“I found myself saying, ‘No, no. I like money!’ Because it seemed like somehow I should.”
She is the author of the Jane Wheel series of mysteries including Killer Stuff, Buried Stuff, Lucky Stuff and four others. With her husband, writer Steve Fiffer, she has edited several non-fiction books, Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own, and Family: American Writers Remember Their Own. “I do a little freelance writing in addition to that,” she says, “but I would say my primary source of income is teaching. With my husband, I teach four writing workshops a week.” You can read more about her work here.
She and Steve have three grown children, Nora Fiffer, Kate Fiffer, and Rob Fiffer.
The reason I wanted to talk to Sharon: I had interviewed both of her adult daughters, Nora, an actress, and Kate, an educator who would also like to be a writer. Both seemed to have internalized the notion that you can and should pursue the work you love and worry about finances later. I wondered if that had been taught to them.
My conversation with Sharon occurred in her study at their home. In Part One, we talk about what she learned and didn’t from her parents about money. They owned a tavern in Kankakee, IL, called EZ Way Inn, about which Sharon has written a series of essays, “What I Learned at the EZ Way Inn”, and a short story, “An EZ Way Inn Christmas“.
I was the first college graduate in my family. My parents owned a tavern in Kankakee, Illinois, called Don and Nellie’s EZ Way Inn. To my dad, education was the most important thing in the world. Although he wasn’t Catholic (my mom was), my dad believed in the best education possible, and he thought the Catholic school was better than the public school, so I went to Catholic school for four years of grade school and then all four years of high school. I got four years off for good behavior.
Because of having a religious education, I was a little worried about my dad. I never saw him go to church, and I knew he wasn’t Catholic. I asked him one time what his religion was. I was about nine or ten. He thought for a minute, and he said, “My religion is educating my children.”
This was a man who didn’t graduate from high school because of the Depression, who wanted very badly to stay in school but had to quit school and help his family, and then ended up buying his own business and becoming a very successful tavern owner. (He called himself a saloon keeper; he had no pretensions.)
But that made a huge impression on me, and so I always had the assumption that I would go to school as long as I wanted to go to school. And I remember saying to my dad that I wanted to go to college. He said, “Well of course you will. Any state school you want.” (Laughs) So I did have my limitations.
I would’ve liked junior and senior year of my own kids’ high school life not to be so fraught with worry about money. The kind of stress that went on with that was amazing. So that’s when I would’ve loved to have been wealthy, like Scrooge McDuck — big bags of money and say, “Go to college! Or not! Whatever you want to do, but don’t worry, don’t let money be your guide.”
Did you have a sense of your family’s social class, growing up?
Yeah, I did. I thought… (Laughs) I thought I had a very great social class. We lived in the wealthy part of Kankakee; our house was on one of the fanciest streets: Cobb Boulevard. Although, I have to admit (and I’ve written about this before), ours was a house that had been moved there from another location. So there were all these big, beautiful houses in what’s now called the historic Riverview area, but our house was this little Cape Cod– a tiny house between these big houses. And apparently, (I heard about this later; I was three when we moved there), the families on either side of us had had a beautiful garden in what had been a vacant lot. So they weren’t that pleased about us coming in.
My parents would drop me off at school in the morning, go to the tavern, open it up, and then I walked home by myself from first grade on. They were both at the tavern when I came home from school, so I was a latchkey kid. But I thought my status was fine. I was aware, though, of the fact that owning a tavern was not of the highest rank. My mother always felt like, we just own a tavern. She was embarrassed about that in her way.
I was going to school with the banker’s daughter and the people in town who had more money and more status. My mom was always so conscious of the fact that we own a tavern. She always used to tell me, (and this sounds terrible, but the only reason I can talk about it is because I never believed it or it didn’t bother me), but she’d say, “Those kids, they’re not gonna like you if they find out your dad has a tavern.”
She hated alcohol, hated drinking, didn’t like the tavern business, but loved the Roper boys. The tavern was right across from the Roper Stove Factory. They served lunch, so she made the soup and sandwiches for the Roper boys. My dad would cash checks on Friday, and she would make sure that all the Roper guys didn’t spend all their money at the tavern. She’d say, “You know, you’re supposed to pick up the groceries; your wife’s waiting for you at home; get out of here.” (Laughs) And my dad: “Nellie, hey, go easy on this. It’s bad for business.” But they were a good act. A good balance with each other.
My dad was always upbeat and positive. And he was very smart. Read a lot. He would just always make the assumption that I was going to be educated, I was going to go on, I was going to do something. Now, when he talked about what I was going to do, it was, you’re going to be a fine teacher or nurse. It was the limitations of what an educated daughter would be, but that didn’t bother me. I didn’t pay attention to the parts I didn’t want to, but he did believe in me. My mom was more like, What do you want to go to college for? You’re just gonna get married. Waste of money, that sort of thing. But she went along with it.
They were shocked when I was a theatre major. That was not what they had in mind. Well, my mom didn’t think much about it because she didn’t really believe I was going to finish school anyway. But my dad was a little disappointed because he thought that it wasn’t really very practical. He kept saying, You would be such a great English teacher. Unfortunately, my dad died before I went back to school and became an English teacher.
So he didn’t see you become a writer, either.
No, no. He knew I was interested in reading and writing. He knew something was going to happen with that. They were very proud of the fact when I got a job as an advertising copywriter for Marshall Field’s. My dad read the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Kankakee Daily Journal every day. He wanted to see what the Republicans thought, what the Democrats thought, and wanted to see who died. So I would call them and say, “I’m going to have an ad on page so-and-so.” I was the high fashion writer for Marshall Field’s, which was kind of a joke, but they loved that. They were very proud because Marshall Field’s, that was a big deal.
