Saturday, June 20, 2009

Daddy's Little Rich Girl Celebrates Father's Day

Today is Father's Day and I am thinking about my late father and his influence on my finances.

My dad was cute, tall, fun, generous and charming. My friends loved him; he was always the one who came up with dough when someone needed an operation, schoolbooks, or just asked. The truth is he was the pits with money. When he went into a hospice for his last cancer-ridden days, he had two dollars in his money clip and a lucky half dollar coin he always carried with him. For years my mother had asked him over and over if they were financially ready for their old age - to which he would respond, "stop asking me already - it's taken care of."

What had been taken care of was spending the millions he had made off and on dealing coins, gold and silver, and as a consultant to the SEC. supporting a consistently escalating gambling habit. He was known to have made 3 separate trips to New Jersey in a single day when the state lottery was highest to buy hundreds of tickets, disappear to Atlantic City for blackjack when my mom thought he was in Pittsburgh on business, bet on anything that came his way from sports to what my grades would be on my report card (yes, I found this out later). He was the first person to put a pair of dice, a pool cue and a deck of cards in my hand. He drove flashy cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns, much to my chagrin (he tried a Mercedes for a week; too small.) He hardly ever hugged me or my brother, but we got new toys, new cars, crisp hundred dollar bills shoved into our hands, huge Sunday breakfasts, trips around the world and world class educations.

He came by this grand passion naturally. His mother, a diminutive blue haired lady we were all scared of, had taught him poker at 3, pinochle at 4, blackjack and the rest before he hit grade school. At 92, she was still routinely skinning her lady friends at cards- mostly 5 card stud - in the synagogue social room. When she and dad were together, they spoke Yiddish, so I never quite understood what they were talking about, but there was something conspiratorial about their quiet, breathy conversations in a foreign language, something I could sense but not define.

My grandmother, who had divorced the grandfather I never knew in the 1930s, lived quite well at my aunt's giant main line home, without too many worries. But she could fly into a rage for no apparent reason, leaving us all cowering. Dad had been something of a piano prodigy early on, and I was told grandmother would rap his knuckles if he played a wrong note. Rather than making him afraid of taking risks, or of calculating their effect, this seemed to have spurred him on to higher and more dangerously risky ground, especially where his finances - and his gambling - were concerned. At one point, he was holding on to some gold that a friend who was divorcing asked him to hide. He used a bar or two to purchase some coins planning, he said, to replace the gold when he had turned a profit on his purchase, which was probably more like a gambling debt in Atlantic City. He lost the friend, obviously, but even more miraculously stayed out of jail. He repaid all, but at what cost no one will ever know. The money probably came from a craps table somewhere. My mother cried over the loss of the friendship. There were later rumors of Swiss and offshore bank accounts, but we never found any.

So here I am, and most of the money I am living on is not mine. When dad defaulted on a school loan he had promised to pay while I was living in Europe, I swore I would never be like him, not ever. I think of this as I count out quarters for the bus. Still, he was my father. I remember with more than a modicum of pain how depressed he looked when I'd visit and he had no money for me that day - I always said it didn't matter and it wasn't like I even needed it. We spent my parents' 50th wedding anniversary around his hospital bed, my father the glowing life of the party although he had already lost his powers of speech. And I would give a lot to be able to sneak out of the house with him one more time without my mother knowing, head straight to exit 26 on the Pennsylvania turnpike and into Jersey to buy handfuls of lottery tickets and conspire on ways to nail down that ever elusive pot of gold. I swear I can still see it shining out there, someplace past the fast food meccas and car dealerships, at the end of our very own rainbow.