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BRAD CLEMONS: How to feed a family without buying anything

Thursday, April 21, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:48 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 27, 2011

It will seem lame to most people that the Clemons family has been really excited for the new Aldi store to open.

Some parents make the mistake of setting the entertainment bar too high when their children are young, and then they have nowhere to go but down. We started with shopping at Aldi. Now everyday is exciting.

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Before last week’s big opening, when we would drive down I-70, the bright new Aldi store looked like Disneyland. There was even a deep ditch and fence surrounding it to make the building more tempting and fairytale-like.

My 4-year-old son would ask every day, “You said it would be open today.”

“No. I said it would be open soon.”

“Why won’t they open it?”

“It doesn’t have any food in it. That wouldn’t be much fun.”

Silence.

I would cringe as he looked at the brightly lit exterior with complete hope and those greedy kid eyes that have yet to learn how to brace for disappointment. I wondered if we were raising the bar too high, too soon — if he would think the world was always as wonderful as a new Aldi.

However, we had to get groceries, and thus we gambled all three of our kids’ poor little hearts.

The store was all they had hoped for: perfectly positioned soda and a thousand other MSG-laden, artificially-colored, high fructose corn syrup-ed, forbidden fruit-flavored products their mom won't buy. But, alas, the ride was over in about an hour — “Keep your hands inside the cart at all times until the attendant dismisses you, please” — and they had to go out into reality.

As people do in the aftermath of most highly anticipated events, the kids spent the rest of the weekend in the vacuous melancholy of a life with no meaning. Mario Kart helped them forget for a while, but eventually Mario just accentuated that artificiality in life they couldn't see in the ingredient list on a box of Goldfish. They had seen behind the curtain.

Well, that plan backfired a little, but my motives were to help author a better story for my kids.

A couple years ago my great-grandfather was dying in the hospital here in Columbia, and I had the luxury of a few evenings with him. I asked him all kinds of questions about his past, like lineage and best memories and such, but the thing that changed me was his answer when I asked him if he would go back to change anything.

He was a very soft and slow-spoken man, a little like Clint Eastwood if he were a Christian. He paused for a while, which is scary for an elderly person in a hospital bed to do. Then he said, "Well, I guess I wish I had made life a little better for your (great) grandma."

“Really,” I said.

I had never detected a problem in their marriage. He went on to say that he hadn't mistreated her. They'd had a fair go of 60-plus years. But he regretted that he hadn't tried harder to make sure she had a fun and memorable life. They grew up in the Great Depression and spent their married lives working very hard as farmers on top of the normal disasters every couple has.

Since he was a devoted Christian, I was expecting him to say he would go back and be a missionary, but the more I thought about it, the more I could see his heart: Even in survival mode, love still dictates and God still desires that we put others ahead of ourselves.

As with any good life crisis, this came at the time when I was already starting to feel a new urgency for living a life of significance, and also right after a great author named Donald Miller suggested I see myself as a character in other people’s stories instead of the default mindset with which we are all born. So my grandpa’s comment — plus the other advice from that other conversation — fell on freshly tilled soil and convinced me that significance is attained partly by making other people’s lives significant.

Although I fail more often than I succeed, I try to move all my conversations away from small talk. I try to make my students think by asking them 1,000-year-old philosophical questions. I try to leave my family with more than a memory of me as a burnt image of a man on a couch — which was my motive for trying to make the new Aldi a big deal.

I try to remember that, Lord willing, I'm the only husband my wife will have and that all of her dreams for love, romance, family, companionship and security — they all start and end with me. Only I can give those things to her and without me she'll not have them. That is a big, big deal, because she is a big, big deal.

I want to create a childhood for my children and find a way to put signposts behind us. I want my kids to remember wrestling with me, not some gift I buy them.

(I am a little worried about the wrestling, though. I dread the day that I can no longer win every fight in my home with tickling. As it is now, every scuffle ends when someone pees. When my boys are 18 and 14, respectively, I doubt they will afford me the same courtesy.)

I love politics, but I try to remember that for every person I know intimately, I can affect their lives more than President Obama.

I have one life to leave behind. Will I leave them contentment or incompleteness? honor or shame? blessings or curses? fond memories or trivia? I can leave them a good name or a bad name, high standards or bad examples and a license to fail, a true path or a tangled maze, expectations or a damning self-image.

Ultimately, the conversation with my grandpa, coupled with many other influences, communicates a warning and a promise that life must be spent wisely and we must live purposefully.

Brad Clemons lives and works in Columbia. We do not know yet if he is a winner or a loser, but he will definitely earn a certificate of participation.


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