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The Spinach Can: A Fathers Day Story

Norman Rockwell, Public Domain, via Wikipedia Commons

In the innocence of my childhood, my father was the man I most admired. With a sense of great anticipation, I would wait for him to return home from work each day. Though he didn’t resemble the idyllic fathers depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings, he was everything to me.

Regrettably, as I stumbled through the turbulent journey of adolescence, my perspective shifted. I started to notice the stark contrasts between our family and others around us. Our lives seemed to lack the abundance that others enjoyed, and I couldn’t comprehend the reasons behind it. It pained me to gradually let go of my desires, learning to silence my yearning for things that remained out of reach.

In Pasadena, where scorching summers would make you long for some cool relief, we never had the luxury of air conditioning in our home. Instead, an ancient attic fan in the hallway struggled to keep us comfortable. For years, we had to resort to switching it on and giving the fan blade a gentle nudge with a worn broomstick to coax it into action, circulating air around our humble abode.

Color televisions were another amenity we never enjoyed. My father would opt for a “big” 19-inch black and white set, which we’d use until it breathed its last before investing in a replacement. In those days, TVs featured bulky, cumbersome tuning knobs that would inevitably snap from years of wear. Undeterred, my father would simply place a pair of pliers nearby, ensuring we could still navigate the limited channels at our disposal.

During my teenage years, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of unease and embarrassment whenever new friends visited our home. We weren’t living a Beverly Hillbillies lifestyle, but I couldn’t shake the sense that we were an oddity, stuck in a time warp compared to the rest of the world.

Listening to my friends recount tales of family vacations and enjoying modern comforts felt like they were speaking of another world, entirely foreign to my own experience. I’d watch as they donned new coats each winter, while I often found myself clad in hand-me-downs from my older brothers. I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious, wearing a faded green coat that had seen better days years ago. Raising any objection was futile, as it would only fall on deaf ears. My father was unwavering in his belief that we shouldn’t purchase something new if the old was still usable.

As I transitioned into my teenage years, my dad’s stubborn stance began to irk me. Why couldn’t he adapt to the changing times? He held a steady job, and even as a child I knew we lived far below our means. Why did we always live as if we were on the brink of financial collapse?

Every Saturday, my parents embarked on their weekly ritual armed with grocery ads and coupons. They’d spend hours driving from one store to another, purchasing only the items that were on sale. The idea of simply visiting a single market like Lewis and Coker or Weingartens and buying all of the week’s groceries never crossed their minds. Sure, these stores had their good weekly specials, but according to my father, their regular prices were “higher than a cat’s back.”

As I journeyed deeper into my teenage years, I felt a growing chasm between my father and me. By the age of 20, I was married, and within two years, I welcomed my first son into the world. Over the following decade, my wife and I would be blessed with another son and a daughter.

I wish I could say that growing older and having children of my own bridged the gap between my father and me, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Though I was now independent and able to afford some modest luxuries for my family, returning to my parents’ home always felt like stepping back in time.

Visits to their stifling house during the sweltering summers would often rekindle old resentments. At the core of my frustration was the nagging suspicion that my father considered me foolish.

Over the years, his actions only seemed to confirm this belief. Each autumn, as soon as the temperature dipped to 40 degrees, I could count on a call from my father, asking, “You got any antifreeze in your car, son?”

These calls always irked me. Surely, my father knew that water froze at 32 degrees, not 40? Why did he think I lacked even basic knowledge?

While this was a relatively minor grievance, it served as further evidence of his apparent conviction that I was a child in need of handholding at every turn. Why couldn’t he see that I was a responsible adult, capable of managing my own life?

I never confronted my father directly about my feelings during those calls, but my attitude was undeniably more dismissive than a son should be toward the man who raised him.

At the age of 32, with a mortgage and three kids, I decided to enroll in college. It would take just over three years and four months of year-round schooling to complete my degree, and every month was a challenge. We frequently fell behind on our mortgage payments, and our grocery budget was modest at best.

To my surprise, I discovered that I was a competent student. I consistently made the dean’s list during my first two years of college, maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA. However, if the school had graded me on providing for my family during that time, I would have been on the brink of expulsion throughout my entire academic journey.

