March 17, 2014
Our youngest, Luke, has become fascinated recently with “anime”, the Japanese style of animation. This interest has stimulated an intense desire to tour Japan in the near future, and he’s peppered me with repeated requests to this end for the past couple of weeks (“Dad, can we go to Japan?? When??”), as if it were as simple as taking a quick jaunt to visit COSI or the Cincinnati Zoo. I do not share Luke’s enthusiasm for such a trip, nor do we have the money or the time necessary to pull it off, so I have held him at bay with every parent’s responsorial ace-in-the-hole: “I’ll think about it, Luke. We’ll see.”
It was with a mixture of relief and curiosity, therefore, that I overheard a brief and related exchange he initiated with his mother a few nights ago.
“Mom, I want to go to Japan someday,” Luke began.
“Really?! You know it costs a lot of money to go to Japan,” Krista said. “Farmor and farfar [my parents; this is Norwegian for “father’s mother” and “father’s father”] have been there, ‘cause they’re rich.”
“How did farfar and farmor get so wealthy?” he inquired.
“They deprived their children terribly and saved all their money to spend on themselves when they got older,” Krista replied. I nearly spat out my drink at that one.
If there’s ever been a narrative handed down from generation to generation, this is it: “You kids don’t know how great you have it. Why, back in my day….” I admit to using it myself from time to time, though feebly: “Quit complaining about having to ride the school bus! Where I grew up we didn’t have school buses [true, by the way]. We walked to school every morning and walked home every afternoon.” Or “get off your duff and get the remote control yourself. When I was a boy we had to—imagine this!!—change the channels with our own hands! And we only had three channels to choose from!” The latter usually elicits gasps of horror from the amigos.
In any event, I shared the Luke-Krista exchange on Facebook, thinking some friends and family would find it mildly humorous. What I foolishly failed to consider, however, was that it would wend its way to my father, who over the years has demonstrated a gift for taking the “poor, poor pitiful me” narrative to dizzying heights. I recall tales of his having to wear deracinated tennis shoes, stuffed with newspaper (“for cushion!”) and held together with duct tape, through the bitter Pittsburgh winters, of eating watered-down ketchup for supper, and of walking for miles to the banks of the Monongahela River to draw water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. I once repeated these stories to my paternal grandmother who laughed so hard I thought she was going to have a coronary on the spot.
When I received his email the next day, Subject Line “Childhood Deprivation”, I braced myself. While proud that he and mom had been singled out as the source of my childhood hardships, he felt compelled to point out—again—how my privations paled in comparison to his. Since he’s a pretty linear-thought-process-kind-of-guy, the entire contents of his message were arranged numerically:
“1. If you think you had it bad you should have grown up during the depression. All I got for birthdays and Christmas was underwear and socks. The only place we went was to visit grandparents.
2. I raised you deprived so you would be careful with money and be motivated to escape poverty. [At least he admitted my sisters and I had been in poverty.]
3. If Greenville, Southport (NC), Newport (NC), Georgetown (KY), and Lafayette (IN) [where my sisters live currently] don’t have it you can get along without it.
4. If you didn’t like it, why did you choose me to be your father?”
My response went something like this: “Dear Dad: (1) No arguments there, and this explains why you always looked less than thrilled in those pictures taken on your birthday or at Christmas; (2) Thank you. It worked pretty well; (3) Amen, though personally I think Greenville could benefit from a Target store and maybe an Outback Steakhouse; (4) Who says I didn’t like it? More later. Gotta run to the Greenville Creek to get some bathwater for the kids. Love, Tim”.
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.