Rich grandmother, poor grandmother

Jeff vonKaenel

I had two grandmothers. Two loving grandmothers who had little in common except for a totally reasonable but little-held belief that I was one of the most wonderful creatures on the planet.

My dad’s mom, who lived closer and who I saw more often, lived in a working-class neighborhood in a working-class city in northern Ohio. The Depression was hard for her and her family. My grandfather died young, leaving the family without a breadwinner. During the Depression, they were not sure where their next meal was coming from. I assume food-assistance programs helped them get through some scary times.

I was told that my father’s brothers lied about their age in order to work in the steel mills and at other blue-collar jobs. They wanted to work, but often there were no jobs. When given an opportunity, they seized it. My aunt went to college and became a schoolteacher. My dad went to college on the GI Bill and became a doctor.

My first memory of my mother’s mom was when I was around 5 or 6, visiting her in her gigantic home in southern Ohio. After divorcing my grandfather, my mother’s mom married the owner of a small factory who lived in a mansion. I remember going through all the rooms and the many floors wondering, “Why do two people need such a big house? Why do they need all those Cadillacs? Why do they need a fish pond when they don’t fish?”

I spent that night in a room by myself. Believe me, with five brothers and sisters, this was an unusual experience. I did not like it. While I enjoyed being with my mother’s mom and riding on the golf cart and playing in the pool, I felt sad for her in the big house, all alone with my grandfather.

This was in the early 1950s, a period when we had little income inequality in America. Now, we have much more. The rich have become much richer, and the poor have become much poorer. The so-called fiscal cliff is forcing us to choose between military and domestic programs, between whose taxes get raised and whose do not, and to choose which generation pays the deficit.

At the end of the day, it really comes down to this question: Which one of my grandmothers do you want to support? There’s disagreement about which grandmother needs our help. Some say that supporting the wealthy will create jobs. But I think that the smart decision, and the most just decision, is the obvious decision, the one that I suggested when I was 5 years old. I thought my wealthy grandmother should help out my working-class grandmother.

When I asked my parents 56 years ago about why this wasn’t happening, they told me I would understand when I got older.

I am still waiting.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.