Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Cottages in the Irish Countryside

"But godliness with contentment is great gain." I Timothy 6:6

"And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse [any] falsely; and be content with your wages." Luke 3:14

"Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, [therewith] to be content." Philippians 4:11

"And having food and raiment let us be therewith content." I Timothy 6:8

"[Let your] conversation (behavior) [be] without covetousness; [and be] content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." Hebrews 13:5

In our ladies bible study yesterday, we were discussing the verse, John 6:12, in which Jesus, after having miraculously fed the 5,000 with just a little boy's lunch of fish and bread, instructs his disciples to: "...Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. "

This got us talking about the economy of God, which includes the fact that Jesus shows us his care and concern for the very least of us, and desires that none be lost. That God does not like waste, even in the natural sense, seems obvious to me, as well. We are admonished in Scripture to be thankful for what we have, not to squander it on foolishness, not to be envious, greedy, gluttonous, or hoarders and misers, but to enjoy what we have and share it with others.

The conversation continued with several of us, some older than me, talking about how their mothers or grandmothers conducted their lives in the Great Depression and for the years that followed.

Some of the younger ones were a bit surprised I think, to hear that people did some of the following:

darn (mend) holey socks

bathe more than one child in the same bathwater

turn collars on mens' shirts (remove collar from shirt, sew it back on with the worn side out, which doesn't show when you turn the collar down, and gives the shirt another lease on life).

hang clothes on the line to dry, both in summer and winter

hang pillows on the line to air them out

take worn clothes apart, to make other things out of them

use cloth diapers

Have you ever heard of the saying, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without"?

Well, that was the motto on the slightly worn, unseen coat of arms of the common man. My father and mother, who squeezed so much out of each penny that you could hear little Mr. Lincoln screaming, taught me a lot about frugality, I am finding, and mostly by just being around them and unconsciously being imprinted by their philosophy and behavior.

With the exception of turning collars, I have used all of the above strategies as a matter of course. There are tons of other little tidbits I could offer, and hope to in subsequent posts, but I think my overarching principle is to avoid spending your money at all if you don't have to. In other words, rather than buying something in bulk or at the Macy's ladies' 50% off dress sale and then bragging to everyone about the great deals you got, just don't buy the stuff at all, if you don't really need it.

If you can borrow a book at the library, why go out and buy it? Its good to have a few books, for reference or whatever, but for most books, it is probably unnecessary. Once you part with your good money to buy it, you have to store it, dust it, and wonder what to do with it when your bookshelf is overflowing.
If it is non-fiction and informational, make notes about what interests you, then drop it back off at the library when you are done.

The same goes doubly for DVD's. Good heavens, what a waste! So say I, anyway. Rent them. Nothing worse than having DVD's out the yingyang. Why would people work two jobs just to buy stuff like that, then trip all over it and finally put up with the worst purgatory on Earth - the yard sale? The yard sale is where you spend days assembling your junk, agonizing over what price to put on it, labeling said junk, then being ready at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning for the "early birds". You spend the next several hours alternatively trying, in the style of a used-car-salesman, to interest people into giving you good cash for this this crap sitting in your front yard, or haggling with people who think your fire-sale prices are over-inflated. Then, at the end, the vultures show up with their little Mr. Lincolns and you let them take your bunch of "lovely, expensive merchandise and prized heirlooms" away for about 1 percent of what you paid. Or worse, nobody buys much of anything, and you have to put all this junk back or load it up and cart it off to Goodwill or the dump.

I suppose my thinking would be considered eccentric, for sure, but I come by it honestly. I get it from my father. He was the king of saving little bits of this and that and finding good uses for them. Whatever you needed to have made or done could usually be supplied from his mysterious cellar. My mother said that when he married her, all he owned were his clothes in a small suitcase. Though we never saw him bring anything in the house, yet the cellar became full of old tools and infinite materials with which to fashion a really interesting life.

He also had a fondness for gathering wild food, (it was free!) and I must say, traipsing along with him in the fields and woods for wild berries, dandelions, fiddle-ferns and the like have been some of the most enjoyable times of my life, and have provided many sweet memories.

We went sledding and skating a lot. We didn't go skiing, as that was for rich people, but he came up with an old pair somewhere with which he invented his famous "ski-sled". This was the precursor of something they probably do now as a sport. His creation consisted of these giant (maybe water-) skis, upon which he built a wooden seat from scraps of old wood. Topping things off was a large sail-like thingy. One cold, winter day when the snow on the ground was good and solid, probably with a veneer of ice, he took my brother and I across the road to the field and we tried it out. I was about 4 or 5 years old.

We all got on the thing, and wow, did it take off! My dad and my brother either fell off the back or jumped off. I laughed at them and stayed on, enjoying the fact that I was four or five and going sixty or seventy all by myself! I looked back because they were yelling at me, "Get off, jump off!!!" I looked ahead at the chain link fence that I was headed for. After enjoying a few more seconds of wild delicious freedom, I jumped off, just in time to avoid the big crash. We all thought it was pretty funny.

