How much does a daughter owe her mother? Or a mother owe her daughter? Rivka Galchen’s flowing prose reads like a spiraling conversation over coffee, covering privilege and family, as two independent women discuss money.
Gross income for the daughter in 2007 was $18,150. Gross income for the mother in 2007 was $68,742. Gross income for the daughter in 2008 was $23,450; in 2009, it was $232,476; in 2010, $140,702; and in 2011, $37,853. The mother’s gross income for the years 2008 to 2011 inclusive has not been ascertained. But it is believed to have been, in each of those years, not more than $99,999 and not less than $40,000. Income averaging has not been allowed under the federal tax code since 1986.
From 2007 to 2011, the daughter put $170,000 into savings: $25,000 went into a SEP-IRA, $9,000 went into a Roth IRA, and the remainder was placed in a money market fund. Other money went, as the mother might put it, into the hands of petty charlatans who didn’t make it into law or medical school and whose parents, with their values, never taught them anything, poor things, actually, poor things. Or it went, as others might put it, into the hands of venders of artisanal chocolates and $90 T-shirts.
In 1997, while the mother was employed as a technical consultant at a corporation then of good financial standing—though it should be noted that within seven years the corporation then of good financial standing had downsized to 32 percent of its 1997 size and the mother was among those who had not retained their positions, and though she had received a variety of severance package, it was not a variety worth describing and so it will not be described, and the option that the mother had thought she had to retain her health insurance at the same corporate rate had, despite many phone calls, not materialized; instead, the rate offered was more than three times what it had been previously. To return: While holding this position, in which she was consistently earning upward of $90,000 per year, plus respectable benefits, the mother made a down payment of $65,000 toward the purchase of a modest one-bedroom apartment in a condominium building in good standing on the far but not too far east side of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Fungibility precludes saying where the money for the down payment came from—whether from contemporary earnings or from preexisting savings. It was what it was. Money was spent. Or, rather, was converted into an asset.
The mother purchased the apartment not for herself but for her daughter. It was not intended, however, that the daughter live in the apartment. The daughter did not live in, or even very near, the city of New York. The apartment was, rather, an investment gift. An informal living trust. Both the mother’s and the daughter’s names were put on the mortgage. Both the mother’s and the daughter’s names were put on the title. The daughter was specified as 99 percent owner, and the mother was specified as 1 percent owner. This arrangement was superior for tax purposes and in the case of unexpected death. The mother intended that the asset/apartment could be rented for a sum that would cover the combined mortgage and maintenance payments, and this, more or less, happened.
Although not really: the asset/apartment was “rented” for free to the mother’s son—the daughter’s brother—until such time as he and his new and approved-of and soon-to-be-pregnant wife felt more financially stable. During this time of intrafamilial “renting,” the mother covered the monthly mortgage and maintenance payments herself. A substantial portion of the mortgage payment, being interest rather than principal, was tax deductible, she (the mother) notes. So it wasn’t really such a draining gift, the mother says. The reason the mother had purchased the asset/apartment in behalf of her daughter, as opposed to in behalf of her wed and soon-to-procreate son, was that the mother had, a number of years earlier, made an investment of similar size in behalf of her son, and so the mother felt that this second gift, to her second offspring, was only fair. The first offspring would live there, but the asset part of the asset/apartment would all the while offer a measure of financial security to the second offspring. It is true that, in general, the mother greatly preferred men to women—the daughter similarly greatly preferred men to women—but the mother nevertheless, most likely, loved her children equally, inasmuch as it is not nonsensical to make equating statements about nonfungibles such as love.
One was trying to account for things. To appreciate was to estimate justly.
