My Mother the Pinchpenny (and Early Environmentalist)

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Her thrifty ways presaged the conservation movement.

My mother emerged from the Depression, World War Two, and rationing, as a young woman who believed that it was possible — noble, even — for people to get by with a lot less than they thought they needed. My parents had money, but my father could be a bit of a tightwad. Faced with the restrictive “allowance” he gave her for managing household expenses, my mother economized, cut corners, and got creative. She learned to abhor waste of any kind, including wasted effort: Believing that there was always something in the house that needed to be carried from one room to another, she came up with the catchphrase “Never go anywhere empty-handed.” There was always something — today’s mail, a couple of rolls of toilet paper — sitting at the top or the bottom of the staircase, waiting to be carried one way or the other by whoever might next be going in the appropriate direction. 

Self-reliant and resourceful, she learned to do things herself rather than pay others to do them. She rewired broken lamps. She repainted rooms. She kept chickens for eggs and meat, and grew much of our produce in her own vegetable garden, making sure to plant crops ample enough to allow for canning for the winter. She learned to sew, and made much of our clothing, griping about having to buy my school uniforms, which she considered overpriced. When she bought clothing for herself, it was always on sale, and if someone admired one of her evening gowns, she’d take pride in announcing that she’d found it marked down three times at Loehmann’s. 

Food in our house almost never went into the trash. Another of my mother’s catchphrases was “use-uppa,” a sort of mantra having to do with odds and ends in the fridge that might go bad if left too long. If two spears of uneaten broccoli from last night’s dinner reappeared in tonight’s salad, my mother would proudly proclaim, “Use-uppa!” My siblings and I use this term ourselves now, and maybe our kids will one day, too. My mom candied citrus rinds and gave them as gifts. She stored vegetable peelings and chicken bones in a plastic bag in the freezer until it was time to use them to make a chicken stock. After that, they went into the compost, along with coffee grounds, eggshells, and other organic kitchen waste. Grass clippings from lawnmowing, pulled weeds, raked leaves, and shredded newspaper were also compost fodder, as was hair harvested from our hairbrushes and the cat brush. (“It’s full of nutrients!” my mother swore, and she was right: Hair contains traces of up to 14 different elements, including gold.)

Grass clippings from lawnmowing, pulled weeds, raked leaves, and shredded newspaper were also compost fodder, as was hair harvested from our hairbrushes and the cat brush. (“It’s full of nutrients!” my mother swore.)

If a tree died on our property, it became wood for our fireplace. If something arrived in a wooden crate, the crate was broken down for kindling. Old newspapers were used to start the fire, except for the Washington Post’s colorful Sunday comics section (the “funny papers”), which my mother repurposed as wrapping for Christmas and birthday presents. 

Sometime in the 1970s, my mother became an avid environmentalist, which synched nicely with her frugal habits. We already saved the rubber bands from the newspapers that arrived rolled up in them every morning, and we already reused grocery store plastic bags until they got holes, but now we could feel good about not contributing to landfill. She already forbade using paper towels for frivolous purposes like hand drying (“What’s wrong with a dishtowel?!”), but now we could pat ourselves on the back for saving trees. Especially during the energy crisis of the 1970s, she clumped all her errands together so as to take fewer car trips and use less gas. When our clothes dryer went on the fritz, she decided not to buy a new one, and instead strung up a clothesline outside the kitchen. I learned to love the smell of air-dried clothes, but wasn’t crazy about towels that felt like nubby cardboard. Years later, I discovered that the dryer hadn’t broken at all — my mother had simply unplugged it. 

Like me, my oldest friend, Jo, who lived down the street from me when we were kids, credits my mother with her eschewal of paper napkins in favor of cloth. In my mother’s house, cloth napkins were used for multiple meals — until they got gross enough to need washing. Everyone at our table, including frequent dinner guests like Jo, had their own napkin, with a unique napkin ring to identify it. Since Jo wasn’t at dinner every night, her napkin sometimes went for a month before getting washed. 

Well before the term “organic” was on most people’s radar, my mother gardened organically. She had learned to garden by reading, and she understood that plants that absorb nutrients from their environments could just as easily absorb toxins, so why would she want to put deadly chemicals on what would become our food? And what kind of damage might such chemicals cause to other plants on our property, and to the birds and beneficial insects that ate them? Instead, she placed saucers of beer near the lettuces to attract and drown slugs, made her own red pepper spray to deter beetles and rodents, and mustered an army of bad-bug-eaters by ordering praying mantis egg sacs and tubs of ladybugs through the mail.

Most of my mother’s penny-pinching and environmentally friendly habits were lifelong, with the notable exception of making my clothing. After my schoolmates laughed at my homemade Peter Max LOVE pattern pants, I rebelled, and my mother gave me a clothing allowance when I became a teenager. She made sure it was a small allowance, so I learned to shop the sales as she did. 

In so many ways I am my mother’s daughter, down to the bag of peelings in the freezer, the drawer of plastic supermarket bags for reuse, and the box of rubber bands saved not from newspapers, but from bunches of asparagus and scallions. If a fancy vinegar comes in a pretty bottle, the bottle becomes a flower vase. My sourdough starter grows in large glass jars that once contained hearts of palm. Our chickens get first dibs on kitchen scraps, and what’s left goes into the compost, along with, yes, hair from us and our pets. When we reroofed our house last year, we saved the old cedar shingles for fireplace kindling. In my office, I have a pile of used 8½- by 11-inch paper, the clean backsides of which I use for printing recipes and drafts of my writing. All of these habits appeal to my inherited frugality as well as my concern for the environment, just as they did to my mother. 

In so many ways, I am my mother’s daughter, down to the bag of peelings in the freezer, the drawer of plastic supermarket bags for reuse, and the box of rubber bands saved not from newspapers, but from bunches of asparagus and scallions.

Someone recently gave me a book by Amy Dacyczyn, called “The Complete Tightwad Gazette: Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle.” It’s nearly 1,000 pages long, and contains a mind-boggling number and variety of tips for living frugally. Many are things I already do, like making my own salad dressing and storing it in a jar that once contained jam, or reusing yogurt tubs for freezing homemade broth. But many are quirkier. My mother, who’s always had cats, would love the one on fashioning a cat carrier from two plastic laundry hampers and string. She’d definitely have tried making a garden sprinkler by poking holes in the bottom of a heavy-duty plastic jug and attaching it to the end of a hose. 

Now about to turn 100, my mother lives — mostly in a bed — in a nursing home. She’s lost her mobility, and nearly all of her memory. If I ask her to tell me about things she used to do to save money and/or protect the environment, she draws a blank. But she’s still herself; if I tell her something like, “We had takeout sushi for dinner yesterday, and I saved our used chopsticks for kindling,” she’ll laugh and reply, “I taught you well!” 

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Laura Roosevelt
Laura D. Roosevelt (“My Mother the Pinchpenny,” page 33) is a journalist and poet who lives in West Tisbury, and is currently at work on a memoir. “When it comes to kindling, my current favorite fire starter is the dried stalks from last year’s garlic harvest.”

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