The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Below, reader Mary Dorion of South Boston, Mass., shares what she really knows about making ends meet.
I grew up during the Great Depression, when my family lost everything—job, home and most of our worldly goods. We survived with the help of extended family, neighbors and friends, most of whom were struggling themselves. We didn’t have food stamps, fuel assistance, unemployment compensation or long-armed social agencies. But we did have the customs passed on by my grandmother, the daughter of immigrants with a rural background who struggled to establish a place for themselves in the United States.
We lived in a series of unheated cold-water flats and learned to stay warm in winter by plugging drafts from loose windows with newspaper, rolling rugs against the door sill, and heating bricks in the oven and wrapping them in a towel to take to bed.
I learned to cook and bake from my mother and grandmother, and I was indoctrinated early with all their strategies for saving money. Breakfast was always hearty oatmeal cooked with canned evaporated milk, diluted with water and sweetened with one dear teaspoon of sugar. Soups and stews cooked from soup bones and complemented with homemade bread served as a nutritious lunch.
We never bought anything, food or clothing, that we could make ourselves. I learned how to “turn” the frayed collars on shirts, let down hems on outgrown dresses and skirts, disguise the line of the old hem with new trim and darn socks. We made new garments from patterns and fabrics purchased at Kresge’s or W.T. Grants. We never threw anything away, unless it was of absolutely no use to anyone.
We learned to save—and not only money. My grandmother put aside string to crochet items that we used in the kitchen—chair pads, hot plate mats, dishcloths. My grandfather made “knots” of fuel for the stove by rolling several sheets of newspaper together, tying the rolls into a knot, soaking them in water and letting them dry in the sun on the back porch. And when we had accumulated enough used cooking grease, it was heated, strained through cheesecloth, mixed with lye, left to thicken in a brown paper-lined roasting pan and used for laundry soap.
Our most important lesson in thrift was to buy nothing “on time.” If you didn’t have the money to pay for something you wanted, then you didn’t need it.
All of these lessons stood me in good stead after I married “on a shoestring,” and they certainly helped me to deal with the shortages during the World War II years. The slogan of the time was “Use it up, make it over, or make it do.” Those of my generation who were forced to live on meager resources knew what that was all about.