Father takes over the family’s grocery purchases — does Father really know best?
From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1952 –
Father Was a Good Provider
By Inez Bagnell
I knew the groceries had arrived because the delivery truck backed out of the driveway just as Mom and I came hurrying up the walk. Mom was limping a little as those comfortable shoes Father had bought her had been pinching her feet all afternoon while we shopped.
“I’ll get these shoes off, and we’ll hurry dinner, Elizabeth,” said Mom. With one shoe in her hand, she stopped at the kitchen door.
Father was already home from his law office and was acting queer. He was holding a bottle of large ripe olives up in front of him and it looked like those olives were on trial for their lives.
“Olives!” he said, “extra large fancy jumbo! I suppose that refers to the price.”
He pawed through the grocery box and came up with both hands full of canned goods.
“There was a time when women were ashamed to feed their families out of a tin can,” he said. “I can remember back when paper sacks and tin cans were considered sufficient grounds for divorce. What in tarnation is gelatin? And nuts, dates, vanilla, whipping cream! What am I doing, feeding my family or running a French pastry establishment?”
“I’m having some of the ladies in tomorrow,” said Mom.
“You mean you aren’t going to make another date cake?”
Mom laughed. “Some lawyer you turned out to be, Roger, dear. You just defeated your own argument. Case dismissed. The defense is going to rest. And I do mean rest!” Mom sank into a chair and pulled off her other shoe.
“Hand me that blue can of stuff, Roger. That’s one thing you can’t call an extravagance. It’s a can of foot balm and I’m going to rub it on my blisters.”
Father had picked up her shoes and was holding them up in the air admiring them, so I handed her the foot balm. “A nice looking pair of shoes,” he said, “even if I did pick them out myself. They look sensible and comfortable, like shoes were meant to look.”
“They pinch,” said Mom.
“Women always buy such silly shoes. They forget that fundamentally shoes were intended for walking, so they go hobbling and teetering all over the streets. There was a lady in the shoe store with feet about the same size as yours, and she tried them on for me and said they were very comfortable.”
“As a general rule, I prefer my shoes bought to fit my own feet,” Mom said darkly.
By then she had her stockings off and Father sucked in his breath as he saw the big red blisters on her toes. “Elizabeth, get the iodine and some bandage, quick!”
Father told Mom to sit and rest, and he broiled steaks and lectured her. “I tell you, Grace, the trouble with the world today is too many flummy-diddles, too much folderol. Every day the courts are full of divorces, and do you know what causes them?” He waggled his finger under Mom’s nose. “People are helpless and extravagant. They have to have everything done for them!”
He grabbed a knife and started to cut himself a slice of the big chocolate cake. He stopped with the knife in midair. “I see you got this at the bakery. Nowadays, women miss all the thrill of cooking.” He started to cut the cake.
“Put the lid back,” said Mom. “I’ll feed it to the birds.”
Father hummed as he cut the cake. He put the steak on a platter, added a can of mushrooms and a bottle of catsup. He opened the olives and helped himself to six just like they had never been on trial.
“Grace,” he asked, “did I ever tell you about when our family used to live on the ranch? We used to buy everything in quantity. We’d only go to the store about once a month and we ate like kings for practically nothing.”
For dessert Mom took a tray of pink pistachio nut ice cream out of the refrigerator.
Father had eaten about half his dish before he thought of something. “My mother used to have great sport freezing ice cream. Women now are missing all the fun.”
“Roger Henderson,” Mom said, “do you mean to tell me that you would enjoy that ice cream more if you knew that I personally chased the cow down and got the cream and shinnied up a tree to hunt for pistachio nuts and cracked ice from the river to put in the freezer and turned it by hand for hours? Do you?”
Father just smiled, and Mom jumped up and started on the dishes.
“Father said he’d do the dishes, remember?” I said.
“Elizabeth, do the dishes,” he said. “Your mother’s tired.”
“Never mind,” said Mom. “It isn’t like I had to build a bonfire and heat water from the creek to do them. All I have to do is put them in my modern labor-saving, thrill-killing, divorce-provocating electric dish washer. My, I’m almost ashamed to be getting them done so easily.”
Father went in the front room to read the paper.
“Mom,” I said, “are we awfully poor, or is Father stingy?”
“No, Elizabeth, your father is very generous. It’s just that he gets these streaks and he can’t forget that they did things differently on the ranch. He worries about all the trouble he sees in the courts, and since he can’t do much about the whole world, he starts in on us here at home.”
