Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Saving The World, One Piece Of Aluminum Foil At A Time

My blogging pal Kathie at the Housewife Cafe has challenged me to a dualing post. We both had parents with pat-rack sensibilities, and as I am certain that my parents were worse than hers, having lived through both the Depression and World War Two, I have accepted.

When I was younger, I would have blushed to tell anyone this, much less have published it in the public domain. But I am so far removed from it now that I see how genuinely comic it was. And more than that, I am proud of my parents. Sure, they embarrassed me to death at the time, but they never tried to keep up with the Jones; they never bought into consumerism or felt the need to shop until they dropped. George W's post-9-11 advice to the general public to go out and shop wouldn't have touched them. And thank God America didn't have to depend on my parents' purchasing power.

1) String. Whenever we received a package, the string was carefully removed, unknotted, and wound up into a ball. We were never without; we never had to buy any. Sure, you never found a bit that was the length you needed; inevitably, the piece you unraveled from the string-ball would be too long or short for your needs. When that happened, you cut or knotted until you had the right length.

2) Aluminum foil. We almost never bought this -- it was for rich people! But when we did have it, by God, did it get recycled. By the time we were finally finished with a piece, it was no longer shiny. Or rather, the shininess was not of a metallic nature.

3) Waxed paper. To my endless shame, my mother was the only mother who wrapped sandwiches in this. A little detail like that can cause a kid quite a few headaches. Everybody else's mother used baggies -- and each baggy was used only once. Waxed paper, though, is different! One piece can go on for weeks.

4) Clothes. When we were babies, my mother would, as a special treat, cover us with her Chicago-Manhattan-D.C. coat. This was purchased just after Pearl Harbor, when my mother lived in Chicago, and she wore the coat in Washington D.C. and Manhattan, where she also worked. The coat had a real aura of mystery and glamour to it: we pictured our middle-aged mother as a young, stylish woman, swanning around in this padded black woolen garment with its wonderful old buttons and silky, smooth lining. Decades later, I took this coat when I went to live in Manhattan, then Yokohama, Kyushu, Sendai, and Tokyo. Before I got married, my husband sent it to Thailand along with a length of woolen material and had the coat copied there for me. I still wear this, and I still have the original in a suitcase somewhere.

Shortly after my father died, I found the following items, perfectly preserved, in a suitcase in our garage: 1) his Navy uniform from World War II: hat, trousers -- the whole bit; 2) his letter sweater from when he played football for Burlingame High School, San Mateo -- in 1936. 3) old dresses of his mother, some of which dated back to 1904; 4) his father's old hats and belts.

My mother's worn-out housedresses and other old (as in virtually falling apart) clothes were torn into long strips, braided together, and fashioned into rugs. We also had a huge bag of rags called, imaginatively, The Rag Bag, from which dusters and useful scraps were often taken. Generally, though, this just grew to monstrous proportions and took up a lot of space.

5) Books. My father couldn't get rid of a textbook to save his soul. We had every plant pathology, organic chemistry, and propagation textbook my father ever owned, along with dusty stacks and teetering piles of manuals and periodicals on grafting, pollination, and avocado varieties. My father seldom consulted them.

We never bought books. We never had to. My parents had inherited books from my father's family: a complete set of Dickens, Kipling, and Shakespeare, along with a seriously well-read set of the Classics. I used to go to friends' houses and marvel at all the brand-new books without library markings, the paperback bestsellers, the handsome leather-bound books that were obviously never read. All of ours were old and miserable and falling apart.

6) Food. I don't remember my mother ever throwing leftovers out. I'm sure she did, but this happened so rarely that I really can't recall even one instance. We had a compost heap of worrying proportions; when my father had finished deseeding rotten avocados (which happened from time to time in his line of work), the stinking, heaving, worm-riddled remains were flung on the compost heap and one very unlucky kid had the job of turning the pile. This was not a popular chore.

I once knew a woman who was forced to live rough in New York; she claimed that the food that was thrown into dumpsters was often far better than what you could get in a soup kitchen. I give you my word that this poor woman would have starved if people like my parents were the only ones doing the discarding.

7) Appliances and Furniture: We had the same hideous kitchen table for seventeen years; our washing machine, my mother was proud of observing, lasted from 1951 to 1979, and our battered old Frigidaire finally succumbed after 18 years of solid duty. Our 1950-vintage Electrolux vacuum cleaner could have been featured in a museum. Oh, and we never got new furniture. Ever. Ditto for carpets and draperies.

