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The Spinach Can: A Fathers Day Story

Like countless 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 precisely 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 troubled me. Most notably were the constant reminders that my family didn’t have many things 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 that wouldn’t even start on its own. For years we had to turn on the wall switch and then, using an old broomstick, nudge 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 model, and we’d wear it out before spending money on a new one. 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 always felt uneasy and more than a little embarrassed 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 creature comforts that were utterly foreign to me. I saw friends getting new coats each year when it turned cold, but I often wore hand-me-downs from my older brothers. I remember being self-conscious about wearing a six or seven-year-old coat that looked even older. Any protest I might make fell on deaf ears, so why bother? We knew that one of my father’s cardinal rules was not buying something new when the old was still serviceable. 

This World War II propaganda poster perfectly summed up my father’s life-long philosophy. 

As I moved into my teens, my Dad’s whole attitude grated on me. Why wouldn’t he get with the times? He 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. Going to a single market 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 ten years, my wife and I would have another son and a daughter.

A Father, But Still a Son

I would like to say that getting older and having children closed the relationship gap with my father, but it didn’t make much difference. I was on my own and could buy some of the affordable luxuries my little family wanted. Still, whenever 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 genuinely bugged me was a strong belief that my father thought I was stupid. 

In my mind, he regularly reinforced this notion throughout the years. Each fall, 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? Why didn’t he think I had a brain in my head?

That was a minor gripe but more evidence of his apparent belief that I was a child who needed 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 32, I enrolled in college when we already had a mortgage and three kids. Going to school year-round would take me just over three years and four 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 I was a capable student. I made the dean’s list each semester in my first two years of college, but that was a given since I had a perfect 4.0 GPA. Had the school given me 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 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 six 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 said 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.

The Last Days

In the spring of 1994, my father was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The doctors gave him about nine months to live, and that estimate proved to be very accurate.

As he wasted away that summer and fall, I worked as many hours as possible 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 the lives of 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 daily so they could have food on the table each evening.

Every Christmas, my father would ensure 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 quaint antiques compared to my day’s Sugar Babies and M&Ms.

Taking that class brought these holiday traditions to mind. My dad told 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

In his time remaining, I spent many more days with my father and asked him about his life. I could ask the questions then, or the answers would forever remain a mystery.

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.

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. I spotted something odd on the label when I put the can in a different location. 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.

It was evident 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 bore many awful scars from it. Those scars were not easily visible, but they became apparent in the cautious, frugal way he lived his life.

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, my father refused himself much more. I remember him going to his job as an electrician on cold, rainy days when he was very sick.

I also remember days when he injured himself on the job. More than once, he badly cut his hand trying to strip the insulation off the electrical wire he was installing. He’d get the hand stitched up and return 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 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 daily. Clearly, the fathers on those shows loved their sons, but I’m not sure I can remember when I heard those fathers come right out and say, “I love you” to their sons.

Daddy 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, my wife 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.