My mother's old-time best friend LaRue used to say that, if she were rich, she'd like to have clean, ironed sheets every day. LaRue was not unsophisticated. Like her husband Lloyd, who had been a bassist with a regional symphony orchestra, LaRue had a college degree. She simply knew who she was and knew what she could appreciate. And I can understand her definition of being rich.
The one I cannot understand stares me in the face every time I use the hall bathroom. There, I inevitably see a past issue of Architectural Digest, one of my wife's vices. (Some people read the National Enquirer, some read Vanity Fair.) The current occupant of the biffy shelf features "Ricky and Ralph Lauren's Private Residence in Bedford, New York." Ricky and Ralph themselves are depicted in carefully complementary (never matching, no) leather and suede outfits, leaning against what looks like a Jaguar XK-140, one of Ralph's "collection of antique cars."
If you can get through the ick-making AD prose (that "private residence" for the more accurate "house" is typical), you find that the Bedford house is merely one of five owned by the Laurens. Ralph considers it "a combination hunting lodge and stately home." Right, Ralph. You're going to march out the backdoor with a shotgun and whistle up your collection of antique hunting dogs and shoot partridge. In your backyard. In Westchester County.
No, of course not. It's an excuse to play dress-up. (Those vests with the cunning little canvas loops are so recherché. Especially when you can fill them with those quaint red heavy cylinders with the brass accents.) It's a decorating motif. It's…oh, who cares. Some of the rich, the public rich, or the would-be public rich, do live this way, and they spend a lot of time and attention and energy (the money hardly matters) living this way. That "combination hunting lodge and stately home" is designed to a fare-thee-well, in every detail.
I've seen this kind of wealth up close, too. A few years back, we visited some business acquaintances of ours at their Cape Cod place, a shingle mansion right on the water. The man had had a local golf course superintendent build three golf holes on the property. We played them -- once. Then it was time to go race around the giant yard on a trailer towed behind a lawn tractor. Then time to look over construction of the home gym in a separate sort of tower building. Then open up the garage and admire a pair of Harley-Davidson motorcycles (no other kind would do). And the wife's two-year-old BMW sports car, her town car for vacation use, which had about 800 miles on it. Then we had to swim, and sail the boat, and then barbecue swordfish perfectly pink inside (I sent mine back for more cooking; heathen that I am, I do not eat semi-cooked fish).
Sally explains to me that this very untamable restless energy makes people rich to begin with. She's undoubtedly right. (Though we have long-time family friends whose fortune puts that of Ralph Lauren in the shade, and they don't live like that.) It's one of those things I can appreciate from a remove, but that I still don't "get." (Like soccer.) For Ralph Lauren, that XK-140 is a once-in-a-blue-moon trinket. I could spend all my spare time keeping that lovely old car in running order, teaching my boys how to care for leather and walnut and how to tweak a cranky old engine.
I have two boys, five and ten. The younger, Joe, has just begun to learn to read, and he has been absolutely captured by the process. He demands that I stop the car so he can read signs. So I explain as best I can that that can't be done on a highway, and I turn off on some side road to find signs we can stop for and spell and sound out. My older boy, Bud, a muscular chunk just beginning to grow into his body, has joined his first school sports team, in wrestling. And he's taking his black belt test in taekwondo over a four-day stretch of demanding exams this week.
I told Sally a few weeks ago that now was the time it really began to pay off to be a Dad. Now I hand off the ball of achievement to my sons, and they get to run with it. I become a servant to them, driving them to their arenas and cheering them on. I sit with their hurts and soothe their disappointments and point out where they could do better, and point out -- even more important -- where they have done well. I see them begin to turn into men.
It's my time to be rich. And I don't need a collection of antique automobiles, a combination hunting lodge and stately home, or my own private golf course to do it.
I just need to keep my eyes and my heart open.
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.
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