Regarding the relations between men and women generally, the mother had, early and often, instructed the daughter that: A Woman Should Always Be Financially Independent. On the point of financial independence, the daughter agreed with the mother. And still agrees. However, the daughter’s accord with the postulate, which was during childhood like a faith in the gnostic cult of numbers of Pythagoras, later became a variety of realpolitik. (The mother’s realpolitik outlook was like a faith in a gnostic cult of numbers.) Regardless of any kind of regarding of the relations among men, women, and finance, the aforementioned asset/apartment, between 1998 and 2006, appreciated in value by approximately $512,000. It was then sold, which left, after all expenses, kind of a lot of money. All of which was put into a bank account somewhere. The daughter did not know where. The mother did. Later this led to a dispute.
In 1994, the daughter had moved from the family home to a dorm room at a sufficiently prestigious university. The usual education loans were applied for, approved, and taken. The loans were taken under the daughter’s name. The daughter held a number of on-campus jobs. The daughter was relatively frugal in those years. But it would be fair to say that the mother paid for most everything. Also in 1994, the mother was widowed, to the gain of no pension or Social Security; the nongain was due to technical problems, problems that probably could have been overcome, but there was just so much to do, it seemed.
During the first year of mother-daughter residential separation, a year that also witnessed the trial of O. J. Simpson, the mother mailed the daughter various photographs of the prosecutor Marcia Clark. The mother greatly admired Marcia Clark’s outfits. She hoped the trial lawyer’s style might positively influence, perhaps even inspire, the daughter, who did not dress like Marcia Clark, and who did not seem to be on track to becoming anything like Marcia Clark. The daughter did not appear to be en route to becoming any variety of Financially Independent Woman with which the mother was familiar. One might even say—one being alternately the mother and the daughter—that this was the mother’s fault: the mother had packed so many lunches, had paid for so many lessons, had so often put towels and clean clothes in the dryer for five minutes so they’d be warm for the daughter after a bath, that she, the daughter, had understandably developed a misimpression of what life was like. Now the daughter needed guidance. At the end of 1995, the mother moved to the same town to which the daughter had moved. Also at the end of 1995, the daughter began a relationship with a young man; after that relationship had begun, the daughter’s ability to register anything about any situation save the young man’s presence or absence in it declined precipitately. The daughter and the young man later married. The mother said she was glad for this. This was one of the few decisions made by the daughter of which the mother approved. The mother paid for the wedding.
In the spring of 2010, the daughter and the man broke up. The reasons for the marriage’s end are not clear, though there are theories. The main cause of the rapid appreciation in the value of real estate in that time has also not been satisfactorily determined, though there are, again, theories; one, again, tries to account for things. Regardless, the daughter wanted to use the money from the sale of the asset/apartment to buy herself an apartment/asset—an apartment/asset to live in as a home. The mother did not agree with or to this. The mother would not specify the location of what had previously been described as the daughter’s money, because the daughter was “not the daughter that I know because the daughter that I know is not a cruel person,” the mother said. She further said that the current daughter, the unknown one, could not be trusted, not with her own money, not with her own reproductive potential, not with anything, really. The daughter needed to go back home. To her husband’s apartment. To where she belonged. Whatever unhappiness and fears were keeping the couple apart were pure childishness. The mother said that the daughter had always done exactly as she (the daughter) wanted, that the daughter was lazy, and that women who don’t have babies become alcoholics, which ruins their figures. The daughter was thirty-three.
