Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

Saturday night was the occasion for a family meal at the cafe, but even then my father was continually jumping up to attend to customers. On Sundays we had lunch together at home, but this was a hurried affair at around eleven-thirty in the morning so he could get back to the cafe by noon. When he came home at night, usually at nine or later, he looked exhausted, his combed-back hair unkempt, the cheeks that had been glowing in the morning now dark with stubble, the promise of his white socks replaced by the reality of fifteen painful hours on his feet and varicose veins that he wrapped in damp cloths and soaked in a tub of water laced with Epsom salts while he sat at the kitchen table with his trouser legs rolled up. He didn't talk to us, or to Mother, very much. (I never once in my lifetime saw him hug her.) There was no joshing, no sitting down with us to read, not much curiosity about how we spent our days or what we were studying in school. He never worked around the home, never mowed the grass. Yet it wasn't that he didn't care for us. It was just that he seemed able to express his love only by his utter and exhausting devotion to our livelihood and our future through his work at the cafe. He was what would later come to be called a workaholic, and this tendency to focus on work at the expense of family and personal relationships was, unfortunately, one of the legacies he passed on to me.

Elaine had died approximately eight months after the stock market crash of October 1929. I was too young to notice how things changed as a result of the widespread loss of jobs and income that came to be called the Great Depression. Farmers had been locked in a depression of their own caused by crop surpluses, drought, and mortgage debt for most of the 1920s, so maybe things didn't change that much in Kearney. Cattle and hogs continued to ride through daily on the Union -Pacific, one-way passengers bound for the Omaha stockyards. I do remember that encouragements to thrift were everywhere, at the cafe and at home. Visiting the cafe's sole bathroom brought one face-to-face with the sign my father had taped to the paper towel dispenser: "Why Use Two When One Wipes Dry." It was not a question. To my father, "big spender" was a big-time insult.

But at least the customer had a choice. At home things were different. There we lived according to a set of rigid guidelines calculated to squeeze every last measure of wastefulness out of our behavior. The worst of these governed the weekly Saturday night bath. Never was a ritual designed that said more about a child's place in the pecking order. It began with a steaming tub in our one small—and in the winter frigidly cold—bathroom. My father was first into the tub, and I expect he sank into the hot water with a sigh of relief from the pain of his labors. Once he was soaped and rinsed and out, it was my mother's turn. Next, it was time for John and me. We bathed together in the twice-used, now lukewarm water, and it was never clear to me whether I was cleaner after the bath, or before.

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