When we went in the living room Father had those shoes of Mom’s looking at them again. “Remind me to pick up some mutton tallow tomorrow, and I’ll rub it into these for you. Mother always rubbed mutton tallow into our shoes to preserve the leather. Say, you must have walked all over town today to get those blisters.”
“We hunted material for Elizabeth’s dance costume,” said Mom.
“She ought to be learning something useful,” said Father.
“Maybe we could apprentice her out to learn a trade,” Mom said.
“No one would have her. She’s too spoiled,” said Father. “Girls nowadays aren’t taught to do anything useful or to take any responsibilities. Then, when they get married and find out there isn’t a money tree out in the back yard, they run home to Mama and get a divorce. I want Elizabeth taught the responsibilities of life.” He was waggling his finger at Mom’s nose again. “I want her to learn that she can’t leave her husband and run home to us the first little thing she doesn’t like.”
I began to cry. “I don’t want to have a marriage and a divorce yet. I’m only ten. Why can’t I just live here like I am?” I ran and threw myself on the couch, sobbing loudly.
Father ran over and picked me up in his arms and started cuddling me. “There, there, don’t cry. Grace, how many times have we agreed that we must be careful what we say in front of our child? After all, she’s only a baby.”
The next morning at breakfast Father had news for me. “Your mother has asked me to take over the buying for the house for her,” he said. “You’ll soon see a change around here. You won’t see me running to the store every five minutes to bring back a quarter’s worth of potatoes. I’ll buy in bulk. Did I ever tell you about when we lived on the ranch?”
“Yes,” Mom said quickly. “You ate beans by the peck. And you always ate by candlelight. It was romantic.”
“Yes,” said Father. “And my father taught all his boys to eat well, work hard, and to stand on their own two feet.”
“Isn’t Uncle Eddie your father’s boy?” I asked.
“Of course he is. Why?”
“Does he stand on his own feet? I’ve heard you tell Mom he leans on you and borrows money from you, and never pays it back and just comes to see you to eat your chocolates and borrow things …”
“Elizabeth! Hush this instant!” said Father.
“That’s what you say,” I said. “You say he mooches, and Aunt Marie feels sorry for herself, and you’re tired of loaning …”
“Elizabeth, in the future please pay more attention to your own affairs and not to things that don’t concern you.”
“Shall I make out a grocery list each day?” asked Mom.
Father laughed. “No, that isn’t the way I’ll do it. I’ll only go to the store about every two weeks.”
The last time Father went on a food buying fling he bought eleven bushels of over-ripe peaches from a fruit peddler. Mom canned them, dried, jammed, and preserved them. We still have scads of peach preserves in the basement, but for some reason we don’t like them.
Toward evening Father’s provisions began arriving. There were cases of milk, sacks of flour and potatoes, five hundred pound of sugar, and a gunny sack full of red beans. That night he came up on the back porch staggering under what turned out to be a quarter of beef. He dropped it down. “I wonder if I can carry in the rest of it.”
“The rest?” asked Mom. “You mean there’s more?”
“Yes,” replied Father. “I bought a whole beef. The farmer I got it from said he had to kill the whole thing at once.”
“We’ll have to buy one of those home freezers, won’t we?”
“On the ranch my mother used to take what we couldn’t use up and fry it, put it in a barrel and pour grease over it.”
“We’ll get a home freezer.” Mom sounded like it wouldn’t pay to trifle with her.
“Okay. Okay,” said Father. “I’ll see to it. But that’s the trouble with women nowadays. Lost all their pioneer spirit.”
The next day we were delivered a new home freezer, and a man came and cut the meat all up and wrapped it.
Father came home happy again that night. He had a big wooden barrel and several sacks of cabbage. “I’m going to make a barrel of sauerkraut like Father used to,” he said. “Yum, yum!”
They sliced cabbage on the back porch all evening and dumped it in the barrel. “Is that all you do to it?” Mom asked.
“Yes, as I recall, it just has to sour and start working.”
“I hope you recall correctly,” said Mom. “That’s fifty cabbages.”
The meals didn’t really get bad for several days because Mom had some things on hand. But we were always out of something and Father never bought such unnecessary items as nuts, dates, vegetables, or green stuff. Just plenty of meat, potatoes, and beans.
A few days later he brought home a whole pork.
