The Dreher Women, 1910, Danville, Illinois
I was interviewed for hours for a Wall Street Journal article on Oakmont, California. Since the title of the article was, A Retirement Wealth Gap Adds a New Indignity to Old Age, I knew they wanted to provide perspectives from different sides of the issues we face in Oakmont. I felt confident that my story was compelling, hoping it would provide insight for some of the people who have suggested that people like myself should simply move somewhere else if we can’t afford the costs of staying here. My situation was reduced to one very descriptive sentence in the article. So I’d like to tell the rest of my story here.
I will admit up front, that I am hurt by some of the subtle and not so subtle comments that are made in my presence, often as if I am invisible. As if I do not exist. Some suggest that I should just ignore these comments. That is not possible for someone like myself! In spite of the overwhelming support I have received from neighbors, the love and compassion that has been showered on me, these attacks are not isolated incidents I can throw into the corner to ignore. They are red flags informed by the experiences of my life. Things I have had to contend with day in and day out my entire life.
One of the most important and successful survival techniques I use, is to focus on positivity. I try my best to be a light of positivity in my actions and thinking. But projecting that image requires a lot of very difficult juggling of negativity hurled my way on a continuous basis. And I always run the risk of making people think everything is okay when in fact it is not. I don’t want to be a happy-go-lucky cult member who drank the Kool-Aid, always wearing a phony smile. I am simply trying to survive by projecting positivity to keep myself from getting sicker because of stress.
In order for people to understand who I really am, let me start from the beginning. In the photo above are the women of my mother’s family. I am a descendent of German immigrants who came to the United States in the 1880s. My mother’s family lived through the Great Depression with ten people in a very small two bedroom home, with only two members of the family working throughout the depression years. When my mother was 12, she was forced to quit school in order to help raise the children because my grandmother was ailing. During my childhood my mother took in laundry from the wealthier families in my hometown, to supplement my father’s income as a factory worker at General Motors. Our family was also large, consisting of seven children, my parents and my grandmother. I attended a grammar school that had a very large African American population. We were known as the poor school. I remember sitting in the classroom in winter with coats on, because the furnace was broken. We sat in the cold thinking about the school in the North End of town with a heated swimming pool, wondering what that would be like. My family was part of the new middle-class of the 1950s. When we got our first TV, I remember being proud that they had installed a TV antenna on the roof. It was a status symbol. Suddenly everyone knew we could actually afford a television.
When I was 12 years old my father had finally saved enough money for a down payment to buy his own home. We moved into a three bedroom house that my father would keep until the end of his life. In his 40 years in that home, he never once took out a second mortgage. His plan from day one was to own his home. Not once did he ever believe that it was his right to control his neighbors because they might affect the resale value of his house. Nobody in the neighborhood cared what someone else planted in their garden. Some people could afford to pave their driveways, others could only afford gravel. Nobody was keeping track of how much money people made or if their fortune or misfortune would affect the neighbors. They just basically liked each other and got along with each other out of respect. There was a sense of community that felt organic in the absence of unnecessary rules.
When my first husband and I sold our house in Danville, Illinois in 1973, we sold to an African American couple who worked with my Aunt and Uncle at the VA Hospital. Suddenly all the neighbors we had shared our lives with over many years turned against us. They could not understand why we had not “come to them first” to give them the opportunity to buy the house to keep black people out of the neighborhood. Even the realtor, who happened to be my retired Junior High School principal, whispered that it was an option, that there were ways to prevent the sale. It was beyond their comprehension that we did not share their racist view of the world.
In 1982, my husband Rob and I moved to San Francisco. We rented a Victorian house in the Castro district. We were living the American dream, complete with two dogs and a station wagon. But in 1983 our first friend died from AIDS. In 1984, our neighbor Frank died. In 1985, Tommy died, then we attended the wedding of Michael and Wilfred in Michael’s hospital room at San Francisco General hospital. As we walked through the corridors we caught glimpses of familiar faces in the rooms we passed in “The AIDS ward.”