In 2010, the mother was in some ways financially stable and in some ways not. (It depends, of course, on the comparison group.) The mother often reported that she did not feel financially stable. The mother also was often trying to lose weight. Sometimes the two anxieties, weight and money, joined together. For example, in the fall of 2010, the mother signed up with the Jenny Craig Weight Loss program. The program entailed paying in advance for prepared meals. On Wednesdays, when she went to the Jenny Craig Centre [sic] for her appointment with her Jenny Consultant—the consultant being another service that she paid for in advance—the mother picked up the prepaid meals. In addition to the meal and the consultant expenses, the mother also, at the Jenny Craig Centre, purchased, for $190, a specialized armband, enabled with Bluetooth wireless technology, that kept track of walking speed, heart rate, calories burned, calories in and out, metabolic something-or-other … it was all confusing. The armband was supposed to be able to monitor and communicate. Sometimes the armband seemed to know she was moving and sometimes it didn’t. It beeped unpredictably. Also it flashed. For a few days the armband would not light up at all. Then it unexpectedly revived. Then it alarmed hourly. The armband was a failure; the mother wanted a refund. But, as the mother explained to her daughter, the Jenny Consultant said that, while it was true that Jenny Craig did sell the armband on-site at the Centre, and that the consultant and the program did both believe that the armband could be a positive friend in any weight loss or weight maintenance regimen, still, the armband was not a Jenny Craig armband per se, and the Jenny Craig Centre did not represent the armband, or the armband makers, nor did the armband or its makers represent the Jenny Craig Centre, and the Jenny Craig Centre did not even formally endorse the armband’s makers, or vice versa—there was no real relation—and so the mother needed to address her inquiries or complaints not to the Jenny Craig Centre but to the armband company directly. Whose number the Jenny Consultant would be happy to look up for her. The mother called the company directly. Her calls were not returned. The daughter also rarely returned the mother’s calls. The mother e-mailed the company. The mother and the daughter arranged via e-mail to meet up for coffee, and it was during that coffee that the mother explained that three days after e-mailing the armband company, she received an e-mail response: a FAQ sheet with the phone number she had already called listed at the bottom, for any further questions. Eventually, the mother said, she got through on the phone to someone who represented the company that represented the armband that was failing her. This representative suggested that the mother return the armband, in its original packaging. The representative further specified that the armband would, if it showed no signs of wear and tear beyond that incurred in normal use, be serviced and returned to the mother within four to six weeks. Are you just trying to stall until you can get rid of me? the mother said she said to the representative. The mother said she said to the representative that he was representing a company of cheaters. The mother hung up the phone, she said. Later that day, the mother explained to the daughter, she told the Jenny Consultant that the armband company had not helped, of course, that she had been encouraged to buy an armband from a charlatan company, that she had been encouraged by these people right here, in this office, these Jenny Craig people, who, the mother said that she said to the Jenny Consultant, obviously didn’t care about their customers, who didn’t have an ethic of customer service, who were just squeezing people for money. The mother said she said, You took my hundred and ninety dollars for what you knew was junk and now you’re just sending me to hell. You know that’s where you’re sending me when you send me to contact the company directly. I work in service. I like working in service. I like to help people. I know what an ethic of customer service is, the mother said, and it isn’t this. (The mother, at the time, post-corporate-job, was working as a real estate broker in the city; the real estate market was considerably weaker than it had been during the years of the aforementioned rise in value of the asset/apartment.) The mother said to the daughter that she really shouted at them, the Jenny Craig people, that she felt a little bit bad about that, but that what they did was wrong and they should know that what they did was wrong. But, she explained to the daughter, she did not need the Jenny Craig program anymore. She did not need them. Though she had lost ten pounds since she started with the program. Could the daughter tell? It’s not the first ten pounds, the mother explained, that anyone notices. It would probably be the next ten pounds that people would be able to notice, the next ten, which would of course be more difficult to lose, but she now knew what Jenny Craig did and so she could do it without Jenny Craig. She had cracked it. You eat twelve hundred calories a day. You make sure to get twenty grams of protein. Your meals are around three hundred and fifty calories, and then there’s room for two fruits. She said, I’m doing it like this: I’m making lentil dishes that are high in protein and low in calories. For example, I made a vegetarian chopped liver dip. One cup dry lentils, two cups water, one tablespoon onion soup powder, two large stir-fried onions, two hard-boiled eggs—all blended together. It’s delicious. You should try it, the mother said. That’s what I wanted to tell you about.
The daughter said she thought that sounded good.
