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The Prison of Security

by Stephanie Sides

Security is something that every generation thinks about and plans for its children. It’s how the species continues.

My parents interpreted security to mean a focus on education as the key to a better life. They believed better education equates to better employment opportunities equate to better long-term income. So the issue of security for them was ultimately financial.

Part of the issue for them was the embarrassing gap between my mother’s and father’s education. (This reinforces the notion that high-minded principles usually have a basis in personal history.) My mother had graduated from Mount Holyoke. My dad had gone to Bowdoin for two years, then “dropped out” to join the war effort.

I’m sure they didn’t use that term back then the way my generation came to use it. For us, it became a badge of honor. For my dad, I think it was a source of shame and something he never got over: He never returned to graduate, which made education an overriding value for him and, hence, for us.

Dad wasn’t able to join the military and the war effort due to flat feet. At least that was the abiding family myth that no one ever questioned. I wonder if his family didn’t somehow keep him from going into battle. That would have been the smart thing to do, and his family probably had the political power to do it. Even so, it would have been hushed up big time.

So dad devoted his life to ensuring his daughters’ security, first through insisting on and paying for their education, then in other ways. What’s come home to me in recent years is the personal sacrifice he made to do that.

He spent the bulk of his career working for my mother’s company, the Shakespeare Company, which became well known in the 1950s and 1960s for manufacturing golf clubs and fishing tackle. (Oddly, dad, nearly a professional golfer in terms of handicap, worked for the fishing tackle division.) In 1973, something cataclysmic happened, and the entire sales force he directed -- 50-some people -- literally resigned overnight. He did too. My memory is that my mother’s uncle, a bad boy at best, had done something stupid (that probably made financial sense to him alone) to make the company ripe for takeover. Which is exactly what happened. Anthony Pools acquired the company for a time and ultimately drove it out of business. (The Shakespeare brand was acquired subsequently by K2, a company in Carlsbad, CA, just north of where I live, which has given me an odd sort of comfort. I still sometimes see the branded fishing reels in local sports equipment stores.)

I remember this, significantly, as the one time my dad wrote me a letter. I mean a real, heart-felt letter explaining something important to him that I didn’t entirely understand. But I got that it was somehow important by virtue of the letter itself -- such an odd thing.

I was a senior in a boarding school in upstate New York. His letter explained he was resigning, as if he felt I was owed an explanation. I don’t remember what the explanation was, just that it, in the subtext, was apparently a big deal to him. He was only 51 years old.

He volunteered for some time thereafter with the Salvation Army, and, according to my mother many years later, considered a few entrepreneurial ventures. But he never seriously pursued any of them. I think that was because he didn’t want to invest money in something that not only might not make it but, worse, lose the family savings.

One could argue he didn’t have enough courage to try something new.

Or was it about protecting the family assets for my mother and us kids?

His decision ensured (if there is a guarantee in life) an easy retirement for him and my mother after he had worked hard for so many years. And it’s also enabling my sisters and me to do things we might have not been able to do on our own as he continues to reveal more specifics about the assets.

So, I worry: What did he not do because he was too conservative on our behalf? After all, his generation lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the atomic bomb drops in Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the social disruption of the mid-late 1960s, all of which must have made adults in the U.S. truly wonder about the security of the world. With such a pattern of governmental misbehavior and world chaos, how could parents possibly guarantee security for their children?

I’m guessing since they had been so insecure in their lives, security of their children became the ultimate motivator of everything they did.

I think my generation, those that got educated however they were able, have taken their good fortune for granted, at least those in my socio-demographic sliver. We’ve lived the relative good life, which boils down, in my mind, to having lots of options, which typically derive from a good income.

And now my dad has given us more options, just when we want and need them as we’re beginning to tire of “doing the same thing professionally” for 20 or more years. It’s a glorious luxury. And it gives “dropping out” for my generation, now in its early-mid 50s, an entirely new meaning.

Still I wonder: What did dad give up to make this happen? Does he have any major regrets? And what about that inability to serve in the military? Was that really true?

I should ask him all these questions. But that’s the hard part in my family, as odd as it sounds. We’re somehow unable to probe each other about the deep-seated stuff that undergirds life’s major decisions. How do you launch into these topics over cocktails, crackers, and cheese. It’s so out of character. And probably impolite.

This wondering takes me on to the next generation: Will we take care of them in the same way? With the balance of economic and, subsequently, political power in the world changing, have we in the U.S. topped out economically and politically? What will happen to my nephew’s generation?

Life certainly will be much more competitive for them, even for the most highly educated and trained. Many of them have had it easy, like my nephew, and lack the ambition that I remember I and my peers had as we were growing up.

What will become of them? My father’s model to protect, even if we were inclined to apply it, doesn’t apply, because the rules of the world are changing dramatically.

I guess my advice to the younger generation is to avoid this type of captivity: Stay agile, intellectually, in terms of where one wants to live and what one wants to do professionally. Consider change, learning, and moving all part of the norm. Change your “contract” with (read: expectations of) the world in accordance with the changes you see happening. And have many options.