As I watch the dinner scene on Tuesday night’s Being Mary Jane unfold – the one where MJ educates her family on money management – I smirk. Here’s the family, finally happy together in one room (with the exception of PJ, who’s back in LA price-rigging on his new job), and MJ feels it’s the best time to tell her folks how to spend and save their dollars courtesy of Suze Orman.
MJ has no chill, I initially say to myself.
But I can’t get annoyed with her – this time – even when she tells her dad that he isn’t buying Niecy or anybody else a car, because something about the whole situation suddenly seems so familiar.
At 15, my mother succumbed to metastasized breast cancer and instead of me continuing to be a teenager, I immediately assumed responsibility for my family’s business affairs. I was the one to interpret the fine print on documents, balance accounts, and dispute and negotiate bill errors.
I vividly remember calling Verizon several times on my grandmother’s behalf over some Miss Cleo-typed calls a relative had placed on my grandmother’s phone. For at least three months, these charges appeared on her bill.
“But she didn’t make them, and we called about them last month, too,” I’d cry to the customer service rep. Finally someone initiated a block and authorized a credit, but it didn’t cover what I had combed through the multi-paged bills and calculated as the “fraudulent” charges, maybe because of taxes and all those additional fees.
“There’s still $27!” I say, exasperated, to the rep.
“I’ll just pay that,” my grandmother offers from the other line.
My new role was overwhelming, and I can’t imagine any of my 17-year-old cousins having to fulfill it today when they should be laughing at Vine videos and applying to college.
Being the first in my immediate family to graduate from college and move away from my rural hometown only increased my responsibility and some others’ feelings of entitlement. They viewed me as the one with the “good job” and the “good money,” but it didn’t make me feel proud and important. Instead I grew tense and resentful and eventually felt less like a family member and more like the family accountant, banker, mediator, and attorney.
At some point I no longer wanted to be the responsible one. I wanted to be reckless and vulnerable for once or thrice. And I wanted to feel appreciated and wanted, not needed. It explains why MJ goes on a baller shopping spree, dropping over six figures on big-ticket brands like Hermes, Louboutin, and Tesla for her birthday. The birthday not one family member remembered – except for her mother. At the end of the day.
Last year immediate family members were under the same roof as me and still conveniently “forgot” my birthday. While they celebrate everyone else’s birthdays with surprise parties complete with full spreads and open bars – even one member having the audacity to tell me about a potential surprise celebration an exact week after mine – I didn’t get a card, balloon, cupcake, or a miniature bottle of liquor. But I did get the message: You’re only our provider and we want what you have, and we don’t really give a damn about you as a member of our family. Or a person.
Fortunately the deciding moment for me had already come after my grandmother handed over her checkbook to another relative to write out all of her bills, yet she called me to cover an overdraft charge that the relative created. I was in charge of the checkbook for at least a year and had saved whatever was left over each month, which I never rolled over and included in the following month’s balance. But somehow the relative not only spent the entire social security check but also the cushion I built and then some! And I was automatically pegged to finance the mistake! But as my cousin often says, “The devil is a liar.”
Of course I felt guilty after refusing to reconcile the account, after all it was my grandmother. But somewhere along the way, there grew this comfort and belief that I’d always be available to fix problems financially because surely I’m not going to neglect family. This isn’t about neglect or selfishness, though. It’s about respect and riddance to the expectation that I’m obligated to take care of everyone simply because I appear to be able to.
So while it may seem that MJ is full of nerve to tell her dad what he’s not going to buy with his own money and for whom, she has every right to voice her concern because from what I see – and know – she’s going to be the one ultimately responsible for paying the maintenance, insurance, and the note.