My Mother's Shirt and Other Values We Got from Our Parents

Please join Simple Steps in a discussion about the throwaway society, American habits and values, the ways of our parents and grandparents and the wisdom we can learn from them as we embark on the second decade of the 21st century. Here's our first entry.

Is it the recesssion or are we all getting just a bit more mindful of our consumption—what we need, what we don't and what we waste? I for one have made a number of adjustments in my routine this past year. I no longer buy coffee at the deli but make it at home and carry it in a thermos to work. We eat more meals at home that we make from scratch, things like soups and sauces that we used to get ready to eat in a can or jar. We travel more by train and bus and less by car and plane.

What's curious is that almost every small change I have made reminds me of my parents—their thriftiness, how they took care of things and wasted nothing. This past weekend I was at my dad's, making soup stock from the remains of a chicken we'd had for dinner the night before. Once the stock was ready, I gave the bones to my dad who ground them up into meal for the dog. Not a bit of that three-pound broiler went to waste; my dad used every part to feed some member of the household at least one meal if not two.

My dad's a true "waste-not-want-not" sort who appreciates the worth of things. He repairs before replacing and patches before he discards. He works hard and he expects his things to work hard too. I've yet to figure out how to load the dishwasher as well as my dad. His is tightly packed with plates, bowls and glasses. I tend to mix it up more with pots and pans that don't fit together so hyper-efficiently. Even when I'm loading the dishwasher in the privacy of my own kitchen, I can hear him ribbing me about how much more he could fit in.

Today I'm wearing a shirt of my mom's; it’s well-worn but in really good shape nonetheless. It was my Christmas present from my dad and I like it as much if not more than if it were new. My parents were "materialists" according to Wendell Berry's definition— they conserved, were thoughtful about resources, mindful of what value they provided and what wasting them cost. Their lives were organized by the old World War II motto: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

Thriftiness when we were growing up was in equal parts about saving money and not wasting it. My parents installed solar panels on our house during the oil shocks of the 1970s and composted food scraps for as long as I can remember. The same weekend as I made the soup, my son asked his grandfather how much of the household energy expense did the solar panels defray, and  his answer was "pretty much everything but the hot water" which meant a pretty good savings on the monthly energy bill. But it wasn't all about saving money. Being conservation-minded, efficient with resources, was just plain smart, and I don't believe our family was so unusual. Americans aren't wasteful by tradition. In fact, the very American ethic of self-reliance is deeply tied to conservation, at a level that transcends political allegiance.

Are you reminded these days of the wiser ways of your parents or grandparents, of the things they would say, or how they would do things? Share your stories, or theirs, with the Simple Steps community. We can all learn from them.

Photo credit: Northwestern Library World War II Poster Collection


Sadly, the new consumer "ethic" is often accompanied by the loss (or laying aside) of those skills that allow us the freedom of the old one!
I always looked forward to my bag of hand-me-downs growing up, and we always had a huge garden, in the middle of the suburbs, with limitations on TV and focus on reading books and outdoor vacations with the family. I don't blame the media, I blame the parents. Complain that kids don't go out and play outside yet still buying your kids video games? Duh. Don't buy video games. Set rules. Know your kids' friends' parents - they can be your allies. Schedule outdoor time. Don't expect kids to decide on their own especially if their friends are focused on materialism and technology - you don't HAVE to buy them whatever they want and not spending thousands on crap for them at the holidays doesn't make you a bad parent. In fact, it's the opposite. Parents need to take a hell of a lot more accountability instead of whining about how the world is - most of us who have kids right now grew up in the 80's and saw the world changing into a more 'me', 'instant gratification' world, yet so many are focused on being their kids' 'friend' rather than their Parents, and are living the bad habits they are passing on to their kids. Everything is a choice - we are not helpless.
I agree with this whole-heartedly. I have to say that I think part of our problem in how we became such a throw-away society is the fault of inventors/developers and manufacturers. We are forever being barraged with new technology that makes us think 'I have to have that' There is always something newer, better, faster; it does more things, clearer picture, holds more stuff. For instance a cell phone is no good to some people within a few months. Suddenly that cell phone that is only a year old and was the 'state of the art' is now obsolete or boring or just not good enough because there is a new one on the market. It's shiner or comes in fancy colours. Instead of that cell phone just making telephone calls, it also stores and plays music and it takes pictures, you can get on the internet with it. So at one time we were satisfied with having a cell phone to call a friend, now we are only satisified if it can do everything, a computer, camera, tv, radio and phone can do all rolled into one. I for one don't care. My cell phone gets used when I am away from home and I need to contact someone to let them know I'm on my way. This to me has bred a lazy society. We can no longer sit down and write a letter by hand, look a person in the eye while having a conversation with them face to face because our head is bent while staring at a screen while texting. A sit down dinner made from what we have in the cupboard is a lifestyle of the past. Now it's all about hurry up, pop it in the microwave, no time to talk cause I have to get that new computer monitor that's on sale! I am a 35 mother of 3 and I am so disgusted with our youth because they are the generation that the products and advertising of those products are geared to. They no longer go outside to play a game of baseball or skate at the park. It's all about the latest video or video game, chatting on MSN or Facebook. I remember being outside from the time I got up until it was too dark. We had a blast! Hide 'n Seek, Tag, bike riding. I worry that it isn't going to get better. We are addicted to technology and how do stop the addiction if those manufacturers don't want to stop making money?

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