Once, when I was in college, my grandfather sent me a check for fifty bucks—maybe it was a hundred. I was really strapped for cash then and had even, a few months earlier, taken a cash advance then on a credit card to get groceries. But I was working a pretty good job, so I didn't have to worry about the present. I just had to take care of a couple of past things like a long distance bill or some equally boring but important nuisance.
So, when the money from Poppa Bob came in, I did what I thought was really, really responsible. I paid off some of those nuisances. Then I wrote him a thank you note, explaining myself, thinking that he'd consider me to be a model citizen and a perfect grandson.
Well, I did not hear back from him directly.
About two weeks later (this was way before e-mail) my mother called to tell me that my grandfather was furious. I was to call him and explain myself. I told her that I'd used the money responsibly (occasionally I wasn't responsible with money, and I thought this was a good time to feature my good behavior). She said she understood that, but I needed to call him and talk to him.
I did what anyone who knew they were in trouble would do: I put it off for a few days. That was a terrible choice. He called me, used my first and second name.
"Todd Robert," he said. Normally his voice boomed, but he was ill and didn't have much oomph in the diaphragm anymore. "Your mother tells me you used that money I sent you to pay bills."
I gulped. "Yeah, I did."
"Windfall is not for taking care of business," he said. "Doncha have some girl you can take out?"
I did not, actually, have one of those at the moment. So I lied, "Yeah, I suppose."
The conversation didn't get any better, but the end result was that I learned a major lesson. Windfall is not for taking care of business. You use it to do something you're not doing because you don't have the cash. Windfall relieves a person from the duty of being responsible with money all the time.
What he was saying to me was this: "You need to remember to live a little, or the world of taking care of business will chew you up and spit you out."
I have to remember that this advice came to me from a man you nearly lost his life in the Solomon Islands rescuing a crate of bourbon from a landing strip while under Japanese mortar fire. He'd spent months getting the requisition filled, and he knew the boys sweating it out there in the Pacific theater might need some relief from taking care of the business of the second world war.
So now, when I manage to win an award of some kind, I try to do something extravagant with it. It's become a kind of family rule. If you work for the money, its primary job is to take care of business. If someone just gives it to you, its job is to make life a little brighter. So, for example, when a royalty check for my first book comes in, we go out to dinner (That usually causes the sum to evaporate, but that's life in the world of niche publishing).
Recently, my next book, Rift, won the Association of Mormon Letters Marilyn Brown Unpublished Novel award, which is a real honor. The citation had lots of nice things to say about the book, including a comparison to Levi Peterson, which is welcome but undeserved. What's also nice is the fact that there was a cash award. A generous one, care of Marilyn Brown. It is about as much money as I have ever seen from my writing. I am very grateful, and I am acutely aware that I should not use it for business.
And that might just rouse the dead.