“Whatta we? Rockefeller?”
That’s what my mother would say to me about pretty much everything that involved money. She was a single mom in New York City in the 1960s.
The city was then in a growth spurt as the world capital of big buildings, big noise, big dreams. Think of it and you’ll hear honking horns and fast talkers. Mystery, opportunity and danger awaited at every turn. It was a tough place to be alone and raising a son, particularly in a time when that was still unusual.
I was remembering all this as I sat vigil in a hospital room earlier this year in a ritual becoming more familiar to baby boomers. My mother was struggling with pneumonia, that “complication” often cited as the cause of death in obituaries. People suffer debilitating illnesses for years, but pneumonia seems to be the one that swoops in to turn out the lights. She escaped from it once before, but that was years earlier.
Boomers’ parents are the first generation pushing the boundaries of longevity. That borderland is the province of hospitals and long-term-care facilities. It isn’t so much living longer as it is dying longer.
When my aunt and I arrived at the hospital, we thought we were too late. Mom was ashen, gray-white with her mouth hanging slackly. We both stood, hand over mouth, just looking.
My aunt announced, “I’m getting a nurse!” and turned to go just as my mother woke up and blurted, “Why?”
Scarcity’s Tunnel Vision
In this month’s interview with Patrick Bet-David, he spoke about the effects of scarcity. The discussion was a continuation of last month’s segment, in which he shared details of his difficult childhood. In that edition and this one, Bet-David talked about how that kind of background can lead a person to think small — to feel desperate yet undeserving.
That perspective can result in tunnel vision of a target. For example, if people are accustomed to a certain monthly income, they may feel that is as much as they deserve and fail to see outside that range. That tunnel vision also creates a desperate seller focused on making a sale, regardless of consequences to the buyer.
Studies have pointed out the effects of scarcity. A Harvard Magazine article about the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much pointed out “if the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills — attention, self-control and long-term planning — often suffer.”
Those deficits have obvious consequences not only for advisors and their clients but also for anyone’s quality of life.
A fiduciary standard might call for advisors to put their clients’ interests first, but it is the healthy mindset that allows advisors to do it by reflex.
What Is A Rockefeller?
During the vigil at my mother’s hospital bed, I remembered how she would answer almost any request that involved spending: “Whatta we? Rockefeller?” She doesn’t have much of a New York accent, but she would adopt one for that bon mot.
I did not even know what a Rockefeller was. Was it somehow rock-related? Feller-related? All I knew was it had money, and we were not it.
She did work for an oil company, but it was not Rockefeller’s. She was then a travel agent at Continental Oil Co., where she would climb the veritable corporate ladder as the company grew into Conoco.
So, I was used to scratchy, coarse wool pants and even grew accustomed to the holes in my coat pockets that I could stick my thumbs through. Kids don’t understand why they can’t have what they want, especially when they are surrounded by the plenty of New York City.
I understood much later what it was like to be responsible for another human being. And I appreciated what it would have been like for a single mom making her way in Mad Men-era New York. But I also realized that even tougher than all that was constantly having to tell her child no.
Now, I know it’s my own sense of scarcity that keeps me sitting when I should be standing, staying when I should be going.
The Actual Payback
To pass the time, I chatted with my mother about taking the train to see her and the errands I was doing. She grabbed her handbag as we spoke, pulled out her checkbook and started writing.
I knew what she was doing. “Mom, really, I don’t need anything. It was no big deal.”
She ripped the check off the book and thrust it at me. It was for $500.
I thought of what that money would have meant back in those days, when our rent was $130 a month. That check would have seemed like a small fortune.
I looked up at her and said, “Whatta you, Rockefeller?”
I thought she would laugh, but she narrowed her eyes as if I were somebody she was trying to remember. She turned and looked out the window.
I knew where she was going. She was back in 1960s midtown New York, when the city was thrumming with excitement and where she strode young and invulnerable with the future expanding in front of her.
When we are at that moment looking back, we can see what we really treasured. We can sense that it was the struggle that made us stronger, healthier and ultimately happier.
And richer than Rockefeller.
Steven A. Morelli