8) Correspondence. I've got boxes of letters my mother exchanged with her sisters, my father, her friends from all over the world (including a Philippino man from Pampanga, two German medical students, a young Polish woman, fellow Christian Aiders from New York City, and half a dozen aunties from Kentucky). Some of these date back to the thirties and I know I ought to burn the lot, but could you do this? Well, maybe you could, but then you don't have my genetic background.

9) Jelly jars. These weren't really jelly jars -- not after we'd finished the jelly (which, of course, was always the cheapest type of the cheapest brand). They were glasses. Once our minister visited and my mother served him water in a proper glass I didn't know we had. I was amazed: I hadn't realized she could tell the difference.

10) Towels. This is really embarrassing, but here goes. In 1979, my parents were still using towels from his family. And my father's mother died in 1949. Can anyone top that? If so, will you please make this public?

"Use it up, wear it out; make it do, or do without" and "Is this trip necessary?" were slogans that we lived by. To some it might seem that my parents merely made a virtue of a necessity. We didn't have a lot of money, after all, and economizing was important. But it was more than that: even if they'd inherited a mint, I suspect they'd have lived like this. Happily. Recycling and making do were a game, a way to beat the odds, supplying them with a raison d'etre that was infinitely entertaining and worthwhile.

I'm completely different, thank God. I'm a Baby Boomer and although I don't live to shop, I do change my curtains from time to time and I've even been known to shell out for new furniture every blue moon.

Besides, my rag bag is only half as big as my mother's. And so's my compost heap. Oops -- heaps, that is: lucky us, we've got two.


kathie said...

Hey Mary, great post! My parents weren't depression babies, they are boomers, yet they inherited the habit (my mom tolerated it rather than added to it) from their parents. I love the part of your post about the coat and that you had an identical one made when the original wore out. There's a novel, short story at least, in that. It's funny because my parents' hoarding means that I have letters written by my great, great grandparents (up to currently living family members), photos from the 1850's and many well loved objects as well as the hoarded items mentioned in my post...great job here!

Christy said...

I think it would be nice if the pendulum could swing back toward thrift. Maybe not to that extreme, but we (and by we I mean ME) could certainly dispose of less. I love the idea of turning old clothing into rag rugs.

Carole said...

The only thing you missed was the gigantic jar of buttons. Buttons of every sort, saved from every bit of clothing that ever went to the ragbag. And of course since my dad didn't believe in indoor plumbing we used the free J.C. Penney catalogue(after much longing and viewing)to wipe our little tushes with. Perhaps that come under the category of too much info.

The Anti-Wife said...

We really can survive on so much less than we do. Don't think I could be as frugal as your parents, but I can certainly learn a lesson from this.

DaviMack said...

So imagine what a medical doctor would be a packrat with! Medical journals all the way back to the 1960's, drug samples, two human brains & a heart preserved in formaldehyde, and a broken x-ray machine. Yep. Talk about fun things to play with.

We never had to get a prescription for much of anything, either, because of those samples.

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- I have a friend whose father survived the Bataan Death March, and subsequently, three years as a POW of the Japanese. When my friend was growing up, his garage was filled to bursting with canned goods, bottled water, soap -- all the stuff you describe in your parents' basement. As a young man, this friend participated in a radio program about the children of ex-POWs. Listening to the stories of other ex-POWs' children, he said it was as if they all had the same father and had grown up in the same household.

I've got a quilt my grandmother made in the early 1900s, some Limoge china from my father's mother, and all sorts of photographs and documents that are useful for someone trying to work out her genealogy. So, yes: there are distinct advantages to having packrats as parents.

Christy -- I agree wholeheartedly. There is something wonderful about turning useless things into useful ones -- or even works of art. In Japan, quilting has become popular in some circles. I was always amazed to find that Japanese quilters use NEW material. We never made quilts with anything that wasn't falling apart.

Carole -- You are one of us! Oh, boy, did we have a jar of buttons, and it was humongous! My mother also cut out and saved all fasteners: zippers, hook-and-eye bits, and snaps -- she even went for bits of elastic. We didn't do J. C. Penney, though; we were strictly Sears & Roebuck. And we cut out the figures from the kids' clothes pages to use as paper dolls. Did you do that too?

Anti-wife -- I agree that we ought to be able to live on less than we do, and my parents were past masters of this. I appreciate their frugality now, but I certainly didn't at the time.

Davimack -- That is funny! We could start a club: Children of Acquisitors Anonymous. Although I suspect your father was not anonymous in his habits and was likely as brazen about it as mine...

