Choose What You Love

Vic & Elaine in 1990s

I lie in the dark in my lover’s arms listening to his slow sleeping breath. I’ve known him just a few months, but he’s the man I want to marry. A streetlight on West Seneca Street beams through the window illuminating the tangled sheets and white envelopes and papers scattered on his desk. What are all those papers?

The next morning, while Vic showers, I look, but don’t touch. I don’t want to get caught snooping, but there are bills due in October 1966 and it’s already December. An open checkbook and bank statements. Unopened envelopes with red Past Due stamps. Electricity, phone, and doctor’s bills—unpaid. Why?

On W. Seneca St.

“Don’t you worry about unpaid bills?” I ask when he emerges, naked and steaming. No use pretending. He knows I’m in love with him. He knows I want him to relax and make a life with me. I know he’s scared of commitment, but is he also a crook? Why doesn’t he pay his bills?

“I’ll get to them,” Vic says. Then he laughs with a boyish grin and roll of his eyes. “I always say that.” This guy is getting a Ph.D. in Astrophysics and has a scholarship to cover his expenses, but he doesn’t pay his bills? I find it fascinating, but not maddening. I’m that much in love.

“Want me to write your checks and keep your checkbook balanced?” I ask a few months later as I watch the bill pile grow. “You can sign them and buy the stamps.” Since he has a VW to take us places and pays for most everything, I can at least sort out this mess.

Vic, ~1970

What does he like most about me? Sex, political passion, or my willingness to balance his checkbook?

After we marry, he continues making most of the money and I tend it carefully, buying what we need and paying the bills. After he gets a teaching job, I add retirement investing to my skills.

In 2006, when Vic is sick with cancer, we make an appointment with our financial adviser to make sure everything’s in place. Maybe that sounds cold or heartless, but it’s neither. We’re realistic. My income has always been smaller than his, and our division of labor has worked for over 40 years. I won’t be rich, but should have enough to see me to the end of life.

Today, nearly 12 years after Vic’s death, I sit at my desk with papers spread everywhere. Check stubs, bank statements, paid bills—the financial litter of 2019. I organize the piles, inwardly complaining to Vic about spending my time entering data into QuickBooks for taxes.

“I love that you do this, E,” I imagine Vic saying. “You’re taking care of yourself.” I want to hear him say that again in person.

One night in that dark bedroom in 1967, after the bills were paid and filed away, he talked about his mother’s passion for money. Virginia, the same mother-in-law who cut me out of her will the day Vic died, tried to manipulate him and everyone with money. Sometimes she was generous, but there were expectations.

Vic at college graduation with VW & his mom (dig the hat!)

She carefully folded a crisp bill ($1 or $20 or $100), held it hidden in her closed down-turned fist, and passed it into her grandson’s or friend’s open hand like a secret. “Here. Get a little something for yourself.” A gift felt like a tip.

When they were little boys, her grandsons played the game with her. Vic refused. Money passion was his mother’s illness, but he’d found the cure. Choose what you love, not what pays the most.

He was a teacher, not the businessman or banker she wanted. He lived with a long-haired girl who didn’t shave her legs and whose dowry was a sewing machine that shot sparks. His car was a VW, not a Cadillac.

What kind of magic did I use to turn her only son into a hippie and make him reject his mother’s values? She was sure it was my fault.


Have you felt manipulated by someone’s style of giving or withdrawing gifts? How did you handle it? For an article about my early years with Vic, see When Tears Tell the Truth. For an article about my 10 years of caregiving and making peace with his mother after Vic’s death, see Disbelief.

  1. This is such beautiful, poetic writing! My heart rose and fell in equal turns. I’m so pleased that Vic was able to transcend his mother’s manipulative and controlling relationship with money. “Choose what you love, not what pays the most.” … there’s so much deep wisdom in these words. Thank you for sharing them with us Elaine and even more wonderful family photos. I can almost imagine Vic’s handsome boyish grin and that comic rolling of his eyes!

    As a child I was affected many times by my father’s giving and receiving of gifts. In which many a time the “present” would end up on the fire, sadly, including my brother’s hamster one day … which he bears scars on his hands when he attempted to rescue it from the fire. Thus growing up I resonated deeply with the old saying “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” which took a long time to undo, but thankfully did. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • Oh, Deborah! What a heart-breaking story for your brother and you–and it says everything about what a damaged human being your dad was. Vic’s mom hit him freely and often until he stopped her by grabbing her arms and saying (growling), “Don’t you ever slap me again.” She didn’t. He was about 13 and bigger than she was, but the cruelty wasn’t deep in the way you describe and experienced. My heart breaks for your brother and you. Sending you love and solace for wounds that must always stay tender and vulnerable.

      • I’m so glad that Vic fought back! It’s wonderful and deeply healing to receive the gift of beautiful, kind-hearted words and no longer be afraid. Hmm, you’ve touched on something I’ve never been able to verbalise before. Thank you my dear friend! x

        • Vic was handsome, accomplished, and scared of getting too close to anyone when I first met him. It was 1966, so he was 25. From the beginning and end of our time together, he said, “You taught me how to love.” We trusted each other and knew the other person wouldn’t do lethal damage even if they were angry or hurt. When we disagreed or argued, there was still faith that the other person wasn’t going to cut us down with anger or walk out the door. We always gave each other a second chance and time to talk things through. I’m grateful we started doing encounter groups in 1968 and began studying Jung together not long after that. It also helped to meditate together.

  2. As I re-read your sweet love story, tangled sheets seemed to equate to sex and the white envelopes and bills, metaphors for money. In my opinion, sex and money are both potent mediums of exchange. Withholding one or both in a marriage relationship equates to punishment, injustice even. I noted that your mother-in-law Virginia viciously cut you out of her will when you married your one true love, her precious son Vic. Yet, you ministered to her needs for ten years to the point of exhaustion and made peace with her in the end, surely an act of grace.

