My grandfather was in impeccable mental health when he died in 2008. He was as sharp as ever – still up-to-date on current events and always curious about my schoolwork and career plans. But his body was failing him. He had been on kidney dialysis for years at that point, a brutal three-times-a-week ordeal that was exhausting for him and my mother, his primary caretaker. I still think about the line often repeated by a friend of mine who worked in a dialysis clinic: “There are only two ways off dialysis: transplant or death.” Frail octogenarians don’t receive kidney transplants.
In the end, though, it was his heart that failed him first. Through the whole ordeal, he never lost his sense of humor. When a cardiologist gave him less than a month to live, he half-joked to my mom, “At least I won’t have to get that tooth extraction we scheduled!” On his deathbed, he was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear, guessing insightfully about how the plot would turn next. He was halfway through the book when he died.
His wife of 62 years, my grandmother, was already deep into Alzheimer’s-induced dementia by then. The exact opposite of my grandfather, she was the picture of physical health for her age – but her brain was gripped by a devastating and debilitating disease. One month, she was holding my grandfather’s hand in the hospital as he died. The next month, she had forgotten the whole experience, innocently asking my mother, “Where did Bill go?”
My mom tried explaining the honest answer the first few times that question came up, but it was too painful after that. My poor grandmother would eventually become convinced that he was out having an extramarital affair, an insulting and ironic inference about one of the most loyal and trustworthy people I’ve ever known.
I think about my grandparents often. Their lives were so different from mine. My life is laughably easy, by comparison. They were both born into relative poverty in the Midwest in the midst of the Great Depression. My grandfather was drafted into the Navy during World War II and nearly deployed to Japan, only to be spared by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was convinced he would have died in the war, and that tragic irony was never lost on him.
My grandmother, meanwhile, had her first pregnancy at 18. Neither of them ever earned a college degree. They worked ordinary, middle-class jobs – as a sales representative and a retail store manager – for decades. The concept of “early retirement” never existed in their vocabularies.
They were ruthlessly frugal, a product of their Great Depression upbringing. They shopped at four different grocery stores every week, optimizing on price and quality for each item. They washed and reused their Ziploc bags time and time again. They wasted next to nothing. They didn’t need a frugality blog to clue them in; it was just the way they lived.
I admired their frugality greatly. When I think of how they lived, the idea that my life is even remotely frugal is laughable.
Ultimately, though, I believe they took frugality too far. One of my greatest regrets for their lives is that they refused to really enjoy themselves in retirement, constantly plagued by the fear of financial insecurity.
For their 50th wedding anniversary, my mom and her siblings gifted them a Caribbean cruise. They never took it, not wanting the family to spend the money.
My grandmother’s sister, who had met a German man and moved to Munich, frequently invited them to visit. “We can’t afford it.”
Their retirement community offered an affordable and stress-free bus to San Francisco, where they could have enjoyed a nice meal and an evening show or concert – even if only on special occasions. “Too expensive.”
When their health began to fail, my mother begged them to have an air conditioner installed in their house, insisting that they shouldn’t be struggling through the scorching California summers. They resisted fiercely for years, only giving in after much stress over the price.
For years, we believed that this frugality was out of necessity – that they had almost no savings. Only later, when my parents took power of attorney and sorted through their records, did the real picture begin to emerge. They weren’t rich, but they were far from poor: A paid-off house. Hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in savings, earning a fraction of a percent in interest. Paper bonds and T-bills years past their maturity dates tucked away in filing cabinets. “Emergency” cash stashed – literally – all over the house.
They could have afforded all those little luxuries. They could have enjoyed themselves. They could have traveled. They could have relaxed.
They never did.
With the exception of a few trips to see family, they rarely even left their town, saving their retirement dreams for a “someday” that would never come.
I feel those tendencies in myself sometimes. I fear financial failure. I toy with the idea of going back to a job I don’t love just to build a bigger safety margin. I feel guilty about spending money, even on things we enjoy. But I do my best to suppress them.
If there’s one thing I learned from my grandparents, it’s this: There’s a cost to being overly conservative. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. We don’t get our time back. We don’t get our health back. Financial prudence is important, no doubt, but so is living for today.
I missed my grandfather’s memorial service. I was in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, one of my favorite places in the world, halfway through a long-planned road trip while moving back to the west coast. At the end of a lengthy day hike, I sat and reflected on my grandfather’s life – my own version of a memorial. I still associate the place with him and my grandmother, however funny that is for two people who were far from outdoorsy and probably never set foot in this part of the country.
We’re back in Canyonlands today, hiking in the Needles. I like to think of this trip as a bit of a tribute to them: Doing our best to live out their frugal values; taking advantage of our physical and mental health, while we have it; and pursuing adventure and a little bit of risk without giving into fear.
Here’s to my grandparents and the inspiration they were to me.