The Economy of Family

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

My mother is a child of the Depression: She throws out nothing.

We always knew this without ever consciously acknowledging it, because as children we were plagued a couple times a week by Mother’s lovingly prepared olios of leftovers. But the lesson of salvage Mother learned during the Depression became impressively clear when my siblings and I descended last week on our widowed mother’s home for the final accounting and dispersal of its contents.

We opened a lovely hatbox, anticipating a trove of fashion treasure adorned with feathers and veils and rhinestone studded hatpins. Instead, we found a hoard of decades old batteries, light bulbs for appliances no longer made, shoe button hooks with broken handles. The antique wooden box with hand-carved dovetail joints, oozing historicity and the hope of another era’s baubles, opened to a stash of carefully compacted plastic shopping bags from Foodtown. The bits of felt, fake gems and snippets of grosgrain ribbon with which Mother once created tally cards for the bridge clubs of yore were still tidily organized in the brittle lining of a faded cherry cordials box. A multitude of photographs — Ye gods!, as Mother would say — filled copious recycled containers: shoeboxes of forgotten brands, reused envelopes, file folders with thrice relabeled tabs. And fifty years of humor-filled letters and greeting cards reflected the gradual acceptance of scatological content in polite conversation (surely, our family pioneered it).

Nope, my mother throws out nothing.

We found an iron skillet full of bacon grease in the oven — ready for frying an egg or a chicken thigh or our favorite, creamed chipped beef. Six styles of black dance shoes, in graduated states of wear, rested in a closet, one for each of the last six decades, and a lonely Keds sneaker waited in a bathroom corner for Mother to happen upon a lucky match at a yard sale. The stubs of every check our parents ever wrote told the history of their cautious consumption, when they weren’t paying with the evermore reliable cash. A vintage milk box held — guess what — carefully compacted plastic shopping bags from Foodtown. And Mother held onto every card tablecloth she ever owned, whether hand-me-downs from her mother or later acquisitions. She even kept the quilted covers that went under the linen cloths to protect ladies’ dainty wrists from the table’s edge — neatly folded in a box from a dress shop long out of business.

As we harvested the house, it was sometimes hard to know what was a family treasure and what was the result of Mother’s penchant for yard sale and thrift store shopping. Should we really part with that little rug? Was it saved from a neighbor’s curb on junk day, before the garbage truck could haul it away, or was it made of our ancestors’ threadbare suits and camel’s hair coats a grandmother or great aunt cut into strips and braided into renewal? We worried about tossing all the plastic shopping bags released from countless caches while Earth Day was upon us. We fretted how we could possibly stuff eighty years of recipes and books and art and music and living into our four homes already filled with the fruits of contemporary consumption. And we occasionally bickered — not about what went to whom but about the proper style and order of the packing. Just like our parents.

Ultimately, it took the seventy-eleventh fingertip cut on the dreaded packing tape dispenser, and the consequent round of sobbing and laughter, to stop the desperate grasp for our parents’ life and face the exquisite loss of it. Father is dead and Mother’s delightful light is subtly fading, just a few decades before our own. No manner of memorabilia, no family heirloom cum childhood fort, no book with a hundred-years-old inscription will perpetuate our family. Our stories and aspirations, our love and anger, our sorrows and joys; these things cannot reside in objects.

But Mother and Father’s wisdom lives on — as we forgive each other our foibles, as we recycle with added vigor, as we take the previous generation into our homes and nurture them to their deaths, as we honor the ingenuity, love and humor that helped them survive the Depression by emulating those things today.

If nothing else, I hope our offspring learn the lesson that a plastic shopping bag, if they absolutely must use one, is actually packing material for china or throw pillow stuffing or a litter box liner — and that however downward the economy might spiral, we will always be rich in family. … Oh — and that laughing at elevator farts is far preferable to excusing them.

©2009 Kit-Bacon Gressitt

(Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted from Kit-Bacon Gressitt's personal blog, Excuse Me, I'm Writing.)

(The photo shows a family migrating from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California during the Great Depression; the photo is in the public domain.)

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