Monday, February 23, 2009

Want less, Waste less

By Patricia Smiley

My television is a Sony Trinitron, carbon dated 1984. It still works even though it’s so bulky there is a perception that I have a Hummer parked in my office. I don’t have a DVD player. I probably wouldn’t know how to hook it up and besides, it seems like a waste of money for something I would rarely use. I like to watch movies in a theater.

My hair dryer is prehistoric. I’ve dropped it a few times and eventually became concerned that the duct tape holding it together might be flammable. So I bought a new dryer but kept the old one…you know…in case I need a spare for houseguests.

I returned hangers to the dry cleaners long before it was fashionable, and I once asked the manager of my local supermarket if I could recycle my egg cartons. He told me no, all the time staring at me as if he was mentally measuring me for a straight jacket.

It’s not that I’m cheap—well, maybe a little—it’s just that I was raised by parents who survived the Great Depression and World War II and who imbued me with a “Want Less, Waste Less” philosophy of life.

When I was a child, everybody conserved resources in my neighborhood. Women collected bacon grease in old Crisco cans. My mother reused aluminum foil and my father saved the rubber bands that molded our daily newspaper into a log-like roll. Jelly jars became drinking glasses, and flour sacks morphed into dishtowels and pillowcases. Add a little embroidery and voila! Everybody's a household fashionista.

On Saturday, I sat down with my mother to discuss her experiences during the Great Depression. She told me her family didn’t suffer any hardships. In fact, she has fond memories of that time. I reminded her that she was already poor, so she may not have felt the same loss that others did.

“I guess,” she said, “but nobody complained back then. Not like now, people whining about every little thing.”

At the time of the stock market crash, my mother was a child living with her family on a leased 80-acre farm where her parents raised chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs. They sold everything but the eggs, which my grandmother traded for needed items, including ten dozen per month for my mother’s piano lessons. Twice a week, the man who owned Tweeds Rolling Grocery van came by the house and swapped food for eggs.

A friend of the family, who sold bakery goods door-to-door, scheduled my grandmother’s house as his last stop, because she cooked dinner for him in exchange for sweet rolls.

My grandparent’s bank did not go belly-up, but it wouldn’t have impacted them much if it had, because they didn’t keep a lot of money in the account. I asked my mother what else she remembered from that time.

“Dad had a grinder,” she said. “He ground grain for all the neighbors who couldn’t afford one of their own.”

“How much did he charge?” I said.

She shot me an incredulous stare. “Nothing. They were our neighbors.”

As we seem to be slipping into another Great Depression, I asked myself if I would be willing to grind wheat for my neighbor, especially the one who has never once invited me to one of his swimming pool parties. Okay, so maybe I would, but only if he agreed to keep his yappy little dog from barking all night.

Just in case we don’t pull out of this economic slump in the near future, does anybody have a grain grinder they want to barter? I’d be willing to trade it for a used hair dryer and a couple of empty egg cartons. Will a vintage TV sweeten the deal?

Happy Monday.


  1. Patty - a terrific post, and one that brought back many memories. My parents grew up in the depression in Britain, which was closely followed by WW2 rationing, and that did not end until four months before I was born! Woe betide the child who did not eat every scrap of food at dinner, and leftovers were always kept for a "fry up." That's something I still do - just throw in a few herbs and you're all set! My mother kept all the wrappers from margarine and butter, as they could be used to line cake tins. And you kept things (tools and appliances) until they really could be used no more - and there were still people around who could fix them for you if they broke. There was more to it than thrift, there was a respect for the enormity of purchase - whether of a grain grinder, a spoon or an item of clothing - you respected the work it cost to make the money and the money it cost to buy a thing. I'm not saying it was the best way, but as soon as I was old enough to work (and in a farming community, that's about six!), I knew it was no good expressing the fact that I "wanted" something, because my parents believed that I should work for the non-necessities of life myself. In fact, I remember, as a child, telling my mother that I "wanted" something, and she said, "Well, now you know what it is to want - call it an experience!"

