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Oregon Family Magazine

Dad Was Funny About Money

05/28/2010 ● By Anonymous
“Daddy, why did the lady give you money?” asked my daughter Marie back when she was 5. We had just crossed a toll bridge and Marie was trying to make sense of the transaction at the booth.

I would’ve liked to answer: “Don’t you know? THIS is where money comes from. Whenever grownups run low on money, they just drive to this bridge, put out a hand and one of those people fills it with money. Is this a wonderful world or what?”

My real answer was factual. I am too much my father’s son to be silly about money. His credo was work hard, spend wisely, and save the rest. Buy a lottery ticket? He would just as soon try to steal a suitcase full of cocaine from Colombian drug lords.

As Father’s Day approaches, I’d like to propose a toast to the man who taught me the value of a dollar and, inadvertently, the value of words. His financial training was fairly simple: Whenever I’d been extravagant, he’d say: “It must be nice to have a rich father.” His remark contained the whole Ted Epstein saga. If he had stated it directly, it would’ve gone like this: My parents were poor immigrants. We sweated blood every day in our luncheonette and lived in a tiny apartment. I never had money to squander the way you are squandering mine. I worked hard and concentrated on my studies. I served eight years in the Army and almost as many in college, and I’ve been busting my hump at a demanding job ever since. All to produce the disappointing result we see here – spoiled sons who take the fruit of that struggle and throw it away on tacky plastic streamers to attach to their handlebars. I only WISH I had that kind of economic setup, except that I would’ve had the strength of character to save that money for college rather than fritter it away on ephemera (short-lived stuff) and frippery (cheap finery). (These are the kind of words that Dad used all the time.)

Of course Dad didn’t SAY all this; it was just THERE, rolled up inside the “rich father” remark, like tape inside an old videocassette. One minute I’d be standing in the driveway jazzing-up my bike, doing my own small bit to make the world a more beautiful place, and the next I’d be clobbered with Dad’s version of “Godfather II,” prolonged sepia-toned flashbacks and all, condensed into that one ironic sentence.

Then Dad would go read his newspaper (and maybe garner additional cool words), and I’d continue attaching the streamers, aware that I’d made a foolish purchase.

But on another level I would be thinking: “Y’know, it IS nice to have a rich father.” We had a big house, steak for dinner, ample allowances, and had been promised a free ticket to whichever college we could squeak into. But my brothers and I wished we had an even-richer father so we could have servants, horses, vacations on the French Riviera, and silver-fox tails for our bikes.

My big brother Steve, like many firstborns, felt deep down that he was royalty who had been temporarily hidden among commoners. For Steve, mere riches would not suffice; he wanted a throne, a crown and groveling subjects. Whenever his arrogance showed, Dad would accuse him of being “born to the Purple.” So while Prince Steven waited for his real parents to send for him, little brother Jim and I waited for Dad to show a little more ambition and boost us into the upper crust.

But Dad was looking downward instead of upward. “Come here,” he said one day, inviting me into a bathroom. “See that?” he asked, pointing to the sink where a thin stream of water flowed from the faucet. “That’s MONEY going down the drain.” Dad was best with irony, but he was no slouch with metaphor.

Electricity was another sore point. Every evening, Dad would quietly patrol the house turning off lights in unoccupied rooms. But when he was off-duty, away at a meeting or a viewing, he’d come home to find, as he put it, “every light in the house BLAZING!” I got the point, of course, but I liked the exciting verb; it made me feel like we were in a palace that was brilliantly illuminated with candles and torches, ready for Steve’s coronation or something.

Although Dad’s frugality eventually soaked in, I also developed an appreciation of the off-beat expressiveness of his speech and also a general love of language. Working for a newspaper, I make my living with words and, although I don’t make nearly as much money as my dad used to, we’re doing OK.

Now I have three kids of my own who spend my money like sailors in port and who loll about like guests of honor at The Festival of Running Water and Eternal Light. And I say the same corrective things to them that my dad used to say to me in hopes that they’ll absorb the concepts in time to instruct my grandchildren. But I have held one thing back: I never tell them how nice it was to have a rich father.

Rick can be reached at [email protected]