    No, it is not cold or heartless to take advantage of financial planning. It’s sensible. You are decisive and practical still, caring for the Mansfield legacy. and extending Vic’s wish to “Choose what you love, not what pays the most.”

    You are ever the consummate storyteller, Elaine. A favorite line: “He lived with a long-haired girl who didn’t shave her legs and whose dowry was a sewing machine that shot sparks.” Wow! 😉

    • Marian, you’re right. Vic and I agreed on both issues. He didn’t overspend (even though he didn’t like writing checks and balancing the checkbook) and he was faithful. Virginia’s demand, only a few hours after Vic died, that I take her to a lawyer was clearly her attempt to grab control of what she had already lost. I pleaded with her to visit Vic all that week, but she refused saying, “God won’t do this to me. God won’t take my only son.” I told her we don’t know the ways of God, but we know people die at every age and it isn’t in our hands. I told her Vic was dying. She wouldn’t see him and didn’t say goodbye to her only child.

      I could only imagine how broken she felt, but I was tired and unable to think about or care about her money. I called her lawyer and asked him to deal with it and take me out of her will. I also asked Vic’s cousins to come and get his mom and take her to their homes after Vic’s memorial service. They kindly hosted her for a few weeks which was a big help. In the end, all her money was spent caring for her in her last years, so there wasn’t any money left. Unfortunately, she had left lots of resentment and it took me years to forgive.

      I was a scholarship kid and worked in a clothing store to pay for my books and toothpaste, but I did have that sewing machine my mom bought me when I was in junior high school–and I knew how to use it.

      • I love your stories about you and your husband Vic.How sad that his mother could not get over her resentment and visit her only child before he left this earth.That maybe just maybe he needed something from his mother,tell him he will be okay and she will see him soon. He knew what he was doing when he fell in love with you!!

        • Thank you, Kimberly. It was so, so sad that she wouldn’t see her only child at the end. I don’t think it was resentment in his last days, but pure fear. “I don’t want to see him like that” was her other favorite refrain along with “God won’t take my son from me.” I agree they needed something from each other–forgiveness, tenderness, just saying goodbye–but much as I tried to make it happen, she wouldn’t come. In her last years (she lived to almost 102), she softened and expressed her grief to me, little by little. I had to stay around because she had no one else, but to heal my resentment toward her. She had a long difficult life.

  3. Love this

    • Thank you, Jackie. My camera and I took a little journey to check out the place where Vic had an apartment on West Seneca Street. I probably violated a few laws by walking down the driveway and taking photos of the porch and building. If I’d been stopped, the cops would have had to deal with my tears.

  4. Such dreadful manipulative behaviour Elaine. Thank heavens you were able to avoid it and that you and Vic had a sound and grounded attitude to money which, like sex, has agency and thus potency.

    Thank you for sharing this – I love the image of you two hippies thumbing your noses at manipulation (I’m sure I’ve mixed the metaphor) –

    • She was the master of manipulation, Susan, but mostly with her son (and his family) and her siblings. She had a good sense of humor and many life-long friends. Vic’s father deserted her when she got pregnant and she did her best to raise a child even though resources were thin. She only went to school until she was 15 (through 8th grade) and couldn’t subtract or multiply, but it was clear she was smart. She couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, so Vic became the opposite, so she was a teacher in that hard way. I always thought she was the most important teacher of my life because I disliked her and yet I felt sorry for her because her attempts to control were so transparent and useless. I knew she loved Vic in the best way she could, but it infuriated her that she couldn’t control him and she tried to the end. She approached his illness by trying to scold him into getting well for her sake. After Vic died, I tried to get help for her, but she refused to talk to the priest, a nun, or anyone at hospice. Fortunately she talked to her sisters.

  5. You’ve captured so much in your writing, Elaine ~ I guess that’s what really good writers do! I felt like I went on a journey with you–from the days of tangled sheets and unpaid bills (I laughed out loud when I read, “I know he’s scared of commitment, but is he also a crook?”) to the mother-in-law who cut you out of her will the day Vic died. I know that we only act the way she did out of woundedness and fear, and still so much harm is done. Fortunately for you and Vic, you had each other and could respond to her in such healing ways–for Vic by being deeply committed to telling the truth, for you by being able to truly see her as a teacher, and for both of you by choosing love.

    • It was a journey of 42 years, Anne. I need to write a piece about how I didn’t get any viruses for 2 years–from colds to flu–when living with a person who was immuno-compromised from an immune system lymphoma, chemo, and a stem-cell transplant. We’re motivated when we want to protect someone we love. Oh, my mother-in-law. I wrote about her a lot before her death in 2018, but you might not have seen those articles. She was my teacher and I knew I had to stick with it until I didn’t respond to her bait. (Or “Don’t bite the hook,” as Pema Chodron says.) Virginia was terrified of death (her own, especially), probably terrified I would desert her, and she didn’t express her fear in any way other than anger until she started losing memory in the last few years. Even then, it was never a direct expression, but doing something like locking herself in her room so I had to get the building superintendent to open the door. She was a frightened bully, in the mode of the man in the White House. Vic avoided her and never worked it out with her, although he knew she loved him. Last time she saw him about a month before his death (a quick lunch at my insistence), she nagged the whole time because he was too sick to eat for her sake. She didn’t give him a chance to connect by showing a drop of tenderness when he was sick. Instead he was doing something to hurt her. I had that long period at the end of her life when she was over 100 and her defenses had softened a bit. That’s when I learned to forgive and empathize.

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