    I have an old-ish Volvo station wagon that is going very nicely, thank you. Yes, at times I think I would love a car that didn't have the odd rattle here and there, but that thing still goes, and a new used car would be more than I needed right now, so I have decided to drive it until it diverts to the breaker's yard of its own accord.

    A few years ago a friend of mine said that her new "mantra" (for want of a better word), was to ask the question, "What does it mean to have enough?" It's a good one in these times.

  2. I knew you would have something brilliant to say about this subject, Our J. Just yesterday I saw an article in the paper about a couple of cobblers in my area who could make old shoes look like new. My favorite shoes are at least 15 years old. I've had them repaired several times but the last time wasn't a success. Now I have a new resource. Yay! And BTW, I still have tools that belonged to my grandfather.

  3. I remember asking my father if he was poor growing up in Pittsburgh. He said, "Yeah, but so was everyone else." It never fazed him.

    Jim B

  4. Maybe that's why when I reminded my mother that she was poor, she said, "I guess so."

  5. Sorry but I've crawled into a small bunker with limited provisions after reading Paul's take on "the outlook" [9feb]..... the impending fatalistic nihilism of the always uplifting Leonard Cohen. I'm sorry, but that Cohen guy is reeaallly depressing.
    The contrast of this post along with "our J's" contribution is very uplifting.
    "Waste not, want not."


  6. Jon, you shouldn't have limited your provisions. You never know how long you may need to stay in that bunker :O) Never fear, I'm starting a Victory Garden and will give you all the rutabagas you can eat. I'll even grind them for you.

  7. I grew up in a small dairy-farming town in Lycoming County, PA. My pals and I sneaked into the tool and die shop because it had the last 5-cent Coke machine in town. A Penny Pretzel cost, what else, a penny at the lunch counter. At home, we enjoyed fine dining when we removed the labels from the Welch's grape jelly jars so they could be used as drinking glasses.

    The blue bookmobile came to town from the "city," as we called Williamsport, and we enjoyed the private pleasures of reading.

    The Fire Deparment consisted solely of volunteers. A town carnival and some bingo games raised money for equipment.

    Doors were unlocked; there wasn't much to steal except some antique sideboards that would be damn hard to carry.

    Are today's values warped? Jeez, even Tammy Wynette sings, "Silver Screens and Limousines; They wait for me in Southern California."

    Excellent, timely post Patty.

  8. It was the limited provisions that made me come out off the bunker and resupply....with the lastest post from Go-Lo...

    amongst all this frugality, though, wasn't there recently talk about an "electronic" book reader that costs hundreds [but may come down to around $100].....



  9. “I guess,” she said, “but nobody complained back then. Not like now, people whining about every little thing.”

    Have I mentioned lately how much I love your mum, Patty?

    One little thing I remember about growing up in small town Iowa was that everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody else's business--and never mentioned it. Oh, and how great was it that products like crackers and adhesive bandages came in tins that you could reuse, instead of tossing away?

    I know my parents were poor, both raised on small farms. However, I'm pretty sure that they didn't. And my dad's stories of growing up with six brothers are a wealth in and of themselves.

  10. Being back in school has hit my wallet hard. I got very used to being able to go out to eat when I was married, but fortunately I do know how to cook, I just have to talk myself into doing it.

    The main problem? My roommate's idea of cooking is boxed macaroni & cheese, rice mixes, and frozen dinners. Most of my friends aren't any better, so if I want to encourage myself to cook, I end up inviting people over for a big 'friends' potluck night or for leftovers, which I'm not a big fan of.

    I'm determined to stay away from fast food and pizza delivery one way or another...

  11. Paulie, somehow I can't imagine you living in small town America. And I LOVED the book-mobile that came to my neighborhood each summer. I think they still have them in some places.

  12. Yes, Jon, but think of all the trees you'd be saving.

    Jeff, you're lucky. People in the small town I was from knew everybody's business and talked about it. Yeah, those band-aid tins were great for storing VITs (very important things).

    Norby, I love pot-luck dinners because you get to experience different kinds of food. Nobody does the p-l thing in L.A. I miss it. Hey, everybody, let's all met at Norby's place tonight for dinner!

