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Column: Lessons learned

Prairie Wool: Does anyone, particularly during their formative teens, ever choose to resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame?
Piggy bank
Lessons from growing up among the lords of the penny pinchers settle in for life.

I come from a family of great penny pinchers. My parents taught me well. Of course, we prefer to think of ourselves as thrifty, economical or even cautious. Still, it all boils down to the same thing – cheap

I think it comes from having parents and grandparents who lived through the Dirty Thirties and other tough times. They knew how to repurpose long before it became trendy. Syrup tins became lunch pails, hand-me-downs were expected, and there was zero waste. It was a way of life.

When I was a kid, I didn’t understand all that. Once, after visiting the home of a young friend, I whined to my mother, “Katie has so many pretty dresses. Why don’t I?”

In a fresh wave of misery, I recalled a Christmas concert where I dreamt of sweeping through the door in a white lace dress with a pink satin sash, as advertised in Eaton’s Winter Catalogue. Instead, I stalked stiffly to my seat wearing an inflexible, red pantsuit made for a kid half my height and twice my girth. Thank you, bargain bin. 

With a sigh, mom patted my hand, “You have something better than pretty dresses.” Her voice lowered to become conspiratorial and dramatic, “You have – a little brother.” 

What? Are you kidding me? I glanced up to see my brother Billy spin through the kitchen on a tiny red tricycle. Bent low over the handlebars, he pedalled furiously and rounded the corner. Then, as something dragging behind him hit the door jamb with a smack, he paused to cast a triumphant sneer in my direction. It was one of my favourite dolls – a length of binder twine tied roughly about her neck.

“Ask her if she wants him,” I growled, turning back to my mother. “I’ll take the dresses.” 

A few years later, I became nearsighted. Thus began the era of serviceable glasses. Unfortunately, a visit to our optometrist for new spectacles did not include gazing into a mirror to assess the attractiveness of contemporary styles. We didn’t consider the shape of my face or the beautifying effects of flower detailing or colourful plastic. My father waved his arm with finality when I pleaded and sternly addressed the woman helping us. 

“I want something strong and serviceable for this girl. I want glasses that last,” he pronounced loudly. “How about those?” He pointed to some heavy wire frames in an aviator style popular among men preparing for a stint in the Canadian Air Force (or so I felt). 

“Nooo,” I moaned, but it was pointless to argue. The silver goggles were strapped to my head, and Dad beamed with pleasure. 

Another catchphrase at our house was, “Buy clothes big. She’ll grow into ‘em.” This is all fine and dandy when purchasing for children, but not so great when you’re 16 and are presented with a puffy, green feather jacket from the menswear department in the Army and Navy Surplus store. I didn’t want to bloody GROW into it. It was huge! Does anyone, particularly during their formative teens, ever choose to resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or wish to plod through school dressed as a loggerhead sea turtle? 

Anyway, I’ve learned these lessons well, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I must speak to my daughter. “Aliyah, come here and try this coat I bought on sale yesterday. Sure, it’s too big now – but you’ll grow into it.”