Like a lot of small children, I idolized my father. I couldn’t wait for him to get home from work at the end of his day. He wasn’t exactly the Norman Rockwell image of a father, but he had no equal to me.
As I got into my teenage years, I realized things about my father that bothered me. For one thing, I noticed that my family didn’t have a lot of the things that all the neighbors had. At the time, I didn’t understand why. I just knew we didn’t have them and learned that it was pointless to ask for them.
Despite the miserably hot, humid summers, we never had air conditioning in our house in Pasadena. Instead, we had an old attic fan in the hallway, one that wouldn’t even start on its own. For years we had to turn the wall switch on and then, using an old broomstick, the fan blade in the right direction before it would start moving air around our little house.
We also never had a color television. Instead, my father would buy a “big” 19-inch black and white television, and we’d use it until it was thoroughly worn out. Long before touch controls and remotes, TVs used big, clunky mechanical tuning knobs. When the plastic knobs finally broke from years of use, my father would set a pair of pliers by the television so we could still change channels.
As a teenager, I was always uncomfortable when new friends came to our house. We weren’t the Clampetts, but I knew we were awkwardly different and lived far behind the times.
I’d hear of my friends’ family vacations and the other luxuries that were utterly foreign to me. I saw friends get new coats each year when it turned cold, but I often ended up wearing coats that were hand-me-downs from my older brothers. That an article of clothing was 6 or 7 years old and looked even older was never a concern to my father. It was a cardinal rule that he would not buy something new when the old was still serviceable.
As I moved further into my teens, his whole attitude grated on me. Why wouldn’t he get with the times? He obviously had a steady job, and Lord knows we never spent much money. Why did we have to live like we were practically penniless?
Every Saturday, my parents would leave the house with grocery ads and coupons in hand and spend 3 hours driving from store to store, buying only what those stores had on sale. The idea of going to a single store like Lewis and Coker or Weingartens to buy the week’s groceries was out of the question. Each of those stores might have some good specials each week, but they were otherwise, in the words of my father, “higher than a cat’s back.”
The further I went into my teenage years, the greater the distance I felt from my father. By the time I was 20, I was married, and two years later, I had a son of my own. Over the next 10 years, we’d have another son and a daughter.
I would like to say that getting older and having children of my own closed the relationship gap with my father, but it didn’t make much of a difference. I was on my own and could buy some of the affordable luxuries my little family wanted. Still, every time I went to my parent’s house, it felt like I was walking backward in time.
Visiting my parent’s sweltering house in the summer would sometimes cause the old contentious feelings to return. Deep down, what really bugged me was a strong belief that my father thought I was still a stupid child, one that needed a Daddy to hold his hand in life.
In my mind, that notion was reinforced regularly throughout the years. Each year, the first time that temperatures would drop to 40 degrees, I could always count on a call from my father. He’d ask, “You got any antifreeze in your car, son?”
That always irritated me. Didn’t my father know that water froze at 32 degrees, not 40? Even worse, didn’t he think I had a brain in my head?
That was a minor gripe, but what really bugged me the most was his apparent belief that I was a child who needed to have his hand held at every busy intersection of life.
Why couldn’t he understand that I was a responsible man of my own?
I was not so blunt with my father on those calls, but my attitude was certainly more dismissive of him than was proper for a son talking to the man who had raised him.
At the age of 32, I decided to enroll in college when we already had a mortgage and 3 kids. Going to school year-round would take me just over 3 years and 4 months to finish, and each of those months was a struggle. We were often a mortgage payment or two behind, and our grocery budget was meager.
I quickly realized that I was a capable student. In my first 2 years of college, I made the dean’s list each semester, but that was a given since I had a perfect 4.0 GPA. Had the school given grades for being a great family provider during those days, I would have been on the verge of suspension for my entire college career.
Needing My Father Again
At this point, I needed my father again, but I was a grownup and independent, so I would never ask for his help. It turned out that I didn’t need to ask.
During my early college years, it became common for my parents to show up at my house with bags and bags of groceries. There would be whole chickens, hamburger meat, bacon, eggs, and coffee. After they left, we’d find cans and cans of fruit and vegetables that my father, the penny-pinching shopper, had bought on sale–sometimes as cheap as 6 cans for a dollar.
