This is a story about a linen closet but it starts with a sliver of soap.
The other day, I stood in the shower and reached for the soap. It was down to a sliver. I got out of the shower and opened the cabinet to get another bar. There was none. Dripping, I walked to the end of the bathtub to open the flowered glass jar that used to be my grandmother's and now holds the free soaps we've snagged from hotels. There were just two left. Back in the shower, I found the conditioner, already watered down, was running low. I rolled and pressed the toothpaste tube to get the last dregs out and remembered that my grandparents had never splurged on toothpaste. They used Colgate tooth powder. (You pour a spoonful of powder into your palm, mush it with water, press your toothbrush into your palm, then brush your teeth.)
Most of the products I rely on my grandparents considered luxuries: They “made” milk from powdered Carnation milk and skipped shampoo and conditioner. (Grandpa used Ivory soap for the hair he had; Grandma got her hair shampooed and set Friday mornings at the beauty parlor.) They did not order in for dinner and rarely went out for lunch. Grandma made Grandpa tuna sandwiches to take to the office and if you went to have lunch with Grandpa, he handed you a sandwich and told you to help yourself to the tin of Waldbaum sugar cookies in his filing cabinet. They washed dishes by hand and though they had a washer-dryer, Grandma often used wooden clothespins to hang their things on the line in their small Brooklyn backyard. They might have had a vacuum cleaner but I never saw one. Grandma used the carpet sweeper and Grandpa got down on his hands and knees with a broom and dustpan. Grandma let her hair go gray and did her own nails. My grandfather's toenails resembled those of a rhinoceros; rather than send him for a pedicure, Grandma would invite me for dinner on a Thursday night, hand me a clipper and ask me to cut his toenails after tea. I got on my knees and obliged.
I thought of all this yesterday as I stood over the kitchen garbage can and clipped my nails, the first time in 30 years I wasn't scheduled for a manicure.
Grandma shortened all her skirts, and mine, too; she taught me how to sew on a button; how to sew two pieces of old fabric together, stuff them with torn stockings, hide your stitches and make a pretty pillow. Their store-brand tea bags from Waldbaum's were reused multiple times. Their tea was ridiculously weak but Grandma would drop M&M's into the bottom of the teacup and pour in powdered milk to sweeten it up. Over and over, they made do, even when, finally, in middle age, they didn't have to. Both my grandparents taught school and kept their jobs during the Depression. They paid cash for everything and were frugal to the bone. Grandma was one of nine kids and the second youngest; her father left the family in Brooklyn and moved to Michigan when she was a kid. Grandpa used to kiss the top of her head, laugh and say that he had married “a poor girl from a poor family.” Grandma would smile and nod but I knew her memories weren't funny.
That said, she managed, without complaint or despair, and I thought about this when both our dryer and vacuum stopped working and the dryer repairman said he wouldn't/couldn't come for 10 days. The vacuum repairman refused to come at all. As my younger son began hanging his wet clothes over the tops of doors and on the backs of chairs, I went to look for Grandma's old wooden clothespins. Through some combination of magical thinking and delusional yearning, I thought I might actually find them in the turquoise tin can Grandma stored them in, which I keep in my office bathroom. The tin was rusted and empty.
I, did, however, stumble upon the contents of Grandma's linen closet. When we bought our house, the previous owners showed us two linen closets that backed up to each other. They had thought about getting rid of them both and creating a short, narrow hallway that ran the length of the guest room and would lead straight to the bedroom over the garage, but decided that an extra linen closet was a beautiful thing, so left it. An extra linen closet is a beautiful thing, though I have mostly forgotten about ours. It was where, in 1999, when Grandma moved out of the Brooklyn two-family house she had shared with Grandpa for 60-plus years and into assisted living, we put away her piles of beautiful, starched, white linen tablecloths and large dinner napkins, as well as her smaller luncheon linen napkins and handkerchiefs. These were not things I planned to use but I couldn't bear to surrender them.
After running out of soap and almost crying because half our appliances were busted, I went through her old things. The linens are all ironed and folded with a precision and patience I never bothered to develop. Large white linen tablecloths for holiday dinners sat near pink linen guest towels, embroidered with daisies, which sat on top of cream-colored linen napkins covered with blue and white flowers. This linen closet is filled with civility, grace and scalloped edges, and in it are memories of staying home, standing by an ironing board and playing card games. The closet reminds me that Grandma managed to make do with very little and when she did finally achieve some affluence (deep into middle age, after Grandpa left teaching and became a stockbroker), she continued to make do with less. After she retired, her days were slow and steady: swim at the Y, play bridge at the bridge club, make dinner (iceberg lettuce salad, canned minestrone soup, homemade roast chicken and rice with paprika, fruit salad in cut glass bowl, a store-bought cookie or two), read the New York Times, listen to NPR.
Years ago, I took my kids to an exhibit at the Liberty Science center, where there was a “time machine” that showed you what you might look like decades later. The machine was for kids; a sign warned middle-aged people that they might not like what they saw. I saw anyway. There in the “mirror” was my grandmother's face. I was 30-something at the time; to see Grandma staring back at me was disorienting. Grandma was almost 54 when I was born, more than a year younger than I am now. My kids are 19 and 23; I am (probably) years from becoming a grandmother. But as I mash slivers of soap together, unfold one of her pristine white tablecloths to use for Passover, and hang wet clothes over the white cast-iron chairs in our sunny backyard (chairs that once sat on her enclosed Brooklyn back porch), I remember her frugality, fortitude and patience, and urge myself to cultivate those qualities now.