Wow!! Tell me that homemade fun isn't FUN! Yeah, my Dad was a fun guy, and my mother, the neighborhood nervous wreck, was always fussing at him. But she herself was a domestic goddess and practiced some kind of alchemy, wherein she turned my Dad's lower middle-class paycheck into a golden life of warmth, good food, and everything we needed.

One thing my mother wasn't, was a slave to fashion. She had a small wardrobe, some of which was handed down from some sisters-in-law who were married to my uncles, the
(would you believe) used car salesmen. I think the only piece of real gold that she owned was in her thin wedding ring. She was extremely intelligent, a fabulous cook and baker, a real people-person who loved having company or going visiting, and was especially fond of playing poker for pennies, nickel limit.

So we always ate like kings, had small wardrobes ourselves but very good shoes (she was adamant about having "good support" for one's feet), slept in clean sheets in soft beds with fluffy, well-aired pillows and had lots of company, mostly other Italians who loved to talk really loud and make lots of jokes.

We did a lot of laughing, but to be honest, my mother also did a lot of screaming as she was quite high strung. Now, when I think back about that though, it makes me laugh, so all in all, I would put our frugal little life in the happy category, or should I say, we were quite contented with our life, and with ourselves.

I would just wish for people today to make do with less in order to have more time to enjoy their lives and to simply have fun. I will keep banging this drum, because I just want people to realize that they do not need all the things they are now afraid of losing. Even back then, my mother could have worked, I suppose. If she had, however, been out of the house with a full-time career (her little forays into and hasty retreats from peddling Avon and Sarah Coventry jewelry do not count), she wouldn't have been able to lay down with her toddler in the afternoon for a nap. There would not have been those mid-week trips downtown on the bus, nor the summer picnic lunches in the nearby park. And we wouldn't have come home from school to a cheery greeting from someone who loved us, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee and dinner in the oven.

We valued something other than "things". My father worked as a laborer (ditch digger) on construction when I was a child. That meant a lay-off slip for the winter, usually right before Christmas. We would make do all winter on his unemployment and the money they had saved from their tax return. They weren't afraid, they just did it, and we never noticed a difference in our lifestyle between winter and summer. Of course, we never had a new car, but we always had a used one, and you can guess who that came from.

Instead of things, my father had time. He would take us (walking) us to the public library once a week, as he was an avid reader of detective stories, and always in need of a weekly supply. And of course, unemployment freed him up all the more for all the skating, sledding, and inventing of the strange and the wonderful. I still have the little hammer that I used to bang nails into scrap wood with, down in the cellar next to my Dad while he worked on his projects.

So, I urge us to relax a little, and relax! We don't need big houses (ours was 1100 square feet), new cars, and entertainment that you have to pay a lot of money for. If we have someone to love, we have 99% of what we could ever need or want. If we don't, we can find someone, which is pretty easy. Just make sure you have time to talk really loud, tell stories and laugh with them... a lot!!!!!!!

A village in upstate NY


  1. I LOVED this post! What a wonderful story, thank you!

  2. This is so good. While I was reading it I thought about your parents, remembering their faces and how they always exuded the "contentment" you describe when I saw them during their visits to your home. What you have described is something that we can only learn from our elders and it is something that has been vastly undervalued for many years now. Your parents had a quality that I usually think of as something belonging to children: they radiated life. And so do you! love, annie

  3. Thanks, Mrs. D and Annie.

    Annie, your words are so kind. But I also had to laugh when I read your comment, because I was remembering when you and Katie came over for Christmas Eve either 1986 or 87, and my parents were there. Do you remember, it was like 70 degrees outside and Bob insisted on having a roaring fire going in the fireplace? Then you and I were just taking our time, visiting and laughing while we were preparing dinner, and my mother was there in the kitchen, overheated, hungry, with nerves approaching critical mass. I'm sure my father was in the background giving everybody smouldering looks of disapproval.

    I just remember them being really ticked off - they were radiating, alright!! I feel so badly now, when I think of all the foolishness my parents had to endure from me. Oh well, may they be rewarded now in heaven, and may they know that I'm getting it all back, as I'm being put through the ringer by my kids, on a somewhat regular basis!!

  4. I don't remember your father "smoldering" but I do remember how your mom was fretful on at least one occasion. But hey, people radiate life in lots of different ways. I remember them as being basically goodhearted and having presence, being opinionated and accepting at the same time. I'm going to have to find out my old photos of those times.
    As for your kids, I can't tell you how much I admire you for your courage and passion as a mother and wife. Your kids are such individuals and radiate the same energy of life that you do. I am so very glad to have you as a friend.

  5. I really love you, Annie!

  6. Anonymous12:36 AM

    Are you sure I am not your older sister? We had the same life and parents it seems! :) Life was So Good wasen't it. Not fancy but who thought it could be any better? I would give my kids the kind of life with the same people and times I had any day!! :) Sarah


Please feel free to comment by clicking here.