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My Father Was Cheap As Hell And I Finally Understand Why

The following was syndicated from Jon Moskowitz’s personal blog for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].

If this Amy Schumer sketch is to be believed, a woman doesn’t like to be told that she’s turning into her mother. You’re better off telling a man that he’s turning into his dad. Most guys will just nod their heads in rueful acknowledgment.

Royal Tenenbaums

Royal Tenenbaums

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my father’s death, and lately I’ve been seeing more and more of him in myself. My father was a “Depression Baby.” He never spent money easily. He put off getting rid of old household items for as long as possible (“We may find some use for that later”). He spent hours reading Consumer Reports, but seldom bought anything. He cleaned out old peanut butter jars and stocked them in the pantry, in case we ever needed extra drinking glasses. He waited until the kitchen sponge fell apart in his hands before opening a new one.

Like all parents, he grew exasperated with the wastefulness of his kids. Most of his complaints about me were standard parental fare — “Turn off the lights when you leave the room” — but sometimes the nature of my infraction was more esoteric. Paper towels, for instance. If I spilled something in the kitchen — a splash of Dr. Pepper, say, or a spoonful of Jell-O — I’d use a paper towel to clean it up, then throw the towel away. My father inevitably pounced. “How can you waste so much of that towel?” he’d say, aggrieved. “Look: you only used one corner! There’s plenty of good material left.”

As far as I was concerned, there was always money, and to value it above other things was to miss out on life.

Such scolding made me think there was something seriously wrong with my father’s outlook. We were talking after all, about a paper towel. It was cheap and it was disposable. How sad, I thought, that my father couldn’t see how irrational he was being. How sad that he didn’t know how to truly live.

toddler standing by classroom door
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I was not making any money at this point, though I was quite prepared to spend my father’s. He was a psychologist with a private practice — essentially a one-man business. Some months he had no idea how he was going to pay the gas bill, but he and my mother kept me blissfully unaware of the financial side of things. As far as I was concerned, there was always money, and to value it above other things was to miss out on life. So I looked on my father with an unearned sense of superiority, and felt pity for him because he gave money too much importance. It never occurred to me that my financial insouciance was only possible because of his financial anxiety.

The irony is not lost on me now, when I’m starting to see the same look of pity in my own kids’ eyes. A recent dinner with my younger son drove this home. After spilling some pasta sauce, he got up from the kitchen table, grabbed a fresh paper towel, wiped up the sauce and threw the towel out. “What are you doing?” I asked incredulously. I pointed to the 3 crumpled-up paper towels sitting on the kitchen counter, which I had used to clean up some earlier spill. “You could have used one of those! They’re still perfectly good!”

My son shrugged, I took a step back in horror, and my Dad’s ghost laughed, sounding not so much like himself as Nelson Muntz, the schoolyard bully from The Simpsons. One quick, short “Ah ha!” and I knew I’d become a Depression Baby, too.

Jon Moskowitz is a senior copywriter and content creator.