Although I needed my father’s help during this challenging period, my newfound independence and pride prevented me from asking. As it turned out, I didn’t need to.

During my early college years, my parents would often show up at our doorstep with bags of groceries in tow. They’d bring whole chickens, ground beef, bacon, eggs, and coffee. After they left, we’d discover numerous cans of fruits and vegetables that my frugal father had purchased on sale—sometimes as cheap as six cans for a dollar.

We were incredibly grateful for their assistance, which came time and time again throughout those years. I have no doubt that my family managed to endure my college years thanks to these generous grocery deliveries. My father once mentioned that he didn’t give me money directly because he knew he could stretch a dollar much further than I could when it came to buying food.

In that regard, I couldn’t agree more.

In the spring of 1994, my father received the devastating diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. The doctors estimated he had about nine months left to live, a prediction that sadly proved accurate.

As he weakened throughout that summer and fall, I juggled a full course load with working as many hours as possible. One of my classes focused on the history of the Great Depression, providing me with an intimate glimpse into the lives of those who endured that bleak and uncertain era.

My father wasn’t one to share much about his childhood, but I knew he never completed school. Fragments of stories about him and his family laboring in the fields daily just to put food on the table would occasionally emerge.

Every Christmas, my father made sure our home was stocked with apples, oranges, and walnuts. He would also purchase unusual, old-fashioned cut rock candy each year—confections that seemed quaint and outdated compared to the Sugar Babies and M&Ms I was accustomed to.

That class brought to mind these holiday traditions and my father’s accounts of his own childhood Christmases. He would often tell my brothers and me that his Christmas gifts typically consisted of an apple or an orange, a few nuts, and some hard candy.

Regrettably, I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of these stories at the time. I dismissed them as mere exaggerations, akin to the “when I was your age, I walked 5 miles to school in knee-deep snow” tales that children often mock.

As my father’s remaining days dwindled, I made a point of spending more time with him, seeking answers to questions about his life that would otherwise remain forever shrouded in mystery.

At some point during that semester, the full weight of my father’s experiences suddenly overwhelmed me. Like the climax of a mystery novel, his words and actions began to make sense. It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, but this revelation came only in the final months of my father’s life.

Occasionally, I would hold my dad’s hand, just as I had when I was a little boy, acutely aware that I would soon lose the opportunity to do so.

My father passed away on January 4, 1995, at the age of 76.

Several months after my father’s passing, I was rearranging the canned goods in our pantry when I came across a can of Popeye brand spinach. As I moved the can to a new spot, I noticed something peculiar on the label, sending a shiver down my spine.

The can must have been part of one of my father’s grocery care packages during my college years, as the word “NEW” was penciled onto the label in his handwriting.

It became clear to me that, even 55 years after the Great Depression had ended, my father had been stockpiling food—just in case.

Reflecting on the past, I’ve come to realize that my father was much like someone who had survived a terrible fire in their youth, left with deep, hidden scars. Though not easily seen, these scars manifested in the cautious, frugal manner in which he lived his life. He avoided spending money whenever possible, opting instead to save and save and save.

I’ve come to understand that despite the creature comforts my siblings and I missed out on while growing up, my father denied himself even more. I recall him heading off to his job as an electrician on cold, rainy days, even when he was ill.

I also remember instances when he sustained injuries at work. On more than one occasion, he severely cut his hand while stripping insulation off electrical wires he was installing. Despite this, he would get his hand stitched up and return to work the very 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 classic 1960s sitcoms like the Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, and the Dick Van Dyke Show 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.

My dad did tell me he loved me on several occasions over the years, but expressing that sentiment through words was not his primary method of communication.

Today, as parents of grown children, my wife and I understand how difficult it is to stop being Mom and Dad just because our kids are adults. It’s simply a continuous way of demonstrating our love for them.

Nowadays, I smile when I think about my dad’s antifreeze calls, and when the weather turns cold in the fall, I almost anticipate the phone ringing again. I would gladly welcome such a call and the opportunity to tell my father, “I get it now, Dad. I get it.”

I know that will never happen, but I keep the spinach can on display in my home where I can see it every day. It serves as a cherished reminder of not just a man, but a family heritage.