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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Hanging On

I wrote a blog post the other day called A Plastic Spoon, which referred to a line from a song, and what I thought plastic spoons would have made my mother say. My mother had to feed a family of six on very little money, so she would never have made a habit of buying things that would be used once and then thrown away. Heck, there was no way on earth she could have afforded it. A special Sunday feast for us would be one roasted chicken, with some side dishes, of course. When there's one chicken for six people, the youngest kid's portion is always a drumstick. To this day, that is always the last piece I will reach for. My oldest sister, Margit, once told me of a time when Mama had a meltdown of sorts. She threw up her hands and told Margit, "I'm tired of this. I've had enough. You try to feed six people with one potato." And apparently that's what Margit had to do. Papa didn't make a great deal of money, but he always had his cigarettes and his beer. And spent plenty of time in the local bar. But he was the boss of the family, so we made do with what money was left.

I digress. When I published the piece I mentioned, I was pleasantly surprised at how many chords it struck (see how I tied in the musical theme there?) with so many people, about their own families. I think it is safe to assume that my mother had learned frugality way before her marriage. Living through the worldwide economic crisis, World War II, and the struggles to find enough to eat during the postwar Soviet occupation made frugality an everyday necessity. I found a common thread among readers whose parents had lived through the same times.

Some people told me of how their parents never could, or never can, throw anything away, and that their parents always have an overstocked pantry and fridge. My Gram, who raised me, had three kids to raise during The Great Depression. She also experienced rationing during WWII. Not only did she have a problem with throwing things away, she also liked to keep a plentiful stock of basics on hand. She usually had several bags of flour and sugar in her basement storage area, along with a supply of canned goods. Her experiences had ingrained in her a fear that want could strike at any time. So you always kept plenty of certain goods on hand because you didn't want to be caught without if times got rough.

Any time I bought a pair of shoes, she would tell me that I needed to save the cardboard box. "You might be glad you saved that box one day. You never know when you might need some cardboard to patch a hole in the sole of your shoe". Any extra buttons that came with clothing were put into her button tin, and quite often, when clothes were worn enough to be thrown out, the buttons were removed and put in the box. Because you never know. Incidentally, I'd love to have that button box. It was a treasure trove of buttons of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Some were plain, some quite fancy. And some were still on the card they had been sold on at the fabric or five-and-dime store. I could make jewelry for days with that treasure trove, and other things as well!

Another thing that was mentioned was finding things to take home or save. Paper clips, rubber bands, plastic bags, and condiment packets were some of the things mentioned. Again, these people are remembering the things that were so difficult to find when they were younger. You might need those paper clips to hold something together. And again, you never know when sugar will be hard to come by. And some ketchup packets mixed with hot water - tomato soup. These people aren't like magpies and crows that are attracted to bright and shiny things. They are more like squirrels setting things aside for the cold season.

While I understand what motivated Gram, and my parents, to hang on to everything, I also see it having a ripple effect. Many of the children and grandchildren of these savers and storers are in danger of carrying on these behaviors, but in a more negative way. Since they grew up with the pattern of hanging on to everything, it becomes a part of their mindset, too. But they aren't saving things for future use, they're just saving them because that is all that they have ever known. Trent and I have come to a point in our lives where we have to go through memorabilia or things we just couldn't bear to part with in the past and ask ourselves, "How important is this in my life?" And it's not like we have any kids who will be clamoring for mom and dad's treasures. So, from time to time, we will give something away to someone we know will love and appreciate and use it. For example, a couple of years ago, I gave my friend Marie a bisque porcelain Nativity set that I have treasured for many years. All I asked is that people in future generations of her family will know who it came from and what kind of person I was. That's enough for me. And it will give me much more joy than just shuffling around another cardboard box!