We were incredibly grateful for the help, and it came countless times in those years. There is little doubt in my mind that my family survived my college years because of these grocery deliveries. My father once hinted that he didn’t give me money because he knew he could buy a lot more food with a dollar than I could.
Of that, there was no doubt in my mind.
In the spring of 1994, my father was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He was given about 9 months to live, and that estimate proved to be very accurate.
As he wasted away over that summer and fall, I worked as many hours as I could while taking a full load of classes. One of my classes was a history of the Great Depression. For the first time, I got a close-up view of what life was like for people living in that dark, unsettled time.
My father was not the type to talk a lot about his childhood, but I knew he never finished school. Tidbits of stories come to mind about him and his entire family working in the fields day after day so they could have food on the table each evening.
Every Christmas, my father would make sure that we had apples, oranges, and walnuts in the house. He would also buy odd-looking cut rock candy each year. The garish candy looked like some quaint antique compared to the Sugar Babies and M&Ms of my day.
Taking that class brought these holiday traditions to mind. I recalled my dad telling us many times about Christmases when he was a boy. He told my brothers and me that his Christmas present would usually be an apple or an orange along with a few nuts or a little hard candy.
I hate to admit it now, but I did not give such stories much credence. Dad’s Christmas tales were just more of the “when I was your age I walked 5 miles to school in snow up to my knees” kind of stories kids mock.
My Eyes Opened
At one point in that semester, the weight of my father’s life experiences came crashing down on me. Like the denouement of a mystery novel, my father’s words and actions finally made sense to me. The scales fell from my eyes, but this only happened in the last few months of my father’s life.
In his time remaining, I spent many more days with my father and asked him the questions that had to be answered then or forever remain a mystery.
I would sometimes hold my dad’s hand like when I was a little boy knowing that soon, I would never be able to do that again.
My father died on January 4, 1995. He was 76 years old.
Many months after he died, I was reorganizing the canned goods in our pantry, and I came across a can of Popeye brand spinach. As I put the can in a different location, I spotted something odd on the label. What I saw gave me a cold chill.
The can must have been a part of one of my father’s grocery care packages when I was in college because my father had penciled in the word “NEW” on the label.
To me, it was evident that 55 years after the Great Depression ended, my father had been stockpiling food—just in case.
Looking back, I now see that my father was like someone who had been burned in a horrific fire as a child, and he bore many awful scars from it. Those scars were not easily visible, but if you looked at the cautious, frugal way he lived his life, they become apparent.
He did not spend if he could avoid it; instead, he saved and saved and saved.
I also recognize that whatever the creature comforts we were denied growing up in, my father refused himself much more. I can remember him going to his job as an electrician on cold, rainy days when he was very sick.
I also remember days where he would be injured on the job. More than once, he badly cut his hand trying to strip the insulation off electrical wire. He’d get it stitched up and go back to work the next day.
My dad was born in 1918, just a few days after the armistice that ended the first world war. He was 42 when I came along, and growing up, I always knew that I had an “old” father compared to my friends. He was, in some senses, a man of a different time plopped down in modern America.
As a kid, I watched reruns of programs like the Andy Griffith Show, the Dick Van Dyke Show, and Leave it to Beaver almost every day. Obviously, the fathers on those shows loved their sons, but thinking back, I’m not sure I can remember a time when I heard those fathers come right out and say, “I love you” to their sons.
My father told me he loved me more than a few times over the years, but words were not his primary mode of communicating that feeling and commitment.
As the parents of grown children, Becky and I know how impossible it is to turn off being Mom and Dad just because your kids are adults. It’s just an ongoing way of showing how much you love them.
Today I smile as I think about my dad’s antifreeze calls, and when the weather turns cold in the fall, I almost expect the phone to ring again. I would welcome such a call and a chance to tell my father, “I get it now, Dad.”
I know that will never happen, but I keep the spinach can on display in my home where I’ll see it every day. It is a treasured reminder of not just a man, but a family heritage.