The Tree Of Our Life

18 12 2011

This is going to be the last Christmas season we spend in our dream house. After the first of the year we will begin construction on our retirement home. It’s both exciting and a bit sorrowful to look at what 2012 will bring as far as changes in our lives.

When we put up the Christmas tree this year, Linda commented that our entire life was on display on that tree.  It took me a minute to understand what she meant–I never have been known as the shiniest marble in the bag.  As usual, she was right.  As I looked closely at the tree and decorations I saw the first ornament we bought after we were married.  Also, I spotted the first ornament we bought after we built this house.  All over the tree were some classic homemade or, should I say, school-made ornaments from the kids and grandkids in their pre-school and kindergarten days as well as several reminder ornaments we picked up on our travels.

In addition to those reminders of past experiences and past years, I saw all sorts of quilted, carved, blown and crocheted ornaments we had made for us over the course of our marriage and, the always-present, milk-bottle-top bells.  Those are the ones that really bring the symbolism of this tree into focus for me.

See, those were made by my parents in the first few years of their marriage back in the late 1940s and early 1950s when they were just too poor to buy store-boughten ornaments.  Back in the day, milk was delivered to the door in clear glass bottles with caps of thin red foil to keep in the freshness; these were what the bells were made from.  With this being the first Christmas in my life that neither of my parents are alive, I teared up as I hung them with care on the tree.  To me, they are more than just family Christmas ornaments.  Here again, these ornaments are symbolic.

My dad use to say that for most families it takes five generations of doing the right things to create family wealth–defined as your money working for you more than you working for your money– and just one generation to destroy that asset.  (I’m getting ready to step up on my soap box, so, ….)  I see these red-and-silver foil bells as a reminder of Linda’s and my obligation to past generations and future generations to build upon, protect and pass on the small amount of family wealth that has been accumulated.  I probably need to clarify here that as much as I value non-financial family wealth , I am referring to financial assets in this context.  Although, I must say that without the non-financial wealth, the dollars and cents wealth would probably not be possible to accumulate in any ethical, time-tested method.

This weekend we had what we call Family Christmas.  For over thirty years, the weekend before Christmas has been designated as Family Christmas.  I won’t go into the reasons for this other than to say they were based on a long-term vision.  The fact that ours is a multi-generationally blended family requires that dates other than December 24 or 25 be the time we get together with our four kids and their families.  Early on Saturday morning, prior to the rest of the family arriving and while Linda was getting a few well-deserved extra minutes of sleep, our youngest daughter and I had a conversation that is germane to this post.  I told her what my dad said about the building of family wealth and we discussed it within the context of the recent protests and political discussion of redistributing wealth.  Although the two of us are probably the poster children for the socio-phiolosphical chasm noted by a quote credited to Churchill that, “If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart.  If you are not a conservative when you are old, you have no brain.”, we seemed to be on the same page about the subject of wealth earned through honest, hard work and playing by the rules.

I told her that the wealth we now have can be traced back at least four generations and that we, as a family, are on target.  With the recent inheritance we received from my parents’ estates we basically doubled our net worth.  As comforting and secure as that feels in these difficult times it is also a bit scary.  I know that if Linda and I don’t make sound financial decisions then the hard work of those previous four generation and our own decades of hard work, frugality and long-term planning will be for naught.

The foil bells are reminders to Linda and me of that obligation to stay focused on the long term rather than embracing the motto, “You only live once.”  As simple, true and tempting as that saying is, accepting it as our life philosophy would also an abdication of our responsibility to past generations never met and the never-to-meet future generations of our family.  As we see it, it is not our money to spend frivolously on ourselves.  Of course, in the case of family emergency, every last penny would be spent without a second thought except the gratitude to be in the position to deal with that emergency.

At this point, we could pretty much do whatever we would want to do–keep in mind we are simple people in our wants–without making much of a dent in the family wealth. (I apologize if that comes across as bragging or being arrogant; that is not my intent.  It is simply the dollars-and-cents reality of our balance sheet.) But, just when I think that living in the moment for the rest of our lives would be a good idea, I remember the foil bells, and, I’m okay with the middle path.

The other type of wealth that needs to be accumulated and passed on to future generations includes the value placed on a strong worth ethic, a pride in workmanship, education, an appreciation of family/community/state/national tradition, and the obligation to descendants that will never be met, along with a strong ethical/moral compass.  Without this kind of family wealth, the other kind makes little difference.

The ornaments on our tree seem to say to me, at least, that we, as a family, have done a good job thus far of accumulating both types of wealth.

-gw-

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