He told me stories about growing up poor. I believed him, even the fanciful stories. He rarely showed anyone his morose side, though anyone who really looked at him could see it… they’d be fools if they saw anything else. Even at his angriest, and cruelest, my heart broke for him. Everyone wears scars, and sometimes they open up like burst veins. He wore them like everyone else, sometimes covered up with affection, but they were there. They can’t be unseen once you know they’re there.
“When I was a boy,” he said, “we lived in an old tenement building, down by the Egg River. Now, when I say ‘river’, don’t think Huckleberry Finn river, or trout fishing kind of river. It was murky and gray, and you couldn’t swim in it, or fish. The only time it was close to being pretty was in the winter, when the ice covered it like a white tablecloth. Mostly it stank from run-off from the coal processing plant up in Grande Cache.
“We were poor, and there’s nothing wrong with being poor if you’re strong and have good hands. Grit, that’s the word. Poor people can get by if they have that grit. My own father – Grandpa Hank – had that grit. For awhile. The gin – well, that’s not for now, or maybe ever, you’ll find out for yourself if you’re slanted that way, and I hope you’re not. The point is, if a man has grit, he can be poor but he can still stand. Stand for himself, and for his family. It will wear him down and tear at his heart, but if he’s a good man, he’ll last for as long as he needs to.”
I was in my bed, and there were three blankets piled on top of me, each one more threadbare than the one atop it. He was sitting at the foot of the bed, rubbing his eyes, tired but restless. He wasn’t a talking man, my father, and when he did talk, I listened hard, because it was a gift. His voice was soft, as if he were speaking to himself. He probably was. The warmth of his voice was better than the made-up warmth of the blankets.
“When I was a boy, we lived on side pork and potatoes and cabbage and onions. Sometimes there was meat – scrawny, shoe leather kind of meat. And liver and onions. You could smell the onions clear down the street. But the potatoes…. They were shriveled up and looked like old men.” He laughed, a genuine laugh, like he had just surprised himself. “I haven’t thought about that in years. That’s how I saw them as a boy. All pinched eyes and sunken skin, old grandfather spuds. You could salt them up best you could, but they were lumpy and hard going down. You could mash them up with your fork, roll them a little in the pork grease, and that was a little better. But still….
“One day, Aunt Lou visited us. I don’t remember why, she was someone who always thought she was living in a fairy tale, outside the rules of common courtesy. Her husband worked for a granary, in the office, I think, and they had a bit more money than we did. Anyway, she took us out for a meal at the diner – Westerfield’s Diner, I think it was. Nothing fancy, nothing shiny, but God, it was a treat. Dad grumbled about it, saying it was akin to taking charity, but Mom was stubborn about it and so we went there for a meal. I can’t remember what anyone else ate, but I had a hamburger and a pile of mashed potatoes, and corn. The meat was dripping with grease and ketchup and mustard. And pickle juice! I remember how crunchy the pickle was. It was like caviar to a six-year-old boy. But mostly I remember the big pile of white mashed potatoes. And not powdered, but the real thing. And a big dollop of butter on top!
“And I thought to myself, one day this is all I’m going to eat. I’ll run away and buy a farm, and it will be a famous mashed potato farm. They will grow with pads of butter running right through them. And people will come from miles away and buy great tubs of my potatoes. I’ll have them stacked high in a refrigerated building, and….”
He laughed again, this time it was sadder. I heard the grief. “Six years old, I was – your age – and had these great plans. Not a practical bone in my head. And of course, Aunt Lou left the next day, and we were back to eating boiled cabbage and old man potatoes, and soon I remembered that daydreaming is dangerous business.”
He leaned forward and kissed my forehead. “Daydreaming is dangerous if that’s all you have,” he said. “But if you forge ahead… maybe it’s all right. I don’t know. Poor is still poor, but a man – a boy – should have something inside him to carry on. Remember that, Buddy.”
And I did. I still do.