Scenes from a Life: Trying Parents

My parents were WWII kids, literally and culturally. My dad was the only child of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. My mom was one of six children of an English country vicar; she still remembers rationing and the Blitz. Both were raised, an ocean apart, with thriftiness that even Mr. Scrooge could applaud. When they joined forces as parents, they were careful with money to the point that they could afford to send the four of us kids through private school and private college without any debt. They valued funding our education over transient and optional pleasures that other people in their bracket took for granted—eating out, buying new clothes, girls’ haircuts, manicures, etc. If we ever splurged on pizza, we skipped the pepperoni because that was an extra dollar fifty. At most, we had fast food once a month. If we bought soda, it was store brand. If we bought clothes, it was at JC Penney, not Nordstrom. Mom packed five brown bag lunches every day before she sent us out the door. She even cut my fourteen cent Hostess apple pies in half so they’d last for two days.

This relentless parsimony set us a great example, of course, and ultimately gave each of us the greater gift of debt-free education. There’s no doubt, however, that their frugality made it harder for me to blend in as an ordinary teenager.

Unfortunately our private school had no uniform. While I bought into the principles and values that my parents lived by, that didn’t make it any easier to get through eighth grade with two pairs of pants, one skirt, two white tops, two print blouses, and two pairs of shoes. Theoretically, according to the mix-and-match plan, that would be 3x4x2 = 24 options. But the pants were those 1975 favorites rust and burgundy. The print blouses were identical except that one went with the rust pants and one with the burgundy, effectively ruling each other out, the blue knee skirt only went with the short-sleeved or long-sleeved white top, and you couldn’t wear a skirt with knock-off wallabies. So in effect, ignoring shoes, there were eight top/bottom combinations. With careful rotation planning and cooperation of the southern California climate, I could go a week and a half without repeating. At some point, my parents may have intuited from my wistful remarks about classmates having $300 a season clothing allowances that I was feeling a little shabby by comparison.

I suppose this was the year they realized they had a teenaged daughter, because they tried in small ways to be more “with it.” My school used to hold a traditional fund raising luncheon fashion show with Sacks Fifth Avenue using kids and moms as models, and somehow I was included in the group. I graced the runway in a light blue knit pair of pants with a knit picture vest. It was kind of cheesy and matchy-matchy, but what did I know? Come Christmas, I opened a large box and found, much to my surprise, that my parents had purchased the outfit I’d worn. Their expectant grins said it all. The ensemble was undeniably dorky, but hey, that increased my combinations to eleven. And there was another surprise under the tree. Even though they deplored anything except classical music, that same Christmas, there was David Cassidy’s Cherish album, about three years past his sell-by date. “We know you like his TV show,” they said.

I smiled and appreciated that they were trying. And I knew they cherished me.