One of my favorite moments in the film version of "Mama Mia" is when Meryl Streep's character, desperately in need of money to fix her falling-apart bed and breakfast on a Greek island, sings Abba's "Money, Money, Money." In her overalls and peasant blouse, Streep's character is a bit of a hippie, neither materialistic nor greedy. Nevertheless, she sings charmingly about her need for more money to help pay the bills, fix up her place and survive.
I strongly identify with Streep's character, as I'm a bit of a free spirit myself. When I was growing up, my left-wing parents drilled into me that materialism is wrong, and that the love of money is the root of all evil. They believed in helping others before helping themselves, and they were proud that they struggled financially, and that we lived in a Bronx housing project.
I had fewer toys than my friends, and often mine were knock-off versions. Every December, my friends delighted in their many Christmas and Hanukah gifts, while my parents gave me one small dreidel and a couple of pieces of chocolate gelt. But I never felt deprived back then, because I was proud — as my parents had taught me to be — that my family had "integrity" rather than material goods.
When I was in my 20s, I lived in a series of small apartments in tenement walk-ups. I found jobs that were meaningful to me and that helped others, but that didn't pay well. Some of my peers were already living in high-rise buildings with doormen and concierges in Manhattan, or buying property in Brooklyn, sometimes because of hard work, but just as often through family and school connections, inheritances and investments overseen by financially savvy parents. Yet I wasn't envious. I had my integrity, which was my inheritance from my parents, rather than money.
When I finally met the man of my dreams, whose values mirrored mine, we were married quite simply by a judge, with the court's secretaries as our witnesses, and we wanted neither wedding gifts nor a honeymoon. We went back to our respective jobs the next day. We decorated our new apartment with furniture we found on the street or in secondhand shops. We read books borrowed from the library. We wore inexpensive, non-trendy clothes that we hoped would last for years.
Gradually, though, our financial situation changed. We found ourselves working at jobs that were still meaningful but that paid more than previous ones. We bought art made by artist friends and hung it on the walls; we splurged on fresh flowers for the table; we took vacations. Still, we believed in our hearts that we were the same non-materialistic people we'd always been.
Over the next number of years, as our financial situation continued to improve, and our lives became increasingly comfortable, we began to feel that something was missing, however, and we realized that it wasn't a thing at all, but rather a child to love and nurture. We became middle-aged, first-time parents, instantly smitten with our beautiful daughter, finding her every burp, fart and squeal evidence of her brilliance and unlimited creativity. In other words, we became typical doting parents. And when I became a parent, I wanted something I'd never wanted before: real money. At last, I understood its true power.
As my daughter grows, I continue to yearn for it. Not to buy her the latest fashions she craves (she has more than enough clothes, including cropped tops and the latest Converse, her passions), or to provide her with her own iPhone and iPad (both of which, I'm a little embarrassed to admit, she has), but so that she can be as comfortable and safe as possible. By providing her with the best health care, education and opportunities, perhaps it can be made so. I want to protect her and offer her the best life possible — but I also hope that she'll share my values, and that hers will not be a life dominated by the pursuit of money.
So, I may not wear overalls and peasant blouses like Streep's character in "Mama Mia," but I do find myself sometimes singing along to Abba's song (it's awfully catchy!) — with ambivalence.