Posted in this&that

Childhood lessons: Doing dishes and pinching pennies

What I knew about dads when I was a kid was that they were supposed to come home from work every day, kiss the wife, hug the kids, read the paper, smoke a pipe, and dish out advice. (I watched a lot of “Father Knows Best”.) My dad came home from work. There all similarities ended.

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Mom ruled the roost. She scolded, punished, assigned chores, cared for us, told us what to do, read to us, established rules and enforced them, met with our teachers, cooked, baked, ironed, cleaned and made all the decisions. Except regarding money.

My dad, a child of the depression and the original penny-pincher, often told us how he had sometimes survived on bread soaked in milk as a kid. In our house he handled the money. In his mind there was never enough and we were all too frivolous. Nightly, we did the dishes as a family—my sister and I fighting the whole time. Dad would empty his and mom’s wallets on the sink nearby and count all the money. Down to the penny. He then accounted for every cent spent that day.

If my mom was three cents short of balancing, he would grill her until she remembered where the three cents had gone. Every single night of my childhood. I think he’s still doing it today with his second wife because she told my sister once that dad was really stingy and wouldn’t let her buy anything that didn’t come from Goodwill.

In those days we had three homemade dresses each while most kids had store bought. It’s as if my dad believed he was still living in the days of the depression and that buying school clothes and shoes was unnecessary and would send us to the poorhouse.

It was during these nightly accounting sessions, likely, that I developed the sour taste I have about money and finances today. I still believe if you have it spend it, share it, enjoy it, and if you don’t, oh well, it’ll come around again. And, that, except for the fact that I can give myself a pretty nasty stomach ache worrying when there isn’t enough money, is pretty much how I deal with it. I’ll die poor. Maybe even with a shopping cart. I guess it might be the one thing to make me finally move someplace like Arizona. The nights are warmer. (I’ll have to migrate, like a bird, though, because summer there would kill me.)

Libby and I fought like crazy during nightly dish washing. It was a great diversion from the quiet little battle going on between my mom and dad. And, during those times we each developed certain traits that have stayed with us forever.

I always had to wash because, well, frankly, my sister couldn’t get a dish clean if she tried. And, honestly? I don’t think she ever did. Try, I mean. She hated doing dishes as much as I did.

That’s when she began her subtle little game of doing things poorly if she really didn’t want to do them at all. When she washed I had to return every other dish because it was still dirty (and, of course, complain loudly to my mother). Libby always had an excuse, usually “my hair is in my eyes and I can’t see!”

Finally once, while cajoling dad, listening to me complain about the dirty dishes, and tying Libby’s hair out of her eyes for the umpteenth time, my mom gave up and told me to wash from then on. Score one for Libby.

What I learned during those times was to have a dishwasher and a husband who actually enjoys putting dishes away, to hate money, and to do a crappy job at anything you didn’t want to do so someone else had to do it.

Underlying all the mess, I also learned to be a righteous Miss Goodie Two-Shoes and my little sister learned to withdraw, shut down. She, I’m sure, simply didn’t hear what went on, at least no more than she had to. A vacant stare and occasional smile and nod while she dried the dishes and put them away seemed to keep her just out of reach of the chaos. I wonder what song she was singing or what place she was “visiting” while everyone stewed around her?

I still wonder sometimes today where she goes in her head; she just seems to detach. Visibly not much touches her. And, I envy her that ability sometimes. If she’s a model of self-preservation, I’m a walking, bleeding, open sore. I’d rather do it her way.

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I'm a writer making my way through life and offering observations as I go. Old enough to know better but that doesn't stop me.

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