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I tell this story in memory of my father, Kenneth William Eike, Sr., who died in 1983 when he was 68 and I was 32.
Last year I was telling one of my family stories to a group of third graders. "My parents grew up living in two family homes in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Bridgeport is on Long Island Sound, a very protected part of the Atlantic Ocean. My parents were teenagers when the Depression started." I stopped short and looked into their little faces.
"Do any of you know what the Depression was?"
Stephen tentatively raised his hand. "That's when everyone was poor?"
"Exactly," I replied. "My father often told a story at our dining room table about being 16. That's when his father lost his full-time work and had to take whatever work he could find. Then my father would say, 'So I worked every afternoon at the A&P grocery store boxing up groceries. And because I worked there, I could take home, for free, the stale, day old bread. My family was happy to get that bread.' "
And right away, Stephen looked up into my eyes and said, "Gosh, they were really poor."
And for the very first time in my life, I thought, "Gosh, they really were poor."
Well, I finished that other story for Stephen and the other third graders, but afterward I reflected on this revelation of mine.
My father lectured about the stale bread from the A&P whenever my brother or I had turned up our noses at something my mother was serving for dinner. For me, it was when she served hamburgers without rolls - why couldn't she remember that I only liked hamburgers with rolls? - or when she served boiled potatoes. Mashed potatoes were so much better than boiled potatoes - why didn't she just mash them?
And every time I heard that A&P story, I thought (but never said), "Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever."
But now I was thinking about my 16-year-old father, helping to put food on his family's table every night - what a responsibility! I had never had a job until the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. And that money went towards my college education, not food for us.
Then it occurred to me that this experience must have shaped my father's outlook on life.
He and my mother almost always saved first, then bought something. Well, they did have a mortgage on their first house in Bridgeport, and also on their second house in Fairfield, where they moved in time for my brother to start school. But they always had Christmas Club accounts. They saved for appliances, my mother's good china and their hi-fi, and then they bought them. They paid cash for every car except one, and that was the year they started saving for their children's college educations.
But there was a whole other side of my father which enjoyed spending money, within reason. He enjoyed buying jewelry for my mother and he also bought her a fur scarf, where the head of one mink was biting on to the tail of the next mink. But he never bought her a fur coat. Six months after he died, my mother bought herself one. The first time I saw her wearing it, she declared, "I know your father is rolling over in his grave. But I wanted it, so I bought it."
But my father did enjoy taking us out to eat occasionally to nice restaurants, with tablecloths. We went to the Clam Box for seafood or The Arrow Restaurant for Italian food.
And he had bacon and eggs for breakfast every day with fresh, store-bought bread.
I'm very grateful to Stephen, that third grader, who finally helped me see parts of my father's life through my father's eyes.
Copyright 1999 by Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.