My mother would go into a dress store in Kankakee, and she’d look at something, and look at the price, and she’d say, “Well, you know, my daughter works at Marshall Field’s, and she can get me a discount.” So she ended up getting a 20% discount in every dress shop in Kankakee. It was just so funny to me that she did that.
She could be kind of tough and pushy about money or about the cost of something, but she would never say, “That’s too much.” If she looked at a price tag and something was too expensive, she’d wince, but she wouldn’t ever say, “That’s too much money.” She’d say, “I don’t care for that.” There was that kind of pride, not wanting to say that something was too expensive or that she couldn’t afford it. So for her to actually bargain in that way, I thought was pretty impressive.
I remember when I heard that she had to quit school after seventh grade. I loved school. School was my life; I just adored it. It was something I was good at. I got school. I said, “Mom, that must have been terrible.” And she said, “Oh no, I hated school. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” She would much rather work. She believed in work. My dad believed in education; my mother believed in work. She really did.
My mom and I would go shopping on Saturdays after we cleaned the house, and I would always want to go to the Kankakee Bookstore and get a new Nancy Drew or a new this or new that. She’d always buy me a book; she would never balk at buying it, but she would sort of yell at me the whole time: “Now I don’t want you to read it too fast. I want you to make it last.” Because I would go home and read the book, and I’d be done and I’d need a new one. But she was always: “It’s so lazy to read all the time.” She thought reading was just being lazy.
So work itself is very important.
Work is real important, yeah. Work-work. After she quit school, as soon as she was old enough, she went to work at the Bear Brand Hosiery factory in Kankakee, which is where all the young women worked. I think she was 14. I think she had lied about her age. And she used to talk about that as wonderful: working at the factory. You got up, you worked, you went out at night and had a great time and you played hard, but you’d always get up for work the next day. She appreciated getting the paycheck. She knew how hard she worked for it.
How do you think she felt about money?
Well, it’s interesting. My mother loved clothes. And she would say, “I don’t smoke; I don’t drink. So I can buy nice clothes.” She had excellent taste. She was such a weird mix. She was tiny, she had a great figure, she was really cute, but she was always kind of rough. Really cute but never thought of herself that way, was just a worker bee. But she would spend a lot of money on clothes.
The other thing: she always bought a lot of groceries. We always had a lot of food in the house, always a bounty of food. She always said, “Rich people don’t eat.” She believed that. She did refer to rich people all the time because we had rich people all around us. I said, “What do you mean they don’t eat?” She said, “They don’t eat; they just hold onto their money. You can say what you want, I don’t give a damn what you say, we eat well in this house.” And we did. But I think she really believed that somehow you could either have stuff and live well and enjoy yourself, or you could have money. I don’t think she saw it as possible to have both.
I think that some of that rubbed off on me. I never think as much about money as I think about stuff. I don’t think, well, we need to have X amount of money. I know how important it is, and I know it’s important for the kids, but in my own life, it never made me feel great to have a certain amount of money in the bank. But it did make me feel great to have a full refrigerator or know that I could have somebody over for dinner or know that I could have a new outfit or whatever it was that was important to me when I was younger.
I remember one time in college, a friend and I were talking about something, probably starting our own theatre. That was what all theatre majors talked about. And he said, “Oh, Sharon, you’re never gonna be rich.” And I said, “Why?” I took that to mean I wasn’t ever going to make it, and he said, “Because you don’t like money enough. To be rich, you have to really like money. You like stuff, but you don’t like money.” And I found myself saying, “No, no. I like money!” Because it seemed like somehow I should.
But I think he might have been right, that I didn’t like it enough. He may have been right, I don’t know. My dad always said, “Don’t worry about the money part of it, because you can always work.” And of course Nellie was always, You can always work, period. You should work no matter what, whether you’re getting paid for it or not.
What did your parents teach you implicitly or explicitly about money?
Well, I knew it was important. But I would say I got mixed messages from my parents. There were times where I just hated the tavern because I would be in a concert at school or there’d be something going on. My parents would promise that they’d be there, but they’d be late or they wouldn’t make it because the bartender didn’t come in or because whatever. They were late for everything. And I remember saying, “I hate the tavern.” And my dad saying, “That’s your bread and butter. Doesn’t matter whether you hate it or not, it’s what puts food on the table. It’s our business, and it has to come first.” So I knew that work was important. I didn’t think of it as money as much, but I knew that that was paramount. Work and making money and supporting the family, those things.
On the other hand, my dad, (and this is probably my downfall in terms of my own financial security) but my dad always said, “Don’t worry about money, because you can always work.” And he really believed that. He’d say, don’t let money be the reason that you make a decision, whether it’s a career decision or whatever kind of decision. Money should not be the reason for making any kind of important decision. Do what you love, except the theatre. (Laughs)
What have you and Steve taught your kids about money?
(Laughs) Well, unfortunately, I think I might’ve told them never to worry about money because they can always work.
(Laughs) I wonder why.
Yeah. I don’t think that’s such a good thing to teach your kids, because I don’t think the times are quite the same. I think my dad thought of it as, you can always make a couple bucks to get some food. You could live. That’s probably not what my children think of as being successful. They probably think of other things as being successful. But I think we taught them that it’s valuable to work. And that you should love your work. I don’t know. I’d be interested in what they’d say about that.
Forthcoming: My interviews with Sharon’s daughters, Nora and Kate.