My father's older brother, a neurologist, was even worse than he was. His study was chock-a-block with old journals and books, and on top of this he collected pediatric reflex hammers (yes, really), insects, brass and other musical instruments, stamps, and books about Robin Hood. His collection of Robin Hood books, from countries all over the world and in all languages, was second in size only to one that happens to be in the City of Nottingham. He had to donate his prized collection to a museum in the end, where it now sits in a special refrigerated library, I kid you not.

Carole said...

Oh my yes. I'd forgotten about cutting out the pictures for doll clothes. I remember the saving elastic too.

It must be said that I do not do any saving. My kids are lucky I saved a lock of hair for them. And their report cards. I hate, hate, hate, junk and clutter. I've yet to get to the place where I think saving stuff of no earthly value is a virtue. Of course this gets me in trouble when I throw unmated socks out from the dryer, and then John finds the other mate in a couple of weeks. Oops.

Brian said...

I sit in awe !!!


buttons -- drawers full .
string -- enough for a Christo tie-up
rubber bands-- some so old they were in perished together lumps. Erm , I still save them .

But the real joy for me , as a tot ,was sorting out nuts, bolts and nails, screwing together those that fitted
My grandfather had a big biscuit tin that was a permanent source of such bits including angle brackets ,even the end brackets for roller blinds.

Great post , Mary . And great fun to read .


debra said...

Years ago, I gave my husband a lovely shirt for Christmas. Several years later, I found it, in the original wrapping, on a closet shelf. I asked him if he liked the shirt. He said he loved it but his other shirts weren't worn out yet. His father wears t-shirts that are so thin you can see through them, I found a box of newspapers in the basement that were from WWI.

allrileyedup said...

I am in awe of your parents. I love all their efforts (minus the towel one, because I do love me some fluffy towels). I save string like nobody's business. It's a real problem. As is my rag bag. One of these days I am going to learn how to make those rugs. I swear.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Mary,

If we could land somewhere in the middle, it might be nice. The things made today are not made to last as long as they used to be... my mother still has her Kirby upright vacuum cleaner, with all the attachements - from either 1959, or the very early 60's - she has a new vacuum, but the kirby actually works much better than any other I've ever used - but it's heavy as hell and I certainly wouldn't lug the sucker up the stairs. She still uses it on occasion though, because it's that good.

Button Jar - ha!!! My grandma had a whole sewing box full of buttons, and she sorted them, by color and size.

I wish I had letters from past generations, there's not really much of that that filtered down to me. But I do have my grandmother's pin, it's heartshaped with a picture of my dad in his army uniform on the front and back - she wore it the whole time he was in the pacific during WWII - I've heard they were popular for soldiers' moms and sweethearts but I've never seen another, and that I just adore.

I was born in the 70's to the generation that made famous the term decadence - luckily my parents were from a much older generation and I got a bit of both worlds and perspectives.

Merry Jelinek said...

Almost forgot -

Have you done your writing today?

A Paperback Writer said...

Buttons: check. Rubber bands off the newspaper and twist ties: check.
Rags: oh yeah, baby. EVERY scrap of clothing at my house gets turned into something (a leftover of the days of ripping rags to scrub down the silk screens in my dad's business). I have a rug made from clothing I wore in 1974 at my feet right now.
And usable clothing gets passed along too: my mom and aunt give me stuff, I give other stuff to my former students who don't have much money, etc. My brother's very expensive suits have now been passed along to a former student who could never have afforded them and does not care if they are 3 years out of style.
I could go on and on, but just days ago, my mother told me one that stunned even me. She told me she was still enjoying a drawerful of her own mother's nylon stockings. Folks, Grandma died in 1976!
I told her that using nylons over 3 decades old was a bit much, even for our family. But she is adamant that she likes them better than the pantyhose she usually wears.
Sigh. I guess I shouldn't complain. I saved a rusting dishwasher rack all summer to give it to the arts and crafts teacher at school so she could use it to dry papier mache on. (She loved it.)
But Grandma's old nylons? sheesh. (and my mom is a super-classy dresser, too)

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Good for you, throwing out those unmatched socks! I saved mine and ended up with several shopping bags full. At first I couldn't figure out what was happening, but then it struck me that when my kids brought down their laundry, they were less than careful about making sure all of their socks stayed together. Under one child's bed were half a dozen unmatched socks; under the others there were a legion. When I still ended up with unmatched socks, I finally realized that if I didn't want to spend a significant amount of my time agonizing over SOCKS, I had to do something. I stuffed all my spare socks into a nylon stocking, sealed the end, covered it -- and presto, I had a draft stopper. Two birds with one arrow, and I still have fun telling the kids that whatever sock they're looking for might be in the draft stopper.

