Thursday, February 5, 2015

Portrait of Wealth

They always called to check on a promised donation, but they never called just to check on her. 

I suppose they assumed, as I assumed, that she couldn't be anything other than fine, with all that money. 

And in all the ways that polite company allows, she was. Manicured nails, glowing skin, perfect coif, immaculate house, her hosted events more finely tuned than a symphony. Both casual conversation and crafted speech humbly showcased her southern frankness, educated brevity, a fast-paced city wit softened by a disarming country tone.

Organizations were always calling to request meetings. She was a generous donor in town, and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. Her church would call quarterly, if I forgot to get her tithe in the mail. We mailed it, because she never actually attended church. They never called to see why, or to invite her to a small group discussion or community concert or volunteer project. But if the check didn't arrive, we got a call. It saddened me. I understand why faith seemed important to her as a heritage, but not really as a practice. 

She took care of her family, seeing to their small conveniences, as well as their momentous opportunities, an elite private school for the grandchildren, expensive weekend getaways, once-in-a-lifetime vacations. I would get jealous. Could she realize that her overnight stay at a resort would cover two months of our family's mortgage? 

Then I'd feel bad for feeling jealous. She might be the one percent, but even with our thrift store appliances, craigslist furniture, and hand-me-down clothing, my family is still -- easily -- in the top four percent of wealth in the world. (Don't follow the link in that last sentence unless you want a sobering reality check. If you live in America, you're rich. Even if you're poor, you're rich.)

I was awed by her, always self-conscious about where my hands were while we interacted, tugging on the waistband of my sweater, clasping the hems of my sleeves, hands on my hips (too assertive), crossed arms (too closed off), reaching for a pad of paper, scuffing the rug with my daily low-level black heels, hoping that maybe she found the disheveled secretary look appropriate to my position.

She never cared about my endless supply of cable-knit sweaters and A-line skirts. I'm not even sure she noticed, even though her monthly wardrobe stipend could rival my annual salary. On my first day of work, she took me to lunch at the Dallas Country Club. THE Dallas Country Club. I felt so important, and incredibly self-conscious. If I was nervous about how to act in a normal conversation, it was ten times so while eating. She ordered dessert for us, and I liked her even more. A woman who's not afraid to eat dessert at lunch time! 

Her housekeeper was so loyal. I saw this same faithfulness in all of the house staff that I met of Dallas' elite. There was a protectiveness and commitment that I couldn't understand. Even though other relatives and guests at the house would treat them poorly, they still went above and beyond in every detail of their work. She was paid well, but for all her years of work, she didn't receive health insurance or retirement benefits. I couldn't help but think, if my boss died or moved to a retirement home, her housekeeper could suddenly be dismissed by the family without a cent of gratitude, after decades of faithful service. I worried for her, and still do. 

It wasn't just the non-profits who constantly called and visited (not that she minded). Her assigned personal shopper at Stanley Korshak just couldn't take "no" for an answer. One month I had to explain why $30,000 worth of merchandise had been delivered to her downstairs closet, after communicating quite clearly to her personal shopper that she didn't need anything. "Just to take a look!" the commissioned representative gushed. "I saw this and immediately thought of her! This is perfect! She must have it! So I, of course, sent it over." 

Picture Source
If I had an unlimited budget, and someone delivered $30,000 worth of super-stylish clothing to my home closet, I'm pretty sure it would stay. I really admired my boss that day. She sent it all back.

She isn't lonely. Her friends are many and sincere. I don't doubt they would care for one another with or without the money, though I don't believe I ever entered "hang out at [any friend or family member's] house" as an event on her calendar. There always seemed to be a purpose to time spent with others -- a planning meeting, a fundraiser, a night at the theatre, a mini-vacation.

When those Dallas women get together, they make things happen, sometimes to the chagrin of the rest of the city. But without private funding, the Dallas Zoo never could have revived. The world-renowned arts district would have remained in Fair Park, instead of its trendy new location in downtown (granted, to the detriment of east Dallas). None of our local theaters, symphonies, or operas could survive. And countless educational initiatives benefitting public school kids would go unfunded.

Giving to charities was as much a social contract as it was an obligation of the conscience. Every lady had her non-profit cause de plume, and they would take turns giving thousands to one another's fundraisers, in the same way that I might buy popcorn from our local Boy Scouts, knowing they'll sponsor one of my kids in the school read-a-thon. 

The banquets and cocktail parties seemed excessively inefficient with so much spent on administration and up-front capital, but they were always successful, supported from a seemingly endless supply of money. I suppose it's noteworthy that they centered their socialization around fundraising.

I remember a fundraiser tea she hosted at her home. By the time she spent $700 for designer invitations and postage, $3000 on catering, $500 on valet parkers (popular for neighborhood parties in Highland Park), several hundred on wine, and $400 on chair rentals, it came to over $100 per guest to have tea, raise awareness for a cause, and hopefully, raise money too. She sent the leftover food home with me, and it was unbelievably good. 

She did something unusual among the elite wealthy of Dallas: she gave anonymously. She did all of the obligatory donations of friends and family, but she would also see a need elsewhere, and send money to help. Sometimes it was in big ways, but she gave in small ways too. She once had me turn a large jar of change from her bedroom into bills. When I brought her the cash, she told me to keep it and take my kids out to play. It was more than enough for a fun lunch at McDonalds, and inspired by her initial gift, we passed along half of it to a man who, like many of the homeless in our area, uses the fast food restroom as his shower and the booths as a spot to nap.

I'm still not sure how I found myself in the small world of Dallas' HNW founding families. Sometimes, as I tip-toed up and down the back staircases, to avoid disturbing company, I felt dropped into a scene from Downton Abbey. 

The stories shared among personal assistants cease to be appalling after awhile, though my stories are rather tame, They did a good job of staying out of the Dallas socialite spotlight. It wasn't that they didn't have opportunity to choose drama over love; they just chose to like each other and get along because they were a family that actually valued family.

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