For Richer, For Poorer

Mom favored character-filled houses
needing a little TLC.
The child of a Realtor who didn't believe in day care, I visited many houses in my formative years. Sometimes I'd stay in the car, bickering with siblings, singing, reading, or inventing playful limericks; sometimes I'd play the junior agent.

My mom catered to the down-to-earth, homeschooling types; few others would tolerate her entourage of children. While she sacrificed the more lucrative clients, my mom ingratiated herself to others, many whom she still considers friends. Some of them even attended my wedding.

Touring houses with a frugal mother and equally frugal buyers, I developed an eye for latent possibilities in properties others would pan as 'dated' or 'dirty.' And upon discovering a house full of vintage character, if we had opted to wait in the car, Mom would call us in to admire the natural woodwork, built-ins, or original retro kitchen.
Being a professional bassoonist was my
top career choice, though I would've
settled for selling real estate. Somehow I
ended up selling vintage kitchenwares instead.

As a youngster, I might've been an agent myself. I'd peruse the day's new real estate listing cards, setting aside those I deemed especially well-priced. My mom required that I answer the phone, "Shilto residence, Laura speaking," which felt embarrassingly grown-up; but before acquiring our first answering machine, I fastidiously took client messages, sometimes attending to simpler queries. In high school, while my band director tried to dissuade me from a bassoon performance major, I balked, figuring I would sell real estate if my music career faltered.
Calin and I, in front of the Eliminator, about to
leave Michigan for Omaha. I wish the photo
showed the pinstripes and "Eliminator" decal

I landed a performing job, though. With ink still wet on both bachelor of music diploma and marriage certificate, my hard-won position as bassoonist in the Omaha Symphony took me and my new husband to Nebraska. We arrived in a pickup truck borrowed from my parents: a small Chevy S-10 emblazoned "Eliminator," over a flourish of zig-zaggy pinstripes. It overflowed with all our possessions, covered in a big blue tarp secured with clothesline. (Fifteen years later, my dad still drives the Eliminator, though the doors are about to rust off. They would've already, had he not jerry-rigged the hinge with a wind chime).

If showy rock stars occupy one end of the musical genre and wage spectrum, classical musicians in regional orchestras crowd the other. This didn't discount home ownership, though--not for the resourceful daughter of a real estate agent. We house-hunted in a fashion learned from Mom and her thrifty clients. Our Omaha agent spent the first day showing bi-levels in suburbia. We had to set her straight, knowing our preferred aesthetic more likely involved estate properties on city lots rather than newish houses with fake stone fa├žades and particle board cabinetry.

Calin scrapes petrified carpet
padding off the floor, after having
removed the green shag carpet.
Having moved to the city with our lives' possessions and nowhere to go, we experienced homelessness, but without the stigma. We needed an inexpensive fixer-upper--preferably with a mother-in-law unit to help cover mortgage payments. In a two-day whirlwind of showings, we settled upon a house that Thelma's heirs itched to unload, one with a tiny upstairs apartment boasting a separate entrance. Though the two-toned shag carpet in the living room begged removal, I loved the 1940s chrome-trimmed range with built-in tick-tock timer, and bathroom featuring clawfoot tub and never-say-die linoleum.

Enjoying a meal at the A-Ford-O Motel.
Unable to close immediately, we lodged at the A-Ford-O Motel. Judging from the motley furnishings, owners Tom and Rita Ford valued thrift over fashion for their roadside inn. We enjoyed satisfactory in-room meals, considering the limitations of our vintage Sunbeam electric skillet, avoiding restaurants that would've drained our scant resources. For entertainment, Tom Ford offered free video rentals from the motel office. The Field of Dreams VHS cassette we borrowed still bore its garage sale price tag.

Calin futilely attempts rust removal
on our ugly Chevy Celebrity. This
photo does not do the car justice.
My mom drove the Eliminator back to Grand Rapids; we car shopped. A Chevy Celebrity for $700 promised more than it delivered. As I balked at the smell of stale tobacco smoke, sagging headliner, bad stabilizer bar, and a spot near the headlight callously broken to create easier bulb access, the car's owner adjusted the price gradually downward, determined to turn looker into buyer. I drove the over-loud eyesore four years, without a single breakdown. Though its ugliness once provoked the question, "Was your car vandalized?," I loved the old Chevy. I sold it to one of my bassoon students when we moved back to Michigan, for a mere $50 less than the $450 we had paid. What it lacked in aesthetics, it boasted in reliability, besting the so-called "good car" we received as a wedding gift.
I and my Heckel bassoon enjoy a meal in
our retro kitchen. This photo graced a page
of the Omaha Symphony cookbook.

Even in the cheap motel, cooking out of an old electric frying pan; in our fixer-upper house, baking in a vintage 1940s range; or navigating the grid-like streets of Omaha in a humble Chevy which could dethrone the ugliest car in almost any lot, those were happy, hopeful times.

Leaving our house for the last time,
ready to move back to Michigan.
I learned what's nice. It's not room service at the Marriot, or a new McMansion with stainless Viking appliances. It isn't a shiny Audi with heated leather seats. Niceness to me is durability, wrapped in thrift, adorned with humility--just like a rusty Celebrity that refuses to give up; antique linoleum that celebrated its dodranscentennial before we ever arrived; a motel that loans garage sale videos, daring its guests to dream big; or a little old bungalow that housed two newlyweds, leaving them richer when they sold it--in dollars, in memories, and in thankfulness. And enjoying, like so many of my mom's dear clients, unpretentious blessings with someone you trust--for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer--without a Jones in sight.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. 1Timothy 6:6
He is rich who has few wants.--proverb

Next up: A post my sister deemed to personal for my blog, but it struck a chord with readers: City Girl, Country Girl 


  1. Your article reminded me a lot of my upbringing. As the daughter of immigrants, I was taught at a very young age not to waste and spend only what is necessary and for self improvement. As a minority living in a white suburb, I won't lie about how challenging some of this frugalness was but certainly taught me life's lesson of not living beyond one's means and to truly appreciate the unique. As a musician, I can't imagine doing anything else unless I had to for survival. Was it difficult for you to leave the life of a musician?

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    2. I married an immigrant, and I can say, I'm very happy to have found someone who knows how to be frugal. My husband is still a musician, but I found it wasn't as important to me as I originally thought, though it is important to him still.
      I blogged about quitting the bassoon:

      (In the archives, it's the November 2011 post entitled, "Swimming in Satisfaction.")

  2. Laura - your writing skills are splendid - and this is an artful collage of how you have resourcefully combined elements throughout your life's path to find simplicity and joy. Thank you!

  3. I love reading these. This one actually made me bust out laughing in 3 different places! Excellent, as always!


I'd love to have your comments and reflections!