May 19 2015
My parents were not untalented people. My mother was a mathematical genius, for one thing, and I do not use the word lightly. I once saw her glance at a chalkboard that had been filled with numbers and announce the sum of those numbers — a split second before the mathematical genius on television gave the same answer. I never forgot that.
But despite her ability with numbers, neither she nor my father ever learned how to balance a checkbook — or if they knew how to do it, they chose not to. They entered the checks in the check register, but they never subtracted them. And if you don’t subtract the check amounts, the check register is pretty much useless.
Because of this, my childhood was financially unstable. The electricity in our house might be turned on, or it might not. The same was true for the telephone, and that was back in the dark ages when everyone’s phone was attached to the wall of the house and nobody had a backup cell phone.
I remember a particularly bleak Thanksgiving when we planned to go to my Aunt Vee’s for dinner, but she canceled because her family was sick. It was just as well because I had double pneumonia at the time, and as luck would have it, our power had been turned off.
Mother was able to cook dinner because we had a gas range and oven, but we did not have a way to heat the house and it was a rare freezing day in Louisiana. I remember lying on the sofa in front of the fireplace while the rest of the family went to some friends’ house to get out of the cold.
I awoke to a fire that had died out in a frigid and dark house. Happy Thanksgiving, Kathy! Unable to get up and stagger to the nearest telephone to summon help, I lay there for what seemed like generations until the rest of the family finally returned home and rescued me from freezing to death.
But it wasn’t enough that my parents were fiscally inept. When she was two, my younger sister Sandee got polio, and that took a whole lot of surgery. In addition to the surgery, she was constantly being fitted with braces and orthopedic shoes and other devices of torture, all of which cost a whole boatload of money, and all of which she grew out of almost as soon as she was fitted for them.
Probably because of Sandee’s medical bills, Mother was a working mother in the 1960s — during a time when nobody’s mother worked. Daddy was a salesman — sometimes a traveling salesman. I suspect he didn’t make a whole lot of money. I also suspect my parents didn’t subtract their checkbook because they knew that no matter how hard they worked, there was not going to be any money in the checkbook.
Why balance a checkbook that they knew full well was only going to be overdrawn?
With this background, you can see that sending me to Brigham Young University was a financial catastrophe for my family. No, it was a whole lot worse than that. My parents had already built their dream home and lost it after only a couple of years. To say my parents had no money to send three daughters to college was a gross understatement.
So when it came time for me to go to college, this could not have been a happy time for my parents, especially considering that my mother secretly had leukemia and had no idea how long her health was going to hold out. (She died when Sandee and I were in college, and Susie was still in high school. None of us, including my father, had even known she was sick.)
So my parents did the best they could. They paid for my tuition and for the roof over my head. After that, they gave me five dollars per week to pay for absolutely everything else — food, clothing, medical, transportation, you name it. Pantyhose alone could cost that much, leaving me no money left over for food. A run in my pantyhose was a major disaster in my college years.
A five-dollar budget meant that I had to make my food allotment stretch until it screamed. I got creative at making cheap soups (chicken necks, garlic, and celery) that would last through the week. Chicken necks were five cents per pound, but the garlic that gave it any flavor did not exactly make me a boy magnet on the BYU campus.
Despite my best efforts, I would always be broke before the end of the week. That was when the Wilkinson Center cafeteria became a Godsend. They had a condiment station with stacks of tiny paper cups and push dispensers for ketchup, blue cheese dressing, and other goodies.
Some hot water and a few squirts of ketchup made an acceptable (but somewhat thin) tomato soup. I did not discover this on my own, mind you. I was told this by strangers. There were so many people in my situation that we recognized one another. We passed information along to one another the way that hoboes in the Depression used to mark houses with a secret code where handouts were to be had.
I tried the fake tomato soup once or twice, but I never got a taste for it. For one thing, in order to be enjoyed it had to be eaten with crackers. Even though crackers were also free, I never got to the point that I was able to take crackers with a clear conscience if I had not bought something else.
Crackers, you see, are food. I know there’s a fine line between ketchup and crackers, but I couldn’t eat the soup without crackers, and taking crackers would have been stealing.
It doesn’t make sense, but who says Planet Kathy is a rational place?
But my favorite treat was the blue cheese dressing. I would sit down and eat it with one finger, savoring each lick and making one little cup last for thirty minutes.
Even today I can take a chocolate candy and make it last for an hour. I eat just a nibble at a time and savor each atom of goodness. Unfortunately, I usually don’t have that luxury, because Fluffy devours his candy in 15 seconds and then eyes mine longingly. But this is a trick I learned in those blue cheese dressing days.
I never ate at Condiment City alone. I always had friends who were paying customers. They would eat their hamburgers or other meals as I ate my blue cheese dressing. On extremely rare occasions, one of them would buy something for me, but this almost never happened. I didn’t expect it, and they didn’t offer. I ate my blue cheese dressing, and they ate what they ate. That’s the way things were.
Back in Old Testament times, poor people like Ruth were allowed to glean from the fields. But the Wilkinson Center Cafeteria (known now as the Cougareat) was not a charitable institution, and gleaners were frowned upon even when they were in the company of paying customers.
Apparently other poor students had discovered the free blue cheese dressing, and that was not something the bean counters at the cafeteria could overlook. One day a sign appeared — “Blue Cheese Dressing: 5 ¢.”
You may think that charging a nickel for a tiny carton of blue cheese dressing is chickenfeed. Back in those days, it was highway robbery. Let me give you a little comparison of what a person could get for those prices, thanks to a handy website, 1970’s Food and Grocery Prices:
- A four-pack of toilet paper, 13 ¢
- A pound of bananas, 12 ¢
- A can of Campbell’s tomato soup, 10 ¢
- A whole jar of grape jelly, 25 ¢
- A whole bottle of Heinz ketchup, 19 ¢
- A dozen eggs, 25 ¢
- A TV dinner (Morton brand, which was top of the line), 33 ¢
- Sliced bread, 16 ¢ per loaf
Let’s just say that the day they started charging for blue cheese dressing was the day I stopped going to the cafeteria for lunch. It was not a protest or a religious fast, but an act of necessity. I just started going without food.
Eating my daily lunch at Condiment City was not that bad. It made me a better cook, a better financial planner, and more appreciative of the good times when I could buy and eat whatever I wanted.