Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Depression Era Legacies

Although my mother was just a small child during the years of the Great Depression, her formative experiences from 1933 to 1939 and throughout the war years shaped her beliefs and practices in ways that have lasted a lifetime. Perhaps more surprisingly, they also have had an impact on the way that I have lived my life, even though I am a baby boomer born in good economic times. The habits of thrift, of bearing up and finding ways of making do during hard times, being careful with money, working hard, and never taking good times for granted were all things I learned growing up with Mom.

Some things, like certain old family recipes, I can see in retrospect were actually substitutions for items that, during the depression, had become unavailable luxuries. I grew up eating homemade pancake syrup, made with brown sugar and water heated in a pan on the stove. I was probably in my thirties before I stopped making "syrup" this way and bought my first bottle of syrup from a store. It was another ten years after that that I splurged and began to buy real maple syrup (but only once in awhile, for a treat). Similarly, Mom used to make lettuce salad dressed with vinegar and sugar. I think it was not so much creative cookery (although my Mom is a good cook), as a way to compensate for not being able to obtain or afford salad dressing. Of course, by the time I was growing up, salad dressing was readily available in stores, and except during tight financial times for a few years when I was quite young, my parents could afford to buy salad dressing. But habits become ingrained, and beliefs and behaviours learned early often are never questioned.

One of the depression era principles was, "Make it yourself." My Mom used to make Popsicles for us when we were children. She would save the plastic moulds that the chocolate Easter bunnies came in (thrift) as well as the wooden popsicle sticks on the rare occasions that we had actual store-bought popsicles, and then freeze Kool-aid or Freshie in the moulds. All the kids in the neighbourhood would congregate at our house and enjoy giant purple bunny popsicles. She also made homemade root beer in beer bottles that she saved and sterilized. I'm sure you can picture the scene: neighbourhood children swaggering about in the backyard, sucking back root beer out of beer bottles on a hot summer day. The root beer was very popular. Mom continued making it for years, until one disastrous occasion when the caps popped off some of the bottles as the root beer was curing, and it foamed out all over the shoes in my parents' bedroom closet. (It had to be stored in a warm dark place for a few weeks to develop its flavour and fizzyness.)

In keeping with the do it yourself approach, my parents always had a vegetable garden, and Mom canned and froze the produce, which we ate throughout the winter. In particular, we had many raspberry canes, as well as other berry bushes like gooseberries and red and black currants. All summer long we helped Mom pick berries, which she made into jam and jelly, using recycled jars that she saved or was given by friends. There was always far more jam than we could eat, and my Mom would give it away to anyone who wanted some. I remember her cursing the damn berries that need to be picked already again, but out she would go to pick them and then she'd make another batch of jam. We did not need so many berries or so much jam, but my Mom simply could not waste the fruit. Waste not, want not -- another depression era principle.

Mom also was frugal with money. For several decades she kept a dime-saver in the kitchen. This was a cardboard folder with slots for fifty dimes. Whatever change was left lying around or that she retrieved from pants pockets in the laundry or from under the couch cushions, she tucked into the dime-saver. Once she had filled it, she would take the dimes out and roll them, then walk down to the bank and deposit the five dollars in a special savings account that she had opened. Even back then, a dime wasn't worth much, so as you can imagine, the savings account grew very slowly.

This frugal habit extended to household objects as well. My Mom had three pairs of scissors when I was growing up: the barber scissors used to cut my brothers' hair (thus avoiding having to pay a barber), her sewing scissors that had been her grandmother's and which we were not allowed to use in case we dulled them by cutting something other than cloth, and the kitchen scissors. The kitchen scissors were kept in the third drawer (the drawer is a story for another time), and they were wretchedly dull. The entire family used them to cut everything from twine to cardboard to wire. They were probably not of very good quality to begin with, and after a time they became next to useless, but Mom would not throw them out or replace them. Likewise, she keeps her towels until they are threadbare, and has the nice new ones she has received as gifts tucked away so they don't get ruined, or displayed on towel racks, but not actually used. Eventually the threadbare towels are recycled; she moves them to the laundry room and uses them to lay out the hand washing on, and finally they are cut up to serve as rags (thus reducing the need for paper towels).

In this time of throw-away materialism and store-bought culture, there is something to be said for the depression era approach. I certainly have continued to live by many of my Mom's depression era principles. I've made pancake syrup, salad dressing, Popsicles, root beer, and endless amounts of jelly and jam. I've saved my coins and rolled them, and I keep a cheque register and balance it every month. I recycle my towels and old tee shirts into rags, and sometimes don't get around to replacing items until they are very shabby. For example, I have a set of lamps in my living room that are 25 years old. They were cheap, not very attractive lamps to begin with, and the lampshades have been shredded by children, pets, and several moves. I have been meaning to get new lamps for....years. But somehow, it seems like a big investment and big decision, and I haven't got around to it.

I guess, for me, the interesting thing about all this is that I took for granted this way of living, and only recently made the connection that my Mom's practices arose from her depression era experiences. I wonder if I have passed onto my children some of the same beliefs and behaviours that i learned from my Mom? Looking at the bigger picture, I think it is fascinating the way we create a culture by our principles and daily details of living, and how we pass on those ways to others, sometimes across multiple generations. Another thing that I am thinking is that it is good to sometimes stop and reflect about taken for granted ways of behaving; sometimes we might find that that we are holding onto habits that are adaptations to conditions that no longer exist, like the Great Depression.

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