10. Dad’s Five-Dollar Pants

10. Dad’s Five-Dollar Pants

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Dad’s Five-Dollar Pants

Thrift is not an affair of the pocket, but an affair of character.

~S.W. Straus

After I gave Dad his new pants, he inspected the stitching and shoved his hand in the side pocket. “What’d you spend?”

I’d hoped to avoid the money question, and even though I dreaded it might come up, I hadn’t prepared. Instead, I refocused on how skillfully my sister, Susan, had hemmed them. He asked again.

“What’d these cost you?”

I’d hoped to please him, but now I felt anxious. Experience told me that confessing the price would spoil the pleasure of my gift.

I sighed, “Thirty-seven dollars.”

“You paid how much?” Dad shook his head, his pale scalp showing through thinning, white hair. Then he adjusted the prongs of the oxygen tubing in his nostrils and took a big, gasping breath as if the price had sucked the air right out of him.

I’d bought my father two pairs of navy Ben Davis Workwear pants. My sister matched the length against his old, worn slacks and hemmed the new ones, stitching in the one-inch cuff that rode at the bottom of every pant he ever wore. The design contained the qualities he valued: sturdy fabric, comfortable waist, center crease down the leg and large side pockets. It didn’t matter that I paid for them. Dad never distinguished between my right as a forty-five-year-old to waste my money and his determination to never let go of his.

In Dad’s view, I spend too much for everything: cars, since he never paid over $8,000 for one; meals, since there is no reason to eat fancy when a smorgasbord fills you up; sweaters—he exchanged the sixty-dollar wool sweater I bought him for Christmas for two polyester ones, a package of cotton hankies, and a pair of socks—and that’s only because I paid with a credit card and he couldn’t get cash.

Mom use to say that Dad had “a pathological relationship with the dollar.” She often told the story about one of their first dates when, in 1949, she told him she wanted to see the lights of Yankee Stadium. She hoped Dad would take her to a baseball game. Instead, one evening, he drove her to the Bronx.

“There are the lights of Yankee Stadium,” Dad said, pointing into the twilight.

Mom peered out the window and asked, “Where?” He pointed again and she got a glimpse of the stadium’s bright glow.

Dad proudly called himself a cheapskate.

He budgeted using “the envelope system,” whereby he placed a specific amount of money for each of our expenses into a designated envelope labeled: Rent, Food, Clothes, Electric Bill…. These included two envelopes with a weekly allowance of five dollars, one for him and one for Mom. By 1999, Mom’s allowance had increased to twenty dollars.

After Mom died, Dad moved in with my family. He was seventy-four. As I unpacked his clothes, I realized that his old pants were frayed at the cuffs and the pockets torn, but he clung to these clothes like a security blanket. The longer he lived, the more he looked like a raggedy old man. I wanted to spruce him up.

Now, sitting with him in his bedroom, I didn’t know how to fix the price problem with the pants. After all, this had been a lifelong dilemma for me.

Mom tried to teach me how to handle it. I remember being five years old and getting new black-and-white saddle shoes. “If Daddy asks how much your shoes cost, they cost a dollar,” Mom said.

She didn’t take a chance on my uttering a convincing fib. I’d proven too honest even back then. Carrying the purchases into our apartment she walked swiftly past Dad.

“Cost just a dollar,” Mom announced.

Dad sat at our kitchen table rewiring a lamp. By the time he looked up from his work, Mom had sped into the bedroom and I was left standing there alone in front of my father trying to hide my feet.

Back then, many items cost only a dollar: dresses, raincoats and winter boots. Slips, socks, and hairbrushes cost fifty cents. Wool sweaters were a bargain at two dollars. The floor-length, gray wool coat I got in the eighth grade cost just five dollars.

“George,” Mom said, “There was a sale on coats. Five dollars.”

That was the last price hike Dad suffered. After that, everything cost five dollars.

I never understood why Dad didn’t ask Mom for receipts. Once I witnessed her crumple up a receipt and toss it in the curbside garbage can. And Dad seemed satisfied with the remarkable bargains Mom found.

One day Mom handed the sales clerk several twenty-dollar bills, and directed me, “Tell your father we spent ten dollars.”

“But all this didn’t cost ten dollars.”

“I’m not going to count pennies,” she said. “Just help me keep him happy.”

Mom knew about pinching pennies. Her father stoked greenhouse fires in the winter and tended plants all year long. This provided less money than her family needed. They survived the Depression eating scrambled eggs mixed with onions and potatoes, and buying their shoes secondhand and stuffing the insides with newspapers. Neither of them made a lot of money as factory workers, but Mom swore off poverty and spoke proudly about being able to buy us new shoes.

It’s not that Dad never bought anything. He read Consumer Reports, compared features and prices, and then purchased big-ticket items: cars, lawn mowers, refrigerators, washers and dryers. If Dad had to spend money on something, he expected it to outlive him. The avocado clothes dryer he bought when I was fourteen still worked thirty-one years later. When he moved into my home, he offered to give it to me.

Holding the pants I’d bought him, Dad leaned toward me, “You couldn’t find anything for five dollars?”

I never could lie. Mom’s strategy didn’t work for me, and I didn’t want to placate Dad by fabricating a more comfortable truth. So I just said it. “Pants don’t cost five dollars.”

He shook his head and looked down.

How could I meet this impossible expectation?

“Mom told you everything cost five dollars so that you wouldn’t argue about money.”

Dad flipped the pant legs over and looked me in my eyes. “No. She didn’t.”

I could see it in his face. Mom never told Dad a lie that he didn’t expect her to tell. He grabbed the cuff of the pants and rubbed it between his index finger and thumb. “Susan did a nice job hemming these. Too bad about the price.”

I sat there, knowing we had a values conflict. I valued the truth. Dad valued the comfort of relationship on his own terms. Mom had met his expectations. There was only one way I could satisfy us both.

“Sorry. I’m just not the shopper Mom was,” I said.

My father locked eyes with me. “No, you’re not.”

The truth ended it. Mine and his.

But would he wear the pants? I needed to know, so I asked him.

Dad patted the pants softly with his palm like I’d seen him pet our puppy.

“Sure I’ll wear them. Why wouldn’t I?”

~Patricia Ljutic

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