Illustration © Steven Salerno Illustration

Father Knows Best

Alumna has learned from her father the lesson of thriftiness and to value all things precious. by Marcia Frellick

My dad called the other day to tell me that he and Mom and the orchid had returned safely from their two-week vacation to Florida.

The orchid is a common variety, one he had bought for $5 at a nursery in Fort Wayne, Ind. It wasn't even in bloom, but it was cheaper that way, just the 20-inch tall green stalk. Yet, he was so worried it wouldn't survive his absence that he drove that orchid across state lines like an Olympic torch bearer, in and out of hotel rooms and relatives' houses along the way and back home.

It wasn't the first time Dad had gone to great lengths to save the tiniest bit of money or conserve the smallest of the world's resources.

One summer when we were kids I questioned why there were glasses in our freezer half-filled with used ice cubes. He explained that the freezer wouldn't have to work as hard to make new ice cubes if he saved the ones in the bottom of the glass.

It was one of the lessons in the Frellick household on ways to make money stretch.

We didn't have air conditioning in our three-bedroom ranch house in Evansville, Ind., nestled right on the steamy banks of the Ohio River, which is not a problem unless you hope to be happy on any given day between May and September. We worked around it by having huge blue metal fans throughout the house, pulling shades, spending quality family time in the basement, taking turns cranking the homemade ice cream paddle, keeping the lights off unless we needed them to, well, see, and eating meals on the front porch.

The only thing that was cool in the house in the summer was the single-door Whirlpool refrigerator, stuffed to bursting with whatever had been on sale at Kroger's that month. Dad guarded it as though liquid gold would spurt out of it the next time someone reached for an unscheduled Popsicle. You didn't have time to decide on pudding or chocolate milk, sandwich or fried chicken. You got 10 seconds to pull something out before you heard the familiar"Are you trying to cool the whole house?"

While only fantasizing that such a thing were possible, my brothers and I would reluctantly shut the door and hope whatever we had grabbed wasn't left over from last night's international dinner club experiment - some stuffed grape leaves or curried squid disguised in aluminum foil.

His thriftiness was born of many things: his belief as a minister that we are to be good stewards of the earth's resources, his childhood spent in Depression-era Massachusetts, his disappointment in Americans who throw their riches away as poverty consumes much of the rest of the world and a willing palate that would let him eat things like the cheap, but almost black, bananas he discovered at a stand on his way home.

He believes in the afterlife for every plastic, paper or food scrap. Baggies are rinsed out. Christmas wrapping is folded neatly for the next year, the ribbon surgically removed to avoid tape tears. Junk mail is cut and stacked and the edges bonded with rubber cement to make notepads. I grew up thinking all soap came in multicolored layers because in our house the last chips got molded onto the new bar.

Pride never got in the way when there was a buck to be saved. Take his bowling ball, for instance. It's a lovely black-and-burgundy marbled ball. And it's tastefully monogrammed with gold letters spelling"Dave." Only Dad's name is Fran. He got it at a garage sale for $2.50. He had rejected the nice new one we bought him for his birthday. He didn't need such a fancy one, he said.

Over the years I have come to realize how much that frugal mindset mattered. He and Mom managed to get three kids through Yale, Northwestern and Drake universities on the salaries of a minister and a paralegal. They have been generous to countless charities and social causes. And anything their children really needed was taken care of, an offer that still stands. Discovering what one really needs is a lifelong process.

I've finally come around to the fact that he is right to save the world, one compost pile at a time. I won't be saving my ice cubes any time soon, but gradually I have started living life a little bit like Dad.

I even notice myself nagging my husband about throwing away the toothpaste without squeezing every centimeter from the tube."Should I stand on it?" he asked once sarcastically. I regularly ask him as he's rinsing dishes,"You're not wasting too much water, are you?" as the faucet suddenly shuts off.

I've been meaning to thank my father for teaching us, among so many things, the value of money and the preciousness of resources. Maybe I'll send him a card. If I do, I'll be sure to weigh it first to make sure I don't overpay the postage.

Marcia Frellick (J83), of Chicago, is Sunday news editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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