Brian -- I loved those nails, nuts and bolts, too -- and the wonderful smell of hardware stores. I was trying to describe this to my kids and they got the wrong idea about hardware, imagining computers instead of all those great tools and barrels of bits. I save all of my rubber bands too, even though they do tend to end up in a melted lump, or so brittle that they snap when you try to use them. I know I probably won't use them, but I just can't help myself.

Debra -- Your husband is obviously a member of our club!

My mother carefully preserved the things she received as birthday presents. They were too good to use, so she squirreled them away in her 'best' drawers. After she died I cried my heart out just looking at them. Then I went and got out all the gifts I'd been squirreling away that were too good to use, and I used them. It went against the grain, but I did it.

Riley -- I love fluffy towels too, but I was about 30 before I even knew they existed. The towels we used were of very high quality -- even monogrammed -- but they ought to have been thrown out in 1955. We inherited my grandmother's linen napkins too, and my mother faithfully washed and ironed these frequently. We were the only family around who drank out of jelly jars but used monogrammed linen napkins.

Merry -- My mother sorted our buttons by size and color, too. I still keep buttons and my husband, a clandestine packrat and hoarder himself, used to tease me for this. But he never manages to find the buttons that he loses off his shirts, and my little collection has saved his precious shirts time after time.

I can picture your old vacuum cleaner. My mother had a very warm, close relationship with hers and preferred it to newer models too. Plus, it was such a comfortable, homey-looking contraption, heavy and roundish, but reliable. Too bad they aren't made like that anymore.

And thank you for that nudge -- I went right back to my manuscript and rewrote an entire chapter!

APW -- This is great: we really have a club going here. I think getting together a group of people who know how to recycle old things would be a lot of fun.

I've still got a quilt my mother made that has in it squares from many memorable garments, including a halter top I wore in 1974, my sister's high school formal, my first junior high sewing class blouse (a huge disaster), etc.

I depend on my friends for hand-me-downs, having almost no fashion sense myself. When my husband's niece got married last year, a friend of mine got me kitted out from hat right down to shoes and handbag. AND I got to keep the outfit -- she was finished with it! I don't just accept hand- me-downs, I eagerly welcome them. I pass things along quite happily too, when I cannot use them. Right now I could just about open my own shoe store...

I'm impressed with your mother's nylons: preserving stockings that long really takes some careful handling! I've got tights that I bought in 1985, but they're a little worse for wear, so they may get recycled into another door stop.

kathie said...

Great comment thread, Mary. I agree with all that was said about our generation needing a little bit of that frugalness in our lives. I wish I was a little more inclined to be that way. The trouble is, I do have an inclination toward saving stuff--but that's the difference, being frugal vs saving everything that's ever crossed your threshold because you can't stand to throw it out. Happy, medium, yes! I love all the stories about using items in different ways. A friend of mine, who I came to find out was the child of hoarders and I thought a coffee table book of people's stashes would be wildly successful...

debra said...

My father died in July. I found a box of letters my parents had written to each other, but I didn't read them. It seemed like an invasion of privacy. Maybe it's just too fresh...

Kim Ayres said...

I've been waiting for a moment to read this to Maggie as her parents are part of the war generation that lived through rationing and didn't waste a single thing.

A Paperback Writer said...

I have no idea how Mom managed to keep them that long. Perhaps she's been using several pairs at a time and is down to just a few now. Grandma was a saver, too.

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- I agree; I think a coffee table book of people's hoards and stashes would be fascinating. And a book about making do and creative recycling would too. You could feature interesting things like Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, fashioned almost entirely from garbage.

Debra -- Rather shamelessly, I read a few of my parents' letters to each other. They were mainly about prosaic things such as the scorpions where my father was living (he had a job in the desert at the time), the health of various relatives, and future job opportunities. Then I got busy and put them aside. But I never threw them away.

Kim -- I wonder if Maggie's parents missed being able to economize after the war. In Japan, there is a terrible divide between the pre- and post-war generations. The post-war generation is a lot more wasteful and takes so much for granted, whereas the people who lived through wartime privations still save everything and take nothing for granted.

APW -- I suspect there are a lot of closet (literally) savers out there. There may come a time when their saving skills will come in handy again and all the current wasters of the world will regard them with awe.