Money, blue collar roots and butt steak: lessons my father taught me

I took my father out for dinner this weekend for his birthday. He is 79 and I can write about him here because he would think I said “frog” not “blog” and then I would spend 20 minutes trying to explain to him what a blog was. My dad is a steel mill guy. He has never used a computer. His hands are now so arthritic and knobby that it’s hard for him to use his cell phone. I can’t leave him voice mails because he doesn’t know how to check his voice mail and I’ve given up trying to explain it. Needless to say, he won’t be checking my blog anytime soon.

It was an old-school steak restaurant in Northwest Indiana, close to his house, that still has a coat room and serves $30 steaks and iceberg lettuce salads. It used to be one his favorite restaurants to bring my mom. There were still Christmas lights on the plants. My husband and I, at 41, were the youngest couple in the place.

My son sat across the table looking pissy as I tried to get him to pick something off the menu, my daughter is babbling about her science fair project, my husband is ordering a kiddie cocktail (for himself) and appetizers, while all I know is that the restaurant has salmon, because my dad keeps asking me every 30 seconds what I’m going to order, which means I can never get past the first entrée on the menu.

So I tell my dad to order anything he wants. New York Strip, filet mignon, appetizers. I know his budget is tight, so he doesn’t come to this restaurant much anymore.

“It’s your birthday!” I say. “It’s my treat! Splurge!”

“Okay,” he says, rubbing his hands together eagerly. He looks very handsome in a spiffy sweater with a shirt and tie underneath. He picks up the menu and he peers at it through his bifocals. His hands shake a little.

The waitress appears.

“What will you have?” she says.

He orders the butt steak, one of the toughest and cheapest cuts of meat on the menu. Some things never change.

“Dad!” I plead. “Come on, don’t you want a nicer cut of meat? What about a filet?”

“That’s $30, Chris,” he says and waves me away. “I like butt streak.”

“Right,” I say.

“I do!” he insists. “It’s the cow’s butt!”

Then he lets loose a big whooping laugh and punches me in the shoulder.

After dinner, my dad thanked me profusely, saying the butt steak was delicious. As we waited for the kids to put their coats on and stop bickering, he pointed at a photo on the wall of a 1950’s red Cadillac convertible. He whistled and said, “Look at that.” I asked him when was the last time he went ballroom dancing. He said, oh, not for a long time. Many of the bands and halls he used to frequent are no longer around. Now he spends most of his time at the nursing home, visiting his wife who has Alzheimer’s.

On the way home, I watched the cities and lights roll past in the dark. The day my father told me that I was making a higher salary than he ever had in 37 years working at the mill, I didn’t know what to say. We’d never talked much about money before, but as he gets older and his social security budget gets tighter, he’s asking more questions about how much things cost, what I spend on the nice salsa I bought for him, etc. My salary isn’t excessive by any means, and in this economy, I’m happy to be working.

Yet–being the first person in my working-class family to go to college, I am keenly aware of how different my life could have been. Seeing my dad now is a reminder of how quickly life can change, how quickly a job, money, friends, your whole way of life, can disappear. The only constant in life is change. It’s a reminder to live carefully and sometimes, order the butt instead of the filet.

Life has passed my father by. I have passed my father by. I know things, have experienced things, that he never will because he doesn’t have a college degree, he missed the technology boat completely, and is closer to the end of his life while I am more in the middle. That’s why I want my dad to enjoy a good steak, to splurge a little. He deserves it.

My husband said that’s the way it goes. Parents always want better for their kids than they had. I know he’s right. I am grateful to my parents for helping me get to this point in my life, for all the sacrifices they’ve made, which I am only now, at 41 and a parent of two, slowly coming to understand deeply and more clearly than ever before. I like to think that if my mother were here, she’d be happy to see what I’ve accomplished.

Now if I can just convince my dad that he doesn’t have to order butt steak next time around, then I’ll feel like I’ve really made it.

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4 thoughts on “Money, blue collar roots and butt steak: lessons my father taught me

  1. I have tears in my eyes as I read this story – I can relate so much because it reminds me so much of my own family. My father was also a blue collar worker, in the printing industry, when it didn’t resemble anything that we are familiar with today. Early on in my career, my earnings quickly surpassed his and I would quietly reflect and wonder how my parents did it. There are 5 kids in my family and while I knew we weren’t rich, I certainly never felt poor. My parents didn’t spend what they didn’t have, budgeted well, and so we always felt well taken care of. My twin sister and I were the first to go off to college, and the first to get a 4 year college degree. It wasn’t expected of us, but my parents could not have been more proud.

    My dad died when I was only 23 years old, so I feel cheated that I didn’t get to have him longer in my life so that he could share in my triumphs and joys, as well as to help me in my sorrows. He was a great man, and a good teacher. My mom also had Alzheimer’s and died in 2004. And so while we are talking about parents and wishing they’d splurge on themselves a little, she was never able to do it either! She grew up in the depression and every little thing they had was precious – from food, to scraps of fabric. When I was young, my grandma, her mom, would give her “supposed hand-me-down clothes” because she knew that my mom wouldn’t buy a thing for herself. I can’t say that I struggle with that at all, but what I did learn from my mom is to love and accept your friends and family unconditionally. We didn’t have a lot of stuff, but we knew how much we mattered. She loved us no matter what, and loved my friends, no matter what. They all have told me through the years that she was just like a mom to them, and she would be so happy to know that. So, anyway, I digress. I loved your story today! Happy Birthday to your dad!

    1. laura, i’m so glad you shared this, it’s a beautiful tribute! our parents deserve a big round of applause. i’m sick of hearing in the news and elsewhere about people who are horrible parents. we all have our moments, and it’s not easy, but there are a lot of unsung heroes out there, quietly doing what needs to be done.

  2. Chris –

    Thanks for sharing. Your love for your father comes through in your words beautifully. Don’t feel that life has past your dad by though, It sounds like he’s had a wonderful life filled with love, and a very beautiful daughter. Each generation has their own experiences – sometimes they over-lap, sometimes they don’t. I’m sure he’s seen and experienced some amazing things that we will never be able to touch – events that changed the world, a united, proud country that I’m starting to fear our children won’t see, and.. the advent of so much technology and potential for their children and grandchildren. While he may not know how to, or even want to, use it, he knows it’s there and he was able to help you build the personal skills and work ethic to get to where you want to be. That is the gift of coming from blue collar, dirty finger-nails, working-stock people. My father was an electrical lineman (still is at heart) … He could have been the CEO of some major corporation and I would not be more proud to tell people who he is. It looks like you feel the same of yours.

    And … I guarantee, he’s 100x’s as proud of you than you are of him.

    1. you’re so kind and so right. he has experienced a lot of things that i never will, like the Korean War for one!! it’s hard to see a parent closer to the end of their life than the middle, i guess. he was always so strong and tough, in my mind. now it seems like he’s getting left behind with life moving so fast forward. yeah, i feel the same way about my dad as you do about yours. we’re really lucky, right!

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