Just after my birthday in 1986, we were summoned to my friend Douglas’ apartment. Douglas was dying. It was not an easy death. We were all holding onto the railings on a runaway train, trying not to fall over on the sharp turns. What I remember most about Doug’s death was his obsession with his finances on the last day of his life. I vowed that would never be me. After Doug died, the train went off a cliff. In 1990, I had personally lost more than 130 friends to AIDS.
Rob and I gave up our home, sold all of our belongings and moved to Berlin for the reunification of Germany. Because of what we had witnessed, we wanted to be sure to do everything we desired to do in life as quickly as possible. Neither one of us wanted to be on our death beds counting our regrets. We traveled around the world in one direction for an entire year. We taught yoga classes in a 13th century castle ruins for four seasons in the Greek Islands. I spent a winter in Kenya with a diplomat. We spent another winter in Southeast Asia, together. And on June 1, 1995, Rob took his last breath in a London hospital, after declaring that he had done everything he wanted to do in his life. He died in peace.
For the next ten years I wandered around the world searching for answers, trying to piece my life back together. Then I took a job my friend George had created in his private museum. After the job ended I came to Oakmont. After 21 years of not having my own home, I longed to recreate that feeling of home we had created in our Victorian in San Francisco, with our two dogs and the station wagon. I felt pretty secure that I would be able to sustain that lifestyle. I was healthy, had a big enough savings, and I had a very good plan. Then in 2013 my younger sister died. Then my dog Zoe died a couple of months later. Soon after Zoe died, I got sick and never fully recovered, depleting my life savings with medical expenses and being unable to function for two years.
So here’s how life looks from my perspective now. When people let their little racist dog whistles slip out in my presence, I wonder if those are the same kind of people who turned on my husband and me when we sold our house to a black family. When I hear people concerned about their property values being adversely affected, I remember my father’s neighborhood where everyone got along and nobody cared what their house was worth because it was their home. When I hear people blaming other people’s precarious financial situations on poor planning, I think about all those years I watched my friends dying in their 30s, believing I myself would also never grow old, believing I had no future to plan. When people say “if we show favoritism to one person” I think of sitting in that classroom in the cold with my jacket on while the kids in the more affluent school were hanging out in their heated pool. When I watch debate about where to put a new dog park, I think of all those hours and all those photos on the polo field with my dog Zoe. Then I wonder why no one mentions the fact that someone had so coldly and selfishly pulled the rug from under people who were in the midst of dealing with one of the most traumatic events of their lives. Since dogs were banned from the polo field, the energy of decades of loving experiences now hang in the air over a field deserted because of a greedy proclamation that showed absolutely no compassion for the extra and unnecessary burden it added to people who were already grieving great loss. I often hear, “but it’s their property and they can do what they want!” Right. And then I get criticized for using the terms privilege and arrogance in a Next Door post.
So yes, the fact that some people think I should move if I cannot afford the cost of living here is a familiar feeling from my entire life. People who do not grow up under privilege understand all too well how many with privilege constantly make decisions from their positions of power that affect other people’s lives negatively as collateral damage. My problem is not that I don’t make enough money. It’s that everything costs too much. It’s because no matter how hard I work to survive, I never get to the end of the game because the goal posts keep getting moved. It’s not because I don’t have the capacity, it’s because officious bullies create new unnecessary obstacles at the moment I have found a creative way to continue to survive. And it’s because people in positions of power refuse to see that it is the actions of their own class that have often caused the problems they now blame on their victims.
I am not alone in the struggle to survive in communities like Oakmont. Most of us are invisible. Perhaps our invisibility is a deliberate attempt to stay hidden from the officious bullies who would sabotage our creative attempts at survival, because those survival attempts do not conform to the standards of an “upscale community.” When I was a child, there were some who made fun of the fact that my mother took in laundry to help us survive. I never did understand that logic. I am my mother’s son. And I will forever be proud of the way she persevered as a woman in a world that never truly appreciated the contributions she and other women have made to this world!