The Spinach Can: A Fathers Day Story

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 was special. He was my daddy.

As I got into my teenage years I started noticing 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. I didn’t know 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 poke an old broomstick through the opening in the ceiling to give the blade a nudge in the right direction before it started 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, it was always awkward for new friends to come to our house. We weren’t the Clampett family, but we were awkwardly different.

In short, we were so far behind the times.

I’d hear of my friends’ family vacations and the other luxuries that were completely foreign to us. 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. The fact that they were 6 or 7 years old and looked like something from a previous generation was never a concern to my father. It was a cardinal rule to him 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?

It was a common practice in our home for my parents to leave the house on Saturdays mornings 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, but every time I went to my parent’s home it felt like I was walking backwards in time. Visiting my parent’s sweltering house in the summer would sometimes cause the old contentious feelings to return, but what really bugged me during those later years was a strong belief that my father thought I was still a stupid child, one that needed still needed a Daddy to hold his hand in life.

The first time each year that temperatures would drop to 40 degrees I could count on a call from my father. He’d always ask, “You got any antifreeze in your car, son?”

That always rankled me. Didn’t my father know that water froze at 32 degrees, not 40?

That was a minor gripe, but what really bugged me the most was his apparent belief that I was a stupid little kid 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.

As I wrote yesterday, I made the decision to enroll in college at the age of 32 when we already had a mortgage and 3 kids. Going to school year-round it 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

It was at this point that 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.

It was not uncommon during my early college years for my parents to show up in the middle of one of their marathon Saturday grocery shopping days with bags and bags of groceries.  There would be whole chickens, hamburger meat, and bacon, coffee and cans and cans of fruits and vegetables that my father the penny pinching shopper had bought on sale–sometimes as cheap as 5 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 accurate. As he wasted away over that summer and fall I was working as many hours as I could and taking a full load of classes. One of them was a history of the Great Depression, and for the first time I got a close-up view of what life was like for people like my father’s family 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. He would also buy odd looking cut rock candy each year that looked like antiques compared to the Sugar Babies and M&Ms of my day.

Taking that class brought these holiday traditions to mind and I recalled him telling us that when he was a boy his Christmas present would be an apple or an orange with some nuts or hard candy.  I hate to admit it, but when I heard stories like I didn’t give them much credence. It was just another one of those “when I was your age I walked 5 miles to school in snow up to my knees, and it was uphill in both directions” kind of stories.

My Eyes Opened

At one point in that semester the weight of my father’s life experiences came crashing down on me and 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 it wasn’t until the last few months of my father’s life.

In the time remaining I spent a lot more time with my father and asked him the questions that had to be answered then or never. I would sometimes hold his hand like when I was a little boy knowing that soon, I would never be able to do it 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 went to 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 on the label my father had penciled in the word “NEW”.  To me it was obvious that 55 years after the Great Depression ended my father had been stockpiling food—just in case.

Looking Back

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 ones that were easily visible, but if you looked at the cautious, frugal way he lived his life, they become clear. 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 denied himself much more. I can remember him going to work on cold, rainy days when he was very sick. I also remember days where he’d 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 father was born in 1918, just a few days after the armistice that ended the first world war. He was 42 by the time 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’d watch reruns of programs like the Andy Griffith Show, the Dick Van Dyke Show and Leave it to Beaver almost every day. It was obvious that 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.

I know my father told me he loved me more than a few times over the years, but words were not his primary mode of communication that feeling and commitment. As the parents of grown children, we now see how impossible it is to turn off being Mom and Dad just because your kids are adults. It’s just an ongoing way of saying I love you.

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 where I’ll see it every day. It is a treasured reminder of not just a man, but a family heritage.

Read about the changing grocery business  Insomnia Breeds an Economics Lesson