“A whole pork?” asked Mom.
“Yes,” said Father. “I asked the farmer if he wouldn’t kill just a ham and a slab of bacon, but he was a stubborn fellow. I’m going to home-cure it like father used to do. I’ll rub it with salt and wrap it up and put it in one of those drawers on the porch.”
“While you’re out there, take a look at that sauerkraut.”
Father took the lid off the barrel and sniffed. “It’s coming fine. It’s just starting to season.”
“I didn’t know there was a season in the world that smelled like that,” was Mom’s answer.
The next day Mom kept taking the lid off the sauerkraut barrel, then putting it back quick. “Fifty cabbages at thirty cents each,” she said. “No wonder it smells so rich.”
For dinner that night we had roast beef, potatoes, and beans, and for dessert, peach preserves. The next night we had the same thing. Then Father went out on the porch to look at his pork.
“It smells funny,” said Mom.
“It’s starting to season. I’ll rub more salt on it.”
“While you’re out there look at the sauerkraut,” said Mom.
Father looked at the sauerkraut and it was growing whiskers. “It doesn’t look quite right,” he said. “I’ll just skim the top wave off.” He skimmed the top wave off the sauerkraut and took it out back of the garage and buried it.
The next night at dinner Mom said, “Roger, aren’t you a little tired of this meal? Wouldn’t you rather I’d take the shopping back? I know you’re terribly busy.”
“What’s the matter with this meal?” he inquired. “There are plenty of families in the world who would be glad to have a meal like this. I love peach preserves.” He ate a very small spoonful.
That night he rubbed more salt on the pork. The sauerkraut had grown more whiskers, so he buried another wave of it behind the garage. “Those cabbages must have been frostbitten,” he said.
The next morning Father said, “Grace, on second thought, I’m so busy, maybe you should make me a list of the things we need each week. I’ll shop once a week.”
All day long whenever Mom thought of something she’d write it down till the list covered a whole page. The next morning when she handed it to Father he made a snorting noise. “I can see there are a lot of unnecessary items on here,” he said.
Mother was hopping mad when she unpacked the groceries that afternoon. “Elizabeth, guess what we’re having for dinner? We’re having beef, potatoes, beans, and peach preserves. Your father has crossed everything else I ordered off the list.”
Just then the phone rang. “Why, hello, Eddie, how nice,” Mom said. “You and Marie be sure to come and have dinner with us.”
Mom started to smile and hurry around and plan. Then she stopped smiling, got a pencil and made a list. “Come on, we’re going to the store. If your Uncle Eddie and Aunt Marie ate what we’ve been eating I’d be embarrassed to death.”
We went out on the back porch and started for the door. But Mom turned her ankle on a gunny sack full of rice and almost fell down. She sat down and rubbed her ankle.
“Rice!” she yelled. “A whole hundred pound sack of rice, but I can’t have one small can of baking powder.” She stood there hesitating. “Well, come on,” she said.
Outside, we saw Sandy, the neighbor’s cocker spaniel, and two other dogs dragging something out from behind the garage. It looked like a ham, only I’d never seen green ham before.
“That looks like your father’s pork,” Mom said. “I wonder …”
We went out on the porch and looked in the drawers and they were empty, except for a bad smell.
“I knew Father was burying something last night,” I said, “but I thought it was just another wave off the sauerkraut.”
Mom went back in the house and took off her coat. “What’s good enough for us ought to be good enough for them,” she decided.
She cooked dinner and set the table with some long candles. Then she put on those home comfort shoes that pinched, and limped down to the basement. I saw her take the fuse plugs out of the light meter and put them in her dress pocket.
Father, Uncle Eddie, and Aunt Marie came before it was dark. Uncle Eddie and Father sat on the porch and talked and I sat and listened. Uncle Eddie told Father about an idea he had to make molasses out of sawdust and how much capital he had to scare up. So I went in the house to show Aunt Marie my new dance costume. Father and Uncle Eddie followed me in.
“I guess I won’t be able to wear the costume much,” I said. “Father wants me to quit dancing and learn a trade.”
“Well, that wasn’t exactly what I meant,” said Father.
Then I saw Aunt Marie look down at Mom’s shoes. Uncle Eddie looked at them, too, and then they looked at each other.
Soon Uncle Eddie began hunting for Father’s chocolates. He found one and sniffed at it. “Why, these are no better than the brand I buy.”
