When I was growing up, I noticed my grandparents doing many things that sometimes struck me as odd. My grandmother, who was not financially unstable, would carefully fold and save every single grocery bag that came into her house. She and my granddaddy would wash and store every emptied jar of jelly or peanut butter, preparing it for some future use. They would routinely wash aluminum foil, fold it up, and re-use it.
These weren’t really things I witnessed my parents doing at home, but you could always count on my grandparents to find a second or third use for any item they touched. And come to think of it, you could count on their brothers and sisters — my great aunts and uncles — to do the same thing. It was always explained to me, usually by a smirking middle-aged adult, that these behaviors were “because of the Depression.”
It took years for me to really learn about the Great Depression, to learn more about the things it took away from my grandparents, and to make a connection between that time in history and the reasons why my grandparents faithfully planted gardens, stored away canned goods and held on to old furniture.
It was my grandparents with their thrifty attitudes who taught me how a watermelon, once its flesh is consumed, makes an excellent boat for a Barbie doll in Lake Greenwood. They taught me how to make a “guitar” using rubber bands and an old, washed styrofoam plate and a paper towel roll. Though they had money to spare, they didn’t use that as an excuse to be wasteful. They scraped the last bit of toothpaste from a tube, religiously ate leftover food and always opted to fix what they already had rather than to buy something new. I can still smell the gold Dial soap they’d lather onto a washcloth to give me a bath in one of their deep, porcelain tubs; at times the bar of soap was no bigger than a silver dollar, but you could count on my grandparents to use it until it was all the way gone.
When my granddaddy died, his house was filled with things he’d saved or fixed or stored for the future. Arguably, the house was filled with just too much stuff, but you couldn’t have said that the man would have been unprepared in the event of another economic depression. He had worked and earned and clawed his way to success and stability, so many years after those long days as a boy on a farm in Georgia, where he must have held such vivid memories of hard times.
When I die, what will my loved ones find in my house? I sure hope it won’t be hand-washed face masks and shelves full of toilet paper, but I can’t make any guarantees. I hope that, in the long run, the pandemic will prove to have taught me less about social distancing and online shopping, and more about resilience and the power of sticking with the people you love and trust.
Of course, maybe one day on the shores of Lake Greenwood I’ll teach my future grandchildren how to sail a boat made entirely of empty toilet paper rolls, with a cloth mask for its sail. “Don’t y’all worry about Grandma,” their parents will whisper. “It’s because of the pandemic.”