Original watercolor by Jim Welu, 1964. Author's collection.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Making Do: A Tribute To My Mother

And to her ability to keep a roof over our heads, food on our table, and clothes on our backs,

All without us ever feeling in any way deprived or worse off than others.

Helen Marie Andresen Holz 1914 - 1998

As I struggle with our chaotic, overscheduled household and the teetering economy, I wonder how my mother did it. I find myself striving to follow her examples of balance, frugality and stewardship. Did she possess these traits because she experienced the austerity of the Depression or because she absorbed the German values of thrift and resourcefulness?

I know that she embraced rationing during the war years, for I found her books and leftover stamps in the attic and I've tasted the awful oleomargarine. I'm sure she drew lines down the back of her legs to make it look like she wore nylons, an item unavailable during the War.

That was, until she won a pair of genuine nylons during a drawing at the local Elks Club. The photograph in the newspaper says it all as she holds the long pair in the air, a big smile on her face.

When she joined my father to raise a family, she had none of the household skills needed. She often told us she didn’t know how to boil an egg when she married in 1938. And certainly she didn’t learn to strip and reapply varnish, make all her and her five daughters’ clothes, tailor our suits and coats, or knit our sweaters and dad’s argyle socks until much later. Eventually she became the capable manager of our home in all its realms. She so skillfully managed our budget, our purchases, and our 'making do' that we never suspected we were often about to sink rather than swim.

My mother was born the sixth child in a family of nine…three sons and six daughters. She delighted in telling people that her mother had three and a ‘half dozen’ children. She was favored by her father and being one of the youngest, probably wasn’t responsible for many chores. The fact that she became the rock and foundation of our family was due to her determination to learn her generation’s new ways of being a wife and mother, which meant hands-on parenting and running a seamless household with only her own efforts and ‘elbow grease.’ No live-in help like her mother was priveleged to enjoy. Nor did my father’s meager salary allow such luxuries.

My mother probably didn’t realize that the lessons of frugality learned as a child were set into motion long before she was born when her mother chose a life with more hardship than was planned for her by her successful, Catholic parents. Both had immigrated from Luxembourg during the 1850s, her father secure in the legacy of his aristocratic family. My mother never knew these grandparents and perhaps that is a good thing, since her mother did not marry the man they had encouraged her to choose (said to be a dentist) and was cut off from the family.

Instead my grandmother chose my grandfather, the son of northern German Lutheran emigrants who opened a hotel and saloon soon after they arrived in 1866. My grandfather’s father spent time in jail for serving beer in defiance of Iowa's early prohibition laws. Grandpa was orphaned at age 15 and learned the skills of a barber from his uncle. To supplement his income, he ran a card room in the back of his shop. Wrong religion, wrong class, wrong parents, a tradesman who consorted with gamblers, and an orphan to boot…definitely not the husband for their well educated, sophisticated, talented daughter, a young woman who spoke four languages, taught school and piano lessons, and was later a published author.

My mother, then, grew up in a home that watched her mother’s siblings succeed financially and in their professions, while her family struggled. My grandmother did have support from some of her family. Her brother, the doctor, visited her daily for a shared glass of sherry and conversation. Perhaps he slipped my grandmother some cash to help pay for the hired farm girls, Sophie and later, Frances, or the twice-a-year visiting seamstresses. I also suspect that he may have provided funds to send my mother’s younger and gifted brother to college and if he, her brother, had not died suddenly before he could graduate, to medical school.

By the time it was my mother’s turn, going on for more education (she longed to be a nurse like her older sister) or taking piano lessons were out of the question. Instead, she encouraged me to apply to nursing school and saw to it that all five of us took piano lessons for ten years or more, arranging for us to dust the pianos in exchange for lessons.

My mother never used credit, kept a record of every penny spent, borrowed only when there was a medical emergency, saved for major purchases or did without, and paid all year on the no-interest Christmas Club for Santa’s generous gifts under the tree. She made all her and our clothes, sometimes tailoring our wool coats from our neighbor’s old ones. She learned to knit, to garden and then to can the abundant produce, to render lard, to forage in the fall for berries, watercress, and nuts, and to bake bread and coffecake every Saturday, using the left over potato water.

By the time her five girls came along, she was a good cook and baker, serving three multi-course meals a day, each one a favorite of one of us. She put the remnants of bar soap in a strainer to make the suds to wash dishes. Our toothpowder was a mixture of baking soda and salt. Our juice glasses were once jelly glasses. She arranged for us to babysit, to get jobs to pay for our private girls’ school tuition, and to borrow our cousins’ prom dresses and their Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames books.

We had an old fashioned ice box until the year my mother entered a contest and won a Shelve-a-Door refrigerator. She broke her neck after diving in shallow water on the 4th of July that year and was paralyzed for six months in a body cast, unable to care for her three daughters, one just four months old. She must have thought this certainly qualified for a twenty-five word or less winning sob story but it also spoke to her resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

My mother saved and found a new use for everything. The day my sister and I helped her pack up her belongings and move with us to Seattle, I found (and keep to this day), her bundle of used twisty ties, all secure in a rubber band. I’ve inherited this German trait and for a long time, felt it was a curse not to be able to throw anything out. But in the current climate of cutting back and doing without, perhaps making do and using again is the best way to honor my mother’s stewardship and to be a good citizen.