and to throw away their socks with holes (air-conditioned, as my dad would say). They persist in wearing the same clothes every day, and then I wonder what’s wrong with their doing so, especially as I’ve refused to buy a new wallet for decades.
I tell my kids lots of stories. When other parents ask about my parenting style, I say that I tell them stories. They usually assume I mean that my kids are toddlers, and I read them bedtime stories. I’m not my sure what my kids make of my stories, or me.
Which brings me back to my wallet.
I told my son that if an archaeologist of the future happened upon my old wallet preserved in amber or ice, the archaeologist might try to reconstruct the me that was me out of curiosity—not the way an identity thief would, but as an act of the imagination. He might imagine me as I really was in my time and place, and even try to extrapolate an inkling of my time and place from my red wallet and the stuff inside it.
I think such thought experiments are more important for my kids’ young imaginations than instilling in them the value of money or the fear of identity thieves.
My son at first thought the idea of reconstructing me from my wallet was weird, but he’s repeated it enough times to make me think he finds it interesting, if not cool. Still, I’m left to wonder how I rate as a parent. I don’t care much about what other parents think, but I care deeply about raising kids who know they are loved, have healthy imaginations, and feel in control of their lives.
I admit I’m not rich and I don’t have enough money saved for retirement, things I would never tell my kids. But I have also volunteered in a hospice, and I am acutely aware of what your 401k is worth in the end. I witnessed a lot of pain but also heard some wise, heartfelt words in the hospice from people who only had a few left to spare.
I tell my daughter (a hockey player and an artist) that when folded and looked at with an open mind, my wallet is not too far removed from some cool Mark Rothko paintings. Looked at in one way, it’s worn-out, seen better days, and has low-rent written all over it. Looked at in a different way, it is not unlike a great piece of art, interesting to look at and think about. Why bother yourself about its (dis)contents?
I tell my kids that my dad wore a tattered old brown corduroy jacket for years with pleasure and pride. When asked (mostly by my mother) why he didn’t buy a new one, he said the jacket had been through a lot with him, had character, was comfortable, and, inevitably, “they don’t make them like this anymore.”
I get comments on my wallet from an inordinate number of cashiers (all female, all 20 years younger than I am). They usually tell me what a cool wallet I have. I have a reliable bullshit detector hardwired in my head, and I’m pretty sure they are in earnest.
A young man at a coffee shop saw me pull my wallet out of my book bag recently and said it looked as if I’d had it for a while. He added that his was kind of crappy too, and he’d been on a string of first dates over dinner that seemed to go OK until he pulled out his wallet and his dates looked at him as if a guy with a wallet like his must be the kind of guy who couldn’t afford even to pay for dinner. I told him about the compliments I get about mine, and my kids cast knowing looks at me.
It has been through a lot with me, seen many interesting days, my wallet. It has character, I’ve said, echoing my dad. And no one would mistake it for a man purse or a Gucci.