Old-School Wisdom

Auntie spent holidays with my family. Homemade Christmas eggnog was her specialty with enough bourbon in it to cross your eyes.

She was a short, round woman, her weight causing her to sway gently from side to side as she walked. To steady herself, she trailed her finger tips along the wall and across counter tops.

Auntie loved her Jesus and her church.

At home she wore white gloves in the New York City summer heat. Her knees showed above her rolled down stockings and orthopedic shoes.

She must have been quite a sight, cane in hand, making her way into the branch office of her bank that summer back in 2002.

She was sweating and tired from taking the bus and sat resting on a bench in the bank lobby to catch her breath.

As she tells the story, one of the security guards saw her and asked her to move along, politely at first and then insisting.

Auntie didn’t want to make a fuss, but this was her bank, after all, and she had a right to speak with the manager.

He came out finally, speaking to Auntie in hushed tones. He apologized, of course, but did not protest, when Auntie, still stung by how she’d been treated, declared she was taking her business elsewhere.

The bank manager stood next to her as she gave the teller her account number. Distracted, he barely listened when she asked for her account balance.

Auntie slid the paper over to him, lips pursed and hand resting on her cane. He glanced down and then away, trying to mask his surprise at all those zeros in Auntie’s six figure balance,

Auntie said he was scrambling now, this old black woman who minutes before was mistaken for a bag lady, was suddenly a fine upstanding member of the community.

Auntie worked as a private duty nurse. She never made more than $30,000 in any given year. Yet, even after paying tithes, she left the largest estate of any member in my family. Her Fort Green brownstone alone is valued today at $2.5 million.

Auntie never sipped a latte, worked out with a personal trainer or spent the equivalent of a car note on a pair of shoes.

She bought her brownstone in the mid 1950’s, a young woman then in her late twenties and fresh off her family’s farm in Kentucky. To make ends meet, she rented rooms to boarders and, as she got up in age, she looked for tenants who could also help with errands and home repairs.

Auntie never married, but wore a wedding band. I am not sure why, maybe for respectability in an era when childless, never married women were labeled spinsters and old maids. She didn’t take much stock in men. Laughing she’d say, they just “wear you down”.

She loved playing the piano. Her feet barely touched the pedals of the upright sitting in her living room. This did not stop her from belting out the church hymns she loved.

Once a month, Auntie treated herself to a meal at Junior’s on Flat Bush Avenue. She saved the receipts always rounding up to the next dollar to “leave a little something” for a tip.

As children, we complained about how scratchy and stiff Auntie’s towels were. She didn’t believe in dryers and hung towels out to dry on the clothes line behind her house.

She thought panty hose were a good invention. She kept them balled up in a basket near her bed. Most were missing one leg or the other which Auntie cut off when it got a run in it – no need to throw away the whole thing, she said, when you could double up the “good” legs and wear them together.

Smooth talkers were always trying to get Auntie to sell her house. They offered the kind of money you’d think would impress someone of modest means, but not Auntie. She knew the value of what she had and wanted no part of the cash windfall these men were pedaling.

Auntie was 83 when she died in 2004. I believe she was satisfied with how her life turned out and at peace when she passed. She had her God, her church community, her family and her music.

I think there is a lot we can learn from her and the old school values that shaped her life. True, we might not wish to take the whole bouquet, but there is still much from her way of living that can serve us as we navigate the choppy retirement waters ahead.

Auntie focused on the basics: a spiritual practice, her family, a community of friends, and her passions.

She lived within her means, was pragmatic and did what she had to do – like inviting in boarders and bartering services when that was the only way to make ends meets.

Marketers could not lure her with shiny gadgets and new toys. She found her joy in simple, affordable pleasures and eschewed consumer demands that were completely manufactured.

She didn’t use terms like conservation, recycle or re-purpose, but she saved all kinds of stuff and was never wasteful.

Years of living alone made Auntie a little eccentric and quirky, but you could always feel the love and connection. For many of us, our true wealth will be found in family and in friends. As my friend Larry says, “I don’t have savings. My network is my net worth”.

Now days, many of us would rather send an e-card than lick a stamp or pay a visit. Auntie made time for the people she cared about. Social media gives us credit for staying in touch. Auntie understood that cultivating real relationship requires effort and being there in the flesh.




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