My dad's favorite things to wear were T-shirts, with slogans like "USA" or "Marine Corps Marathon." Dad liked old clothes and old shoes and always told me, "New clothes make me feel uncomfortable." Even at his busiest time at work, he never had more than three suits, always purchased at modest prices from places like JC Penney. Whenever I commented about the holes in his clothes, especially the T-shirts he'd run in, he'd say, "They really worked hard for me." Even the clothes had to live up to his expectations. The only new item he'd allow in his wardrobe was a pair of New Balance running shoes every six months, bought loyally from the same sports store in Old Greenwich. Running shoes were his only splurge.
My parents never sprang for luxuries. Thinking about it now, I believe that their frugality taught me a lot of basic values, but as a young girl in a community of bankers' and advertising execs' children, I found my dad's insistence on living modestly exasperating. My yard, however, was a popular spot thanks to its size and my dad's love of the outdoors. In the summer, kids would come over to play on the rope ladder Dad built or to shoot some baskets in the hoop he'd put up on a tree. My dad would come out and judge our performance. He'd score our flips off the rope ladder, and even my friends knew to wait until he wasn't around to horse around on it or they'd leave feeling as if they'd trained for the Olympics. Most fun days with Dad in the backyard left me with skinned knees and huge calluses on my hands. My dad would tell me they were "signs of a successful day. Success at anything takes hard work."
Dad also managed to keep a garden growing even when work kept him away for weeks at a time. He'd plant it during a quick weekend trip home in May, tend to it on his two-week vacation in July, and otherwise leave my mom in charge of weeding, pruning, and watering. It always grew. For winter, Dad would create an ice-skating rink in the backyard out of snow and a water hose. It was a popular neighborhood attraction, and I used to charge kids a quarter to come skate. I consider it my first "job."
My dad also thought I should join the Girl Scouts, and I began early on as a Brownie. At the time I didn't give much thought to it, but as I've delved deeper into his history, I began to realize that my father's insistence that I join the Scouts might have had something to do with the events of his own youth in Poland. Even though he always spoke of Poland as the forbidden land and said that he would never go back there because it was like "hell on earth," he did mention that he was in something similar to the Scouts in Poland and considered it the best part of his childhood. I knew that being a Scout was something my dad honored. I kept my uniform neatly pressed and proudly displayed my many badges, consumed with checking off the activities to earn them. "Sewing" must have seemed silly to my dad when his Scouting experience had trained him to stay alive. I was, however, a particularly talented cookie salesperson, specializing in Samoas and Thin Mints. My sales strategy consisted of a charm offensive, and I often moved more boxes than anyone else in my troop.