Biff America: Pie and perspective
He was in his 80s and lived on a fixed income. His wife of a half-century was five years gone. He was born in 1909 to a family of five boys and one sister during a time when contentment was judged by the amount of food on the table.
He was always a saver. When he was 22 years old, during the height of the depression, he gave his family $1,000 (a phenomenal amount of money in those days) to keep the bank from foreclosing on their home. He saved that money during 13 years of menial jobs. He was considered frugal in an era when frugality was a way of life.
Even after he achieved a degree of financial comfort, he continued on his course of fiscal conservatism. My siblings and I would cringe when he would regale us with tales of woe regarding lunches of lard and sugar on stale bread and cold winters with little coal. We laughed privately at his admonishments to take only two-minute showers and use both sides of the toilet paper.
My mum would say, “Your dad wouldn’t pay a dime to see Jesus ride a bicycle.”
I began working when I was 13 so as to not have to argue when I wanted to buy a leather jacket, gravity knife or other adolescence necessities. Each new purchase would be met with an observation such as, “Twenty dollars for a pair of sneakers? When I was a boy, our family had only one pair of shoes for the six of us to share. It was 12 days before I got to wear the left one.” (He wasn’t afraid to exaggerate to make a point.)
I will say, he was true to his word of not forbidding me to spend my earned cash any way that I chose. He did strongly encourage me to save some.
“You might want to put some cash aside for college,” he’d caution, “just in case they don’t have one in your prison.” (Though cheap, he always had a sense of humor.)
I left home at age 18, not for college or prison, but for Cape Cod and Colorado. It wasn’t until I was truly on my own that I understood the truth in his many budgetary cliches. His overused sayings like, “Take care of your pennies; the dollars will look after themselves” began to make sense. I would quote that credo to my roommates whose rent I’d have to cover and get reimbursed over the month. It was then that one of my worst fears became reality: I was turning into my father.
Even in his 80s, my father was still good company. I’d visit as often as possible, especially after Mum passed, and he was living alone. We’d pass the time playing cribbage, eating processed food and watching television. He had the short-term memory of a pot grower, but he still had a vivid recollection of seven decades past. He could glance at a cribbage hand and tell you the score without counting.
His diet drove my sisters crazy. In addition to an occasional sampling of beer and Jim Beam, he’d eat cold cereal for dinner and pie for breakfast. “What’s it gonna do, kill me?”
We’d be enjoying a breakfast of instant coffee and Frosted Flakes cereal, and he’d look up with watery eyes that gleamed and say, “Let’s go buy some pie.”
There were several bakeries close by, but he’d travel to the next town to buy his rhubarb pie from a plump woman named Angie. “Never buy pie from a skinny girl,” he said. “That’s like taking dance lessons from a gal with a wooden leg.” My old man was born before they invented sensitivity.
“Be careful with that pie; it cost $7,” my dad cautioned.
It was about three minutes after he issued that warning that I dropped the pie on our front steps. I was trying to unlock the front door while at the same time keeping the screen open with my hip. The rhubarb pie lay on the bricks in a bloody heap. I felt sick. I looked at my father and saw him laughing.
“Remind me not to let you be one of my pallbearers,” he said.
In his 70s, he would have been upset, in his 50s, angry. Back then, we simply jumped back into his car and drove back to Angie’s.
It’s funny how age alters priorities. A karmic payback for stiff joints and diminished hearing, vision and circulation comes with an enlightened perspective. Pastries can be replaced, but time lost to regret can never be recaptured.
My old man lived to be 90, and he ate pie for breakfast until the end.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron has worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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