Grandmas always want to help out, and spoiling the grandkids is one of the perks of the job. However, since my adult children waited an inordinately long time before starting their own families, I am a bit longer in the tooth than I might have been had the process begun earlier. Hence, getting on the floor and playing with toddlers is not an option, nor is carrying them for long distances or up and down stairs.
So, aside from engaging the little ones in more sedentary ways, I try to assist with certain household tasks. Sewing is one of these or, to be more accurate, mending. It is an art not much practised these days, and certainly, a low task on most busy families’ to-do lists. But this grandma is always standing (or perhaps sitting) by with a needle and thread at hand, waiting to put certain items of clothing back into circulation rather than leave them lying around in an un-usable condition, or worse, getting thrown into the trash.
I was recently reviewing such a pile with my daughter-in-law, and chanced upon a beautiful sweater currently unworn because of a number of missing buttons. To her astonishment, I produced from my grab bag a collection of buttons of all shapes, sizes and colours, proceeded to pick out appropriate-looking ones and finally came up with the required number of matching items to repair the garment in question. In about 20 minutes, the job was done and the sweater looked as good as new.
I suppose to anyone unable to remember the Second World War, such ancient methods of recycling must appear to date from the time of the Ark, but I’m sure I am not alone among seniors who still practise these outmoded habits of conservation.
When I was growing up, in an England desperately struggling to recover from six years of bitter warfare, recycling was a way of life, decades before it ever became an official policy. Each commodity had to last a long time, since we could not simply throw something out and go buy another. And nothing was discarded that could possibly be used for some other purpose. Thus, the daily newspaper was used to make “fire starters” for fireplaces, which were the only source of heat for our houses and our water. It was also used for lining shelves and drawers - an inadequate covering, which unfortunately left newsprint on whatever touched it. Naturally, no outhouse was complete without the same material, cut into appropriately sized squares. I suppose I was about 10 before I saw my first toilet roll.
Ashes from fireplaces were stored and used on walkways to make icy or muddy surfaces fit for walking on. Envelopes were used repeatedly as part of the war effort to save paper. The government issued sticky labels, which folded over the top of a slit envelope and provided space for a new address. When so many labels had been mounted atop each other that the original paper was disintegrating, the envelope was then turned inside out and used as scrap paper for shopping lists and the like. I still save paper, reusing paper bags, never getting rid of unwanted documents until both sides have been written on, and opening gifts carefully so the paper and ribbon might be used again.
Long before the blue box became part of every household, I kept my glass jars and plastic tubs for leftover food or to repackage food, which came in less sturdy wrapping, and I have never discontinued doing this. Tin cans were wrapped in leftover wallpaper and used as storage for a variety of odds and ends that would come in handy again someday.
I remember the rain barrel that sat underneath the eavestrough downspout to catch the runoff from the roof. Looking back on a climate famous for its rainfall, I can’t recall why this might have been necessary but since we did the laundry in a galvanized tub in the backyard it seems logical we would have used the water that was right there, and saved on our water tax.
“Mend and make do” was one of our mottos, born out of necessity during times of extreme scarcity. No scrap of clothing or linen was ever discarded. When clothes could no longer be passed down from one sibling to another, they became rags for washcloths, dishcloths, floor cloths or dusters - everything was good for something. Shirts had their collars and cuffs removed, turned around and re-sewn so the frayed parts would not show. Sheets, which had worn down to nothing in the centre, were ripped apart and sewn together with the outsides in - a measure that lengthened the life of the bed linen, but was not particularly conducive to a good night’s sleep. And we darned socks, a practice that later carried me over the long years of my three boys’ adolescence and participation in team sports. After I had spent a couple of hours one evening mending a pair of athletic socks, my eldest son said “Gee, Mom, my locker partner is going to be pleased - those are his socks!
I no longer reverse shirt parts or re-make sheets but, of course, there still remains the inevitable and ubiquitous button box, which brings me back to my recent successful reintroduction of the sweater to my daughter-in-law’s wardrobe. I do believe that some of the buttons in my collection actually came over with me from England 44 years ago. Think what a saving to the environment has been made over the years by my putting these relatively indestructible items back into circulation.
In many parts of the world, grandmothers are fighting for women’s equality, fighting against AIDS that orphans their grandchildren, fighting for girls’ education or for improvement to their economies. In Canada, we grandmothers can fight against landfill pollution and we can fight for the survival of this fragile planet. Let us just remember how it used to be done!
OCTOBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND