Borrow a set of bunk beds from a relative whose children have outgrown them; carpool to school and work; give homemade gifts to family and friends at Christmas.
Twenty years ago the list was a survival guide my husband, Bob, and I knew by heart. When we agreed that I would quit my job and stay home to raise the first of our two sons, it was a decision that seemed foolhardy to many, considering that Bob’s career was still in flux and his income modest. I overheard more than one acid remark from disapproving co-workers. Now when I recollect how we scraped by with only the essentials, I, too, am amazed by my audacity.
But you won’t catch me smirking with a “been there, done that” attitude when I read about today’s economic hardships. The lean years Bob and I experienced were voluntary. My model for true indigence was my parents, who grew up in hardscrabble circumstances during the Great Depression. Their bare bones existence, where they didn’t always enjoy three meals a day or own a suitable pair of shoes, was not a choice.
Many of the ways we cut costs two decades ago (and still do) were lessons my mother instilled when I was a teenager, although I tried my best not to pay attention. I’d turn impatiently away from her stories about the poverty so many suffered back in her day and flee to my bedroom with the latest issue of Tiger Beat. I was thirteen, and a photo feature of The Beatles vacationing in the Bahamas was a lot more compelling than Depression tales.
She’d be happy to know her cost cutting practices permeated my rebellious teenage brain, anyway. One of my weekend chores was hanging the wash on our clothesline, and I still use a clothesline today. And while a plastic line for hanging laundry was OK, I grew up knowing a line of credit from a plastic card was not. My parents reluctantly turned to credit if an important appliance broke down and couldn’t be repaired, then treated the monthly statements like hot potatoes that had to be tossed away as quickly as possible. My mother would find a way to scrimp on her grocery bill in order to double each payment due and pay off the debt that much more quickly.
She sewed almost all my clothes, and when the holidays rolled around she put her skills with a needle and thread to use creating gifts for relatives. Inexpensive white cotton dish towels that she bought at the five and dime and then personalized with embroidery were a favorite solution to gift giving. She embroidered one set of towels with the days of the week. Embroidered pillowcases, hand knit socks and kitchen aprons were a few of the other gifts she made.
About this time my brother was saving his newspaper route money for a built-in swimming pool, stashing all his coins in a mayonnaise jar. I loved the thought of a pool in our backyard, but deep down I knew it was a pipe dream. What didn’t end up being a dream were the white go-go boots I desperately wanted when I was in junior high school. I knew better than to ask for extravagances, but the go-go boots were different. I thought I’d die if I didn’t get a pair.
I don’t know how she did it, but my mother bought them, and nothing to this day is sweeter than my memory of those white leather boots nestled in tissue paper in a shoebox.
I didn’t inherit my mother’s needlework skills, but for several Christmases during our lean period, when our sons were small, Bob and the kids and I made candles, cookies and origami Christmas ornaments – for us, and as gifts for relatives. We still hang our homemade ornaments on the Christmas tree every year, and the sight of them grips me in a way that’s impossible to explain.
Our boys were elementary school age when we made them, and they didn’t know about budgets, or the difference between having it all and having just enough. What mattered were Mom and Dad bringing out colorful paper and scissors and the family sitting on the living room floor making cool Christmas decorations. Even if their mother had a fit when she couldn’t get the Santa just right.
Next time I talk to my brother, I'll have to ask him what ever happened to his jar of coins. Maybe they ended up as the down payment on the swimming pool he eventually had built when he was grown and had kids of his own. Just as our origami ornaments were a down payment on a memory that grows richer year after year.