  13. Mum loves you right back, Jeff.

  14. I knew Paul grew up with cows around, don't ask me how.

    I love this post; my mom (now 87) will sometimes wax on what it was like in Salina KS as the Depression overtook everything around her. Like Patty, my grandfather ran a bank, a savings and loan, and it survived, and so did his family. But now I'm going on-line and finding a grain grinder. May be more important than a laptop in another year.

  15. Ridley, you're so funny.

  16. I learned depression era recycling from my nana's knee - including how to make 'rissoles' extended with bread and 'bubble and squeak' next morning in the frypan with leftovers. :-D

    I served a stint on a country Bookmobile in Australia back in 1980. :-D The smell of bluegums, the quiet and the hush of insect song made a nice background noise at least at one stop.

    I recycle what I can, but the set up here in America leaves much to be desired; sorry to say that Canada and Australia are much more dedicated. Japan even more so...

    Wonderful post, Patty. :-D

    I am currently disposing of some of my mother-in-law's things and am pleased to find homes for much among friends in need. The remainder will eventually go to charity.


  17. Marianne, having gone through the difficult task of sorting through things that once belonged to a loved one, my thoughts are with you. Stay well.

  18. It wasn't until I was well into my 30's that we had any money. So, we learned to make do. Fortunately, I had been trained for it. My father didn't make what you'd call a good salary until after I'd enlisted and then I went to school on the GI Bill, $170/month and I had to pay tuition, books, rent and food out of that. I remember my rent was $85. Half my check.

    When I was growing up I spent summers with my grandmother. She lived in a small house in a dying mill town on the Monongahela River. She was a widow living on Social Security but always had an extra dime so I could buy a comic book or an ice cream cone.

    She often talked about how my grandfather kept the family fed during the 30's. He'd hunt squirrel and groundhog, deer in season. Part of the time he ran a small candy store and, rumor had it, ran numbers out of the place.

    My grandmother collected mushrooms, watercress and dandelions. Some days all the kids got for dinner was toast and gravy.

    She taught me how to make "diner soup" out of hot water, ketchup and saltines, soup that I lived on once while hitch-hiking across the country.

    God, I don't want to have to live like that again. I don't think I'm as resilient as I used to be.

  19. By the way, this was a terrific post. Thanks.

    Did I tell you all how happy I am you're back from your extended leave?

  20. Great stories, David, and did we tell you how happy we are to have YOU back?

  21. And, OH! Maybe that's why we were all so thin back then. We didn't have enough to eat. You can find a blessing in every little thing.

  22. Thanks, Patty. It was exhausting today, but a lot of good clothes and some kitchen stuff went to a dear friend who cooed over her loot and sent thankful thoughts to my mum in law's spirit.

    Ten big trash bags of clothes and shoes will go to Big Sisters soon. A pity I couldn't find homes for a couple of Marks and Spencer double breasted blazers - but don't know anyone they would fit. :-)

    Must go back with more boxes and bags...


  23. Hope you're saving some of her recipes, Marianne. Every Christmas I make cookies from the recipes of a friend who died of breast cancer. She would consider it a great tribute to her.

  24. Marianne,

    I'm sorry for the task. I truly am.

    A few years ago we had to clean out my mother-in-law's apartment. She never threw away anything. Every drawer was filled with trivia, like birthday cards from 1983, to treasures like family photos from the 1890's.

    In one trunk we found, intermixed with the Lillian Vernon catalogs, a pair of museum-quality women's shoes from the 1850s (no left or right).

    Recently, I broke open a footlocker we'd hauled from house to house and there, on the top, was a newspaper with the 98 pt headline: JAPS SURRENDER!

    Beneath that was a picture of my wife at age 6 or 7 with Jack Dempsey and her father's dog tags from the war. He had been one of those airborne troops dropped into Normandy on June 6, 1944.

    Family treasure, whether memories or more tangible things like dog tags, they're the things that connect us along our shared history, aren't they.

    Good luck with your task, and may you find real treasure as a reward.

  25. Wow, David, what a fabulous time capsule you found. Too bad the avenue for discovery is always sad.