Father looked apologetic. Mom put on the stewed meat and stuff. It didn’t look very fancy. Uncle Eddie and Aunt Marie looked funny at each other some more.
“How is the law profession lately?” asked Uncle Eddie.
“Fine. Busier than ever.”
“I always knew there’d be a slump in the law business.”
“Well, there isn’t,” denied Father. “Say, turn on the lights. It’s getting dark in here.”
Mom jumped up and lighted the candles.
“I still can’t find my beans,” complained Father.
“I thought you liked candlelight,” said Mom.
“It’s all right but we need a little more of it.” He got up and clicked the light switch. He tried the kitchen light. “Phone the power company and tell them to come and fix our lights.”
“I heard about some people who didn’t pay their light bill,” I said. “The company came and turned their lights off.”
Father glared at me. “I always pay my light bill.”
“Anyone might forget to pay their bill,” said Aunt Marie.
“I said my light bill was paid.” Father sounded cross.
“Okay,” said Uncle Eddie. “It’s a good story, so stick to it.”
Father opened his mouth twice, but no sound came out.
“Lots of families are economizing these days,” suggested Aunt Marie.
Uncle Eddie speared a piece of beef on his fork. “Personally, I have always preferred plain, cheap food.”
“If you are referring to that piece of beef,” Father yelled, “let me inform you that the critter cost me something over three hundred dollars all told. And we are not economizing. This month I have spent seven hundred dollars for groceries.”
Uncle Eddie shook his head sadly. Even I could see he and Aunt Marie were pitying Father.
They didn’t stay long after dinner. Uncle Eddie said he had to hurry and see a man about a proposition. Father followed them out on the porch to say goodbye. He came back in looking stunned. He sat down and turned a ten-dollar bill over and over in his hand.
“Grace,” he exploded, “he actually gave me ten dollars on what he owes me and said if I ever needed anything to call on him. He didn’t even ask me to loan him money. What’s my money good for, if not to help my family when they need it?”
He jumped to his feet. “Grace, do you think he actually thought we were down to bedrock? What could have given him that impression?
Mom hurried into the kitchen to clean up dishes in the dark, and Father paced around the living room like a caged lion. After a while he came in the kitchen and held out his hand. “I begin to catch on,” he said. “Give me the fuses. I saw them in your apron pocket. I have been framed.”
Mom gave them to him and he went down in the basement. She sighed with relief and turned on the electric dish washer. Soon we heard him chuckling to himself in the living room, so Mom and I went in.
“Is something funny?” she asked.
“Grace, I’ve just decided what’s the matter with the world.”
“Yes?” asked Mom cautiously.
“Yes,” Father repeated, “too many people get to thinking that money is the most valuable thing in life. They try to scrimp and save it. Grace, money should be used to purchase the comforts and pleasures of life it is possible to buy. What other earthly good is the stuff? Can you tell me?”
Mom blinked. “You’ll have to wait for me,” she remarked. “I followed, but from a distance.”
“If men would quit being so stingy there wouldn’t be so many poor little helpless women cluttering up the divorce courts.”
Father had a dewy look around the eyes. “For what other reason would a man work and slave except to provide a few comforts for the ones he loves?” He reached down to pull Mom to him and I got in the middle. He looked down at me.
“Elizabeth, run down to the drugstore and buy two quarts of pink pistachio nut ice cream and all the syrup and nuts they’ll sell you.”
As I left, Father had Mom’s shoes, holding them up in front of him. “Those are without doubt the ugliest pair of shoes I have ever encountered,” he said.
I hurried and bought the ice cream and all the trimmings. As I came to our back door, Sandy, the cocker spaniel, jumped out of the ash can with one of Mom’s home comfort shoes. The way he chewed on it he must have been starved for mutton tallow.
Father loaded our dishes with ice cream and syrup and nuts. “Isn’t it wonderful,” he remarked, “the luscious confections that a family can have nowadays without any trouble at all?”
“Father,” I asked, “did you have pink pistachio nut ice cream when you were on the ranch?”
Father had a lump of ice cream on his spoon the size of a door knob. “We didn’t have many things to eat on the ranch,” he said. “It’s a wonder we didn’t all die of beriberi, scurvy, and malnutrition, but we didn’t.”
I can’t figure Mom out. Here she had the most wonderful opportunity to crow, but for the next five minutes I didn’t hear a sound except the three of us crunching nuts.