My husband Mike and I had a good friend who had come to our town from Germany. He ended up here because his uncle was a professor at the University of Houston and the family decided that this provided him with a great opportunity to earn a college degree from an American university without the expense of room and board. For much of his time as a student he lived with his uncle’s family in the suburbs of Houston, giving him access to a crash course in the American way of life. With a particular talent for mastering different languages he was soon speaking like a native citizen and soaking up the culture of Texas. Unlike many international students he chose to hang with the locals with whom he took classes. Among them was my Mike with whom he became fast friends from the start.
The two of them were dreaming of earning PhDs and becoming college professors. A stint as teaching assistants convinced both of them that working with students for a lifetime was not one of their best ideas. Besides, as is rather typical of students at the University of Houston they had landed jobs that were proving to be more promising for the future than the dreams that they once had. They both earned their degrees while concurrently building resumes in the real world and then launched their divergent careers and cemented their friendship.
Our friend was the only child of a German father and a Norwegian mother. It was somewhat heartbreaking to his parents that he decided to stay in Houston, Texas rather than returning to his hometown in Bremen. His decision was cemented when he married a gal from Chicago who had also fallen in love with my city. He would never become a citizen of the United States because he believed that doing so would have broken his mother’s heart. To her it would have meant that she might never see him again. Of course such an idea on was hyperbolic because our friend saved his money and vacation time so that he might regularly travel home to visit his parents with his bride.
While he was there he often took advantage of the fact that he was still a citizen to get some dental work done for free. He used to joke that the cost of airfare was often zeroed out by the medical care that he received as part of the German national healthcare plan. He liked to talk about the differences in the ways of life between his birth country and his new home in the United States. While he was a salesman in his daily life he always sounded like the college professor that he had trained to be whenever he spoke of the sociological pros and cons of living in Germany versus the United States.
From his own experiences he was able to compare and contrast the systems and he had come to the conclusion that there were actually good and bad things about each, and that judging the merit really depended on individual points of view. He noted that his parents’ lifestyle was definitely less extravagant than that of the average American, but they were quite comfortable and content with the way things were for them.
They had moved into a small apartment after World War II and had secured jobs at the local telephone company. They walked or used mass transit systems to get around town but eventually saved enough money to purchase a car that allowed them to travel to the German countryside and to take trips to other European countries. They had the same neighbors in their apartment building for years and their comfortable routine included traveling once each year to Norway to visit with relatives at a family retreat fondly known as Hovden. Theirs was a predictable life that was marked with very few anxieties, a situation that suited them after the chaos of the war that had affected them both.
They would visit our friend a few times. When they came they were in awe of the huge home that he owned complete with a swimming pool and two cars in the garage. They marveled at the long distances that he and his wife drove to work. Trips into other parts of Texas stunned them with the miles and miles of wide open spaces. The huge malls with stores offering virtually anything they might desire sometimes overwhelmed them. They were genuinely impressed with the success that their son had found in the USA, but a part of them wished that he had come back home. The vastness of America was breathtaking but they had come to prefer their more routine way of life, so they were always more than ready to return to what they knew best.
We often contrasted our friends parents with my mother who struggled more and more as she grew older. Her life was wrought with so many economic nightmares. Even though she had worked continuously for most of her adult life, she had never earned an income equal to my father’s. When he died suddenly leaving her to care for three small children her life became a constant struggle, and there were few safety nets in place to help her. Luckily we were a rather healthy brood so she rarely had to take us to visit our family doctor. With the help of my uncles she kept her cars running far longer than normal so that she was able to navigate around town. The cost of living without mass transit systems and healthcare programs were a constant source of anxiety for her.
These uncertainties would magnify themselves as she grew older and was no longer able to treat her maladies herself. As she needed more and more professional care she often chose to ignore the suggestions of her doctors because she simply did not have enough money to follow their advice. She tended to have some of her teeth pulled rather than spending more to have them repaired. She eventually became unable to get around our vast metropolis because the care of feeding of an automobile was way too expensive. Nonetheless, she owned a large home on a big lot with trees and gardens that our friend’s parents in Germany did not have.
We often spoke of which system was better for our parents. I had to admit that I found a bit more comfort in the social services that my friend’s mom and dad enjoyed when I compared it to my mother’s worrisome situation. She literally spent her golden years fretting over concerns that she might not be able to pay for the most basic necessities. In her efforts to cut back on spending she paid taxes on her home rather than turning on the heat in the winter or the air conditioning in the summer. She stopped making repairs so that she might eat, so her home became rundown.
My brothers and I did our best to fill the gaps that our mom’s meager income left gaping. We gifted her with work parties for all of the special occasions. We sent our repair people to her home with orders to bill her for minimal amounts while sending us invoices for the real cost. We drove her around town when she needed to get places and boosted her food budget by inviting her to dinners many times a week. Still, her medical issues nearly broke her spirit even with Medicare. There were still copays that often destroyed the small income that was the basis of her survival. Eventually we took her into our homes so that she might finally relax in the knowledge that there would be a comfortable place for her to sleep each night.
I often think of our friend’s parents contentedly living out their lives in small but familiar surroundings. I imagine them moving about their city with ease and enjoying the comfort of knowing that when they eventually became very sick they did not have to worry about paying the bills for their care. They always appeared to be a happy lot, as was my mother as well, but the difference is that they were better able to enjoy life free from the concerns that haunted my mother from the moment my father died. Perhaps it’s time that we think a bit more about what life is like for those less fortunate than ourselves. I suspect that we have some work to do. I’d like to think that I might play a small part in making life less worrisome for those who struggle in spite of their efforts. Surely there must be a better way.