Then they were quiet for a bit. Then the mother began to talk about how a friend of hers had cervical cancer; she’d never had children, the mother explained of her friend; it’s a risk to one’s health to never have children. I pray to God that you will have a child. You are a difficult person, but you can get pregnant, you can even just go to a clinic these days and get pregnant. There’s nothing wrong with that. The daughter put some sugar in her coffee, even though she almost never put sugar in her coffee. The mother reminded the daughter of the story of the cousin who had gotten pregnant, most likely from a clinic, the cousin who people said was a lesbian but, the mother said, was probably just never lucky with men, but it didn’t matter, because the cousin was so happy now, even though she had always been a very ill-tempered person before, and the mother said that she (the mother) would pay any medical expenses there might be, that she would help the daughter.
The daughter didn’t respond.
The mother told the daughter that it was interesting that she (the daughter) had chosen that day to wear a green shirt and green shorts, all green like that, together. The mother reiterated that the daughter really should try making the vegetarian chopped liver dip. Which is low in calories while being very tasty. The daughter said, All you care about is money and weight; and you give me all this advice; but I’m thinner than you and I make more money than you.
The daughter had been rejected for a mortgage earlier that day; or, rather, she had not been rejected, but she had been approved for a mortgage of only thirty-five thousand dollars. Which was grossly insufficient. The rejection stemmed partly from the daughter’s unstable income—her income was unstable because she had not followed the mother’s career advice—and partly from recent crises in the mortgage industry, which had led to the lender’s not accepting 1099 income in the same way as W-2 income. Now the apartment/asset was absolutely unbuyable without the mother’s help.
The mother restated that the daughter should go back to her husband. The mother wanted to help the couple buy a nice place to live. A place that would also be a nice investment property, a condominium that they could rent out when they needed a new and larger place to live, because of children. Yes, the purchase should be of a condominium and not of a cooperative, though the mother acknowledged that the daughter said that she tended not to like the newer condominium buildings, but she knew that the daughter just felt pressure to express that taste—for older buildings—which was not in fact really her taste. She was just being forced into that taste by trends that would pass, just as this rough spot in the marriage would pass. If they, the daughter and her husband, had a nice place to live, then they would find happiness, because it’s hard to find happiness when you don’t have space to breathe and she wanted her daughter to breathe.
You were very right, the daughter said, when you used to tell me that A Woman Should Always Be Financially Independent.
I didn’t think you ever listened to me. I’m honored, the mother said.
The daughter said to the mother that the money that was gifted to her by her mother was really the mother’s money and not hers, it was true. But she felt that the money should either be her money or not be her money, and that she could not tolerate any in-betweens and she could not tolerate any health or fashion advice, either—that was it. The mother said she wasn’t giving advice, just love. The daughter left. The mother paid the bill.
In February 2011, the mother and the daughter made a plan to meet again for coffee. It had been many months of meetings “for coffee” and very little accord. The mother had said that she would bring the checkbook for the account where the profits from the asset/apartment were kept. The daughter showed up to the meeting.
What do you think “homey” means? the mother asked.
Why are you asking me that? the daughter asked.
