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Sticks and knives


I returned to Chicago for a brief visit with my folks this last week.
Mom wanted help planting her garden, and brother Bob offered to get Dad and me out fishing.
Born into the prosperity of the 1920s, my parents came of age in the Great Depression. Dad’s parents owned a neighborhood butcher shop on the north side of Chicago. When the economy turned south, Dad dropped out of school to help at the store but eventually they went out of business. Mom’s father was an accountant who lost his job and turned to farming despite not knowing much about it. Luckily, his wife Edna was a hardworking farm girl who made it work. Nevertheless, it was a hardscrabble existence. To afford high school, Mom and her twin sister were hired out as servants to better off families in town.
As an adult I understand why they are the way they are, but as a kid I often rankled at their frugality.
Mom, or “Shorty” as brother Bob calls her, was five foot two in her prime but has shrunk considerably. Arthritis and nearly 90 years of wear and tear on her joints have left her semi-mobile. She can still walk around and drive the car with a booster cushion, but she can’t lift her arms much over her waist or bend over. To help her balance and reach she carries the sawed off end of a broom. She could afford an actual cane or anyone of her children would gladly buy her one, but she prefers the broom handle. “This one works fine,” she says, “why would I want to spend money on something I already have?”
And the stick did work just fine as she used it to point where and what to plant in the garden. The work went quickly. Sixty years of conditioning the soil left it the color and consistency of ground coffee.
Also on the afternoon I arrived, Dad and I made a trip to Wal-Mart to get fishing licenses. Dad fell and broke his hip a little over a year ago and we thought for sure he was goner, but he’s battled his way back. He’s even riding his adult-sized tricycle again about town picking up trash as he goes. He might live forever as long as there is one last pop can to be found and redeemed.
His mobility is diminished, however, and he has to use a walker to get around.
The Wal-Mart we went to was jumbo-sized, and the sporting goods department was on the far corner of the store. After 10 minutes we were less than a quarter of the way there when Dad suggested I go get the electric scooters available for the handicapped. I complied and 10 minutes later returned driving the contraption. Dad took the wheel and headed out full throttle. Actually the vehicle wasn’t that fast, but when you consider Dad is basically blind it made for a thrilling and somewhat harrowing experience.
On the way I noticed a man setting up a booth to give a demonstration for knives. While we were getting our licenses, an announcement was made that the demonstration was beginning and everyone in the audience would get a free paring knife.
“Did he say ‘free knife’?” Dad asked, and I knew he was hooked. The demonstration was somewhat cheesy in my opinion and it went on for quite some time. “Now folks you’ll get your free knife in just a moment,” the man kept saying, “but first let me show you one more thing.”
At long last the barker said the demonstration was over and audience members could step forward and get their complimentary knife. When the people in the crowd hesitated to be first Dad goosed the scooter, shot ahead and got his knife.
As we rolled along Dad noticed that I didn’t get a knife and asked me why. Because I don’t need one I replied. Dad gave me one of those looks that means “didn’t I teach you anything?”
“Where’d you get the knife?” Sabra asked me when I returned home.