Thursday, February 21, 2008

Klepto Granny

I've written before about my obsession with frugality. "Frugal" is actually putting it nicely. Depending on the situation, "miserly" and "stingy" are more appropriate words. The bottom line is that I have a difficult time spending money. Part of it is philosophical. Being able to save (hoard?) money gives me a sense of freedom. Unfortunately, most people have this sense of freedom by rule, so saving money is actually an escape from my own imprisonment. Having extra money in the bank alleviates my irrational fear of being laid off just before the Next Big Depression hits. I've actually had to work hard to be able to spend money.

I'm convinced I got this stinginess from my grandmother, who was a young mother during the First Depression. My grandfather died fairly early after World War II, but he left her stocks, a paid-off house in Alhambra, and a paid-off dental office in Pasadena. She rented this office to the same dentist for 30 years, never once raising the rent. The guy was paying her $300 a month. Part of the reason she didn't charge him the going rate, which was probably ten times that amount, was because she feared he might leave. But she also adored the guy and appreciated the fact that he did a lot of free dental care for poor people. She was a good woman with a kind heart who spent nothing on herself. Her dishes were at least 40 years old, she made her own clothes out of cheap fabric, and she had more than a million dollars in the bank. She was far more generous to her children and grandchildren than she was with herself.

When she got old, something snapped. I've heard that minor idiosyncrasies can become full-blown manias during old age. Something like that happened to my grandmother. She started to steal things. When my mother took her to the store, she had to empty my grandmother's purse of useless junk during checkout. Each time, she emptied staples and glue and odd packages from the Asian food section. Her shoplifting got worse as she got older. She seemed to have no idea she was doing it.

During this time, my father and uncle were taking turns having her stay at their home. When the two weeks were up, they went through the same routine. One person took her to the bathroom while the other person went through her suitcase to pull out all the pens and bric-a-bracs and old sandwiches that she had swiped during her stay. When her condition deteriorated to the point where she needed to be in a nursing home (actually, it went well past that point if memory serves), they broke down and put her in a nursing home.

True story: The first thing she did in the old folk's home was sneak around and steal a bunch of other people's false teeth.