You’re so suspicious, the mother said. You think the worst of me. I give up, the mother said. Then she said, It’s just something that was on my mind because of a client I had. A while ago. He was Swedish. He was looking to buy a studio in New York, because he couldn’t handle the Swedish winter anymore and so he wanted to winter in New York. Which sounds odd, to winter in New York, but that’s what he said, that he just needed a place to lay his head, and that it could be tiny, it just needed to have lots of natural light. I understood him, the mother said. He also said he liked New York because it’s inexpensive, which sounded funny to me, like the wintering, but that was what he said, that New York was cheap. So I took him to a beautiful studio with windows on three sides. Not just ordinary windows but really tall ones, and the apartment was clean and beautiful with good appliances and a gorgeous floor and, like I said, so much light; it was really such a good value, and I thought that I myself would be happy to live there, and I was so happy with what I was showing him. He only stayed for a minute, though. I can’t live here, he said. It doesn’t feel homey. That was the word he used: “homey.” I thanked the listing broker, and then when we were back outside, I said to the Swede—I liked the guy, so I was honest with him—I said, You don’t know how fortunate you are to see a place like this in Manhattan. It’s a tremendous value. I’m just telling you, because you’ll see other places, and they won’t be as nice, and I don’t want you to be disappointed. I’m not, he said, going to buy a place until I find exactly what I want. What you’ll learn, I said, is that this is the city of compromises. I’m not talking about you, the mother said to the daughter. I know you think I am, but I’m not. I wanted to tell you about the second apartment I showed the Swede. When I showed him another place, he brought a friend with him. You should have seen his friend. He had this very long, very black hair. And pale, pale skin. He looked like a man you see in advertisements for cigarettes, or speedboats. I mean, he looked like a racecar driver. And he was a racecar driver! This is my friend, the Swede said to me, the mother said. He just got back from a racecar competition in Abu Dhabi, the Swede explained. So I mentioned that you had been to Abu Dhabi.
I haven’t been to Abu Dhabi, the daughter said.
I thought you had.
I was in Dubai, though.
I thought they were the same.
I said to the racecar driver that I had heard that Abu Dhabi was a ghost town, with all those vacant apartments.
That’s Dubai, the daughter said.
Oh. It’s Dubai that has a lot of empty apartment buildings?
Right. Abu Dhabi is supposedly doing pretty well.
You probably think the Swede and his friend didn’t like me, but they liked me very much, the mother said. Many people like me. They feel good around me. I took the Swede and his dramatic friend to an apartment on Park Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street. In one of those grand old buildings. Where many people who used to have live-in maids no longer have live-in maids, and so there are these small apartments that used to be maids’ apartments. I thought the Swede might like it. But as soon as I walked into the apartment I felt awful for taking the Swede there. I hadn’t had a chance to preview it. It had looked much better in the pictures. There was just one window, and it was in the corner and was tiny. The place had terrible old furniture, there was an ugly cat there, the floor had rotting parquet. The Swede took a quick walk around; he looked at his racecar driver friend. Now this feels homey, he said. His friend nodded. I was amazed. What does he mean that it feels homey? It was like a puzzle. It stuck with me. It made me think that maybe I’m really missing something, that maybe if I better understood what he meant, then maybe I would be doing better.
I bet he just likes old buildings, the daughter said. I like old buildings.
But it was disgusting, the mother said.
Or maybe it was just that it had furniture. Just that someone lived there.
I thought about that. And, you know, later the broker from the first apartment called me and asked me for feedback. She asked me what my client thought. I told her honestly that he hadn’t liked it. But I told her, also honestly, that I thought it was beautiful, and that it was crazy of him not to like it. She asked me what he didn’t like about it, because she was trying to think how she could better market the apartment, because she was having, she said, to be honest, trouble selling it, even though she felt it was well priced. I felt bad for her. She sounded distressed. I told her it’s hard to sell anything right now, even something great. I told her not to worry, that things would turn around.
Did the Swede buy the maid’s apartment? the daughter asked.
Oh, in the end, he didn’t buy anything from me, the mother said. He liked me, though. He said I was honest. He didn’t buy anything at all. Instead, he moved to Dubai.
He moved to Dubai instead of New York.
To Dubai? Or to Abu Dhabi?
I don’t know. Somewhere sunny.
That’s too bad, the daughter said. I think. About the apartment, I mean. But you have to stop confusing things. That’s why you come to the wrong conclusions. Because you start in the wrong place. So then you’re not really even talking about what you’re talking about, the daughter went on, not really sure what she herself was talking about, and realizing that she had lost track of precisely what it was that she was trying to estimate justly, and why she had imagined that she could.
This short story is taken from the collection American Innovations by Rivka Galchen, available now from 4th Estate.