by Catherine Rankovic

My father came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe on a steamship in 1950. He learned English, but he spoke the language like a telegram, so he couldn’t really lecture his four American-born kids. or talk things over with us, and the words of wisdom we got from him were few. When his children began dating he warned us, “You marry ugly, you get ugly children!” We still quote him, laughing, before we take to the road: “Don’t drive like-a nuts!” And one more bit of advice crossed our language barrier, a tip on the nature of material things:

“You buy nice – you get nice. You buy junk – you got junk.”

That’s my father, Dragomir; I hear his voice whenever I am thinking about saving a few cents by purchasing something cheap instead of a higher-priced item that will last twice as long. I use his advice for everything from light bulbs to lawnmowers.

In his way, my father was saying, “You get what you pay for,” and the maxim has guided me when major purchases loomed – a one-year-old Buick versus a snazzy four-year-old Mustang with 73,000 miles; a VCR that cost $100 more than the standard model but after thirteen years refused to die. It helped me choose a larger, brighter wedding diamond over a smaller, yellowish one I was tempted to choose just to save some money. I mean, save it for what? If you’re buying a diamond, you should buy nice.

I couldn’t always follow my father’s advice, but always regretted ignoring it.

Once I furnished a bedroom and chose to economize on the mattress. It soon developed a deep lengthwise crease, in which I lay like a hotdog in a bun. Trying to sleep, I pictured my father – short,  compact, olive-skinned – in the doorway, wagging a hairy finger and saying, “You bought junk – you got junk.”

Although he relished cheap novelties – he was a big fan of those wooden “drinking bird” toys that bowed perpetually to a brimming shot glass – and souvenirs such as the plastic zoo animals vacuum-formed in a vending machine. “For memory,” he said, sliding coins into our hands. Mom wailed whenever he spent a buck or two on rubbish. Yet he paid cash for a new family-sized Chrysler every seven years while the all-American father next door worked a second job to buy his family five matching snowmobiles. And whenever Dad knew better, he bought better. He knew of only one place to buy his wife and kids boxed Valentine chocolates, and that was the grocery store – but at least he bought them.

Having a foreign-born father gave us a dual cultural perspective we didn’t always appreciate. Americans thought backyards were for swing sets and patios; he and his Old Country friends thought backyards were for vegetable gardening. When I pleaded for an allowance because my friends all had one, I explained that it was an American custom for parents, each week, to owe their children free money. He was miffed, not by my calculating approach but at the implication that he did not provide everything his kids could want. Instead of giving us allowances, he bought the things we pestered him and my mother for, but only after he made sure they were good. In my guitar phase I received a nice guitar. Promptly I changed my career plans to photography and wanted a camera I couldn’t pay for. Dad might have then told me, as he sometimes did, “Go jump in the lake,” or “You don’t got two cents in you brain.” But maybe because he’d been granted the chance to start over and do better, he granted me the same. We went to a camera shop, where he spent two weeks of his pay on a camera and equipment.

I hope I told my father, “Thank you,” because I remember hesitating to say it then and there. I felt overwhelmed, sensing that this gift, to be well-used, would demand character and discipline that he was only betting that I had. The gift was the only way he could say this in a way that I could possibly understand. He was also betting that I would someday know enough to understand, because at the time I was seventeen, radiantly ignorant, spoke only English, and was trying to hide my feelings by fussing with the camera that I would use for the next twenty five years.

You buy nice – you got nice.

Author’s Note: My father Dragomir Rankovic arrived in the U.S. at Ellis Island in 1950, brought by the U.S. Displaced Persons program to work in the Bell City Foundry in Racine, Wisconsin. He was born in 1919 in a village twenty miles outside of Belgrade and in boyhood was apprenticed to be a blacksmith. He joined the Royal Yugoslav Army in 1940 and was a prisoner of war in Germany from 1941-1945. He became a U.S. citizen in 1955 and was a member of the United Auto Workers and a founding member of the St. George Serbian Orthodox Church (Racine, Wisconsin).

Author Bio: Catherine Rankovic’s books include Fierce Consent and Other Poems (WingSpan, 2005) Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions (Andrews McMeel Universal, 2003), Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments (WingSpan, 2007), and Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis (Penultimate Press Inc., 2010). She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught from 1989 to 2010; she now teaches poetry and creative nonfiction writing in the online MFA program at Lindenwood University. Her essays and poems have appeared in Boulevard, Garbanzo, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, River Styx, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Umbrella, and other journals, and the anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press, Inc, 2008). Her awards include the Missouri Biennial Award for essay writing, first place in the Midwest Writing Center’s annual Mississippi Valley poetry competition, and an Academy of American Poets award. She is a professional book editor and her website is