They Don't Take up Much Room
How a person could be frugal and generous at the same time is hard to explain, unless one is a product of an era known as the Great Depression. Both of my folks were born in 1922, which meant they were seven years old when the stock market crashed in 1929, and nine years old when things started to get really tough, in 1931.
Both came from large families, and both had to scrimp to get by. We saw examples of Mama’s thrift every day of our lives, growing up, as she shopped smartly, taking advantage of bargains, trying to feed us all on Robert’s annual salary of $7,000, give or take.
A few years back, when Aunt Cecilia passed, she left Pauline some of her hard-earned loot, and for the first time in her life, Mama did not have to sweat the small stuff. Mind you, nothing changed eternally, but at least if she wanted to visit Germany, especially if Ralph accompanied her, then she could.
Or if she wanted to lend one of her grandchildren some money, she had that flexibility. Did she go out and buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle, so as to be able to leave the little non-drivable Ford Escort up on the mountain whenever it snowed to go to town? No, she did not.
When asked why not, she replied that “if” it should snow, she simply would not go anywhere. And that logic served her well for many years, until the times arrived when she could no longer always be in control of when she needed to leave the hill. Mother Nature and Mama occasionally butted heads, and much to her dismay, Mama came in second.
But only until the snow melted.
I wrote about migrating over to the Big House during the snow, and how everything was so wide open, unencumbered by walls in the big downstairs area. Lining every wall, however, were storage cupboards, many labeled with the contents in Mama’s neat hand. “Tax statements-19??-19??”; “Puzzles”; “Letters from Mark”; “Puzzles”; Fabric”; “Puzzles” and so forth.
The cupboards that were not labeled, of course, might contain canned goods, dry goods, neatly packaged in big gallon glass jars, so that bugs could not invade, and a plethora of other common-enough items, except that there would be a lot.
Mama saw the practical value of reusing the plastic containers in which various fresh produce was packaged, and well, they stacked together so compactly and all, that she could stockpile an amazing quantity in a small space. And there were so many different shapes and sizes of these types of containers, all serving one or more purposes, and all carefully categorized in her head as to whereabouts.
When queried about the volume, she would just smile and tell me not to worry-that she knew what she was doing. All of us gently poked fun at her behind her back, but more importantly, I did so to her face.
“Never you mind, Markie,” she’d say. “You take care of your pantry and let me take care of mine.”
“Fine, Mama, but are you really sure that you need all 35 of these little Cool Whip containers? How many leftovers can you put in the ‘fridge at any given time? Why do you have to save all of this stuff”
“They don’t take up much room. And besides, you never know when something up on one of those shelves will come in handy. Are you going to town tomorrow? If so, will you stop at the post office for me?” And thus the conversation would go.
Until one day, in February of 2011, when I had time on my hands, and a willingness to embark on a perilous journey: a planned thorough cleaning of the Big House, from top to bottom, with an emphasis on going through all cupboards to remove everything, and clean. There had been recent evidence of mice, an inevitable force with which to be contended in the country, and we were on a mission to divide, clean, conquer, scrub, and eradicate, in no particular order, me on my hands and knees, and Mama in her director’s chair, keeping a close watch on the proceedings, to make sure that nothing was inadvertently put in the recycling bin, that belonged in its rightful place in the cupboards.
The ledger was retrieved after each two or three-hour push, generally Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, through February and March of that year, until the job was completed. We did not go into either the office, which I had not been in for twenty years, prior to the recent cleanup, or her bedroom, but we did everything else.
And somewhere in there, much as Mama said it would be, was something that turned my life upside down, at least for a good spell. It was that box that said “Letters from Mark” in Mama’s neat cursive, which every one of my siblings, and many others besides, can see clearly in his or her minds, and which I [others, also?] can easily duplicate-flawlessly, if I do say so myself. I did have a fair amount of practice, when I was younger.
The box contained the correspondence from me to Mama, with hundreds of pages of descriptive writing, detailing time, events, and specifics, that provided for me, a wealth of minutia from my twenty-one months in the service. It was an encounter of unparalleled proportions.
Finding the letters unleashed in me, a forty-years-in-the-waiting explosion of verbiage, in which I chronicled my military experiences, in a very non-chronological manner, in thirteen vignettes of varying length, beginning with Ft Leonard wood, moving on to Korea, and then later in the year, completing the trilogy with ten vignettes from Ft. Dix, New Jersey. I wrote around ninety thousand words in all, and posted them on my blog under the titles of “Military Madness” and the name of the vignette.
It was immensely cathartic for me, allowing me to release forty years of internal bitterness at being drafted out of college, and metaphorically imprisoned for 21 months. But the writing left me not only euphoric, but anxious to keep on with the process.
I had needed to spew for so long, that once I got past the initial blast-off, I never came down, and I owe much of it to that box of letters. What had become long-forgotten drama, from 1972-73, became volcanic lava in my brain once more, as I relived such an emotionally volatile mine-field once again, only this time capturing it on paper.
“You never know when something on those shelves will come in handy,” she’d said, and she was right.
Mama was right about a lot of things.