My parents are snowbirds. They live in Cleveland from mid-May to mid-October. In mid-October, they zip down to their second home just outside of Orlando, Florida, spend about a month there, then back up to Cleveland for Thanksgiving and the December holidays. A day or two after the new year they're back on their way to Florida until mid-May, when the cycle begins anew.
Having grown up with them, I could never in a million years picture my parents making this sort of move. During my entire time living amongst them, we took exactly one vacation as a family. So you can understand my surprise that they moved a gallon of gas away from Disney World. I'm assuming they did it to torture me and my younger brother, overtly rubbing our noses in it and defiantly calling out, "Hey kids, look what we can do with our money. See what you're missing? You had to go off, find jobs, get married and have kids, didn't you? Don't worry, we'll tell Mickey you said 'hi'."
They have a nice comfortable life now and they've earned it. I'm not going to take any of that satisfaction away from them. But they do have a track record of selfish behavior -- it's not just the purchase of the winter home.
It started when they decided to add central air to their house in Cleveland several years after both my brother and I were out of their hair permanently. I suffered through so many sickeningly-humid summers during my youth. Night after night I would lose half my body weight in sweat. They weren't completely oblivious to my plight -- Mom and dad once gave me a box fan to use in my room so that the hot air could be blown at me all night long -- like sitting in front of a hair dryer for eight hours while I struggled to sleep. I remember complaining about not having air conditioning like some of my friends had at their houses. They responded with a twist to the all-time classic parental comeback, "I suppose if your friends' families wanted to all jump off the bridge together, you'd want to do that too?"
"Yes, yes I would. I'd jump right off the bridge with them if that's what it took! For the love of God, just make it cool in here!"
But their me-first ways didn't stop there. A few years later, right around the time I turned 30, they bought a boat. A boat? My father was going through a mid-life crisis in his sixties. All he needed to make the picture complete was a 27-year-old girlfriend and an ascot. The purchase of the boat hit me hard. It was actually my parents' second boat. The first, "the jet boat", was sold not long after I was born. Want to know why they got rid of the boat? Because of me. Apparently, having a baby really cramped their style, not allowing them to hit the lake on a moments notice like they were used to doing. Yes, that's right, I was blamed for sucking all the fun out of their lives. And, I heard about it constantly during my younger years. Like when my father would stop off at the marina to watch people back their trailered boats into the water and launch them into the lake for an evening of fun and frivolity. He'd then come home and do a recap for us. Always, the story would end with, "Yeah, we used to have a boat. She was a great boat. But then you came and ruined everything. Your mother and I couldn't just pack up and head to the lake after work anymore. No. Nope. I had to come home and change diapers and cook dinner and give you a bath and read you stories."
Comments like these were always followed with long, deep sighs from both of my parents. A silver lining to the new boat is that I haven't heard those complaints and I haven't felt the guilt since they brought it home.
The winter home in Florida was the last major retirement purchase. I think they've had it now for about six years. It's very nice and very well decorated. In Cleveland, the house I grew up in is still decorated in early-German beer stein. That's about all the interior design my mother ever did was to throw up a few collectible mugs on a wall shelf -- the rest of the room just seemed to settle in around them. But, in Florida, my parents turned into Vern Yip from Trading Spaces. They went with an African motif throughout their main living area and it really works. I'm actually very proud. Plus, it makes buying Christmas gifts for them so much easier -- any zoo animal made from some sort of metal will do.
I have to believe this occasional splurging on things they never would have purchased when my brother and I were around has led to an occasional guilt trip or two. I'm sure I'm the one mostly responsible for them, but I don't care. Any chance I get to point out how their free-spending ways have negatively impacted my fragile emotional state, I go for it. Sometimes I think it makes them feel bad, which is good.
One way they try to make it up to me is in paying for meals. Anytime we go out to dinner with them, they have to pay. My father is 73-years old. He doesn't hear as well as he used to and his reflexes are a tad slower than when he was younger, but at a restaurant he pounces like a female lion on a baby antelope when the check comes. There's no escape. I've tried to outwit him. Once I tried cutting off the waitress on her way to the table with the bill. My father, seeing what I was doing, leapt from his seat, ripped the check from my hands and then pushed me into the table of six seated next to us. I should have made him pay the dry cleaning bill too that day.
Now I just basically accept that when we go out with my parents, dinner is on them. Though I've never discussed this with them, it's my way of letting go of my resentment for buying all those cools things after I left home. If it helps them deal with it too, all the better.
So, when I noticed their 24-inch picture tube television had been replaced by a 60-inch plasma at their Cleveland house at Christmas this year, I nearly fell out of my seat. Fortunately, I was standing.
"What the hell is that?" The word "hell" is as close to a swear word that I've ever used in the presence of my parents. After our family left to head home the language was much stronger. "They think they can get away with this? Sonofabitch. They're leaving in a week. What do they need a TV that size for?" My wife tried to calm me, but I kept going. "I suppose buying us a meal or two is supposed to make me feel better? No freakin' way. Not this time."
On January 1st, I let them take the family out to brunch. It was our last hurrah with them until they returned in May. The kids got to say goodbye to grammy and grandpa, and I got to get one last free meal in before spring. On January 2nd, they'd be on their way to Florida and I'd be responsible for the tab if we decided to dine out as a family until at least May. Back to reality.
Or maybe not.
Last night I decided to take the kids to a great little place called the Brew Kettle for dinner. You can make your own beer in the back of this place (which I've never done), so they have some great hand-crafted beers on tap. We got appetizers. We got desserts. I drank good expensive beer.
My wife noticed a crazed look on my face at some point during dinner. "Uh, honey, don't you think this is a bit much?"
"Give me your phone," I said.
"Just give me your phone," I begged. She gave me her phone, a puzzled, possibly frightened look glossed her face.
I dialed, then waited.
"Mom. Hey, it's me. Can you do me a favor? I need your credit card number."
My mother asked why.
"You wanna know why? Really? Because I don't think you're finished paying for your television, that's why."
She then gave me the number, probably with the thought that I was being held at gunpoint, forced to make this call. If she gave me the number, they would surely let me go and wouldn't harm me.
"Okay. Got it. Well, I have to go now. By the way, thanks for dinner."
A smile crossed my face as I ended the call.
"Did they bring the desserts yet?"
Now I feel fine.