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.


Greta Koehl said...

What a wonderful portrait of your mother. I love all the ways she found to be thrifty (by the way, I save my twisty ties, too) and how she entered contests. Great article!

Sadao said...

I have heard some of the stories of Helen in your article from Ann; her thriftiness – her diving accident when Ann was still a toddler; making the entire girl’s wardrobe, and she never stopped at a restaurant or a drive-in during your summer vacation trips (she always packed a picnic). From your piece I learned more about your mother and appreciate Ann’s prudence and from whom she inherited it. Our double-car garage is so full of stuffs we cannot even park a bicycle in it – I bet there’s a bundle of used twisty ties somewhere in it.

A great tribute to an amazing woman, wife and mother, she would have been proud of your article. Thank you for sharing.

Barbara Holz Sullivan said...

Greta: Thank you so much for the encouragement as I begin to add to my blog.

Barbara Holz Sullivan said...

And Sadao; I was surprised and delighted to see your comments. I'm glad you got to know Mom and some of the traits she passed on to her five daughters. But Mom's diving accident was in 1949, a few years before Ann came along.

L said...

I left a note on facebook that I really wanted more story as I was reading this. OF course we all have our own Mother stories don't we? Yes, I was the infant when she broke her neck...I always said that accident set the tone for our future relationship as I was literally 'stripped from BF" since she was in traction and a body cast. Daddy and a nurse helper took care of me...since you were ony 8 yrs old. The twisty ties story is on tape...and don't get me started on what else she 'saved'. Love Your sister - the 'one in the middle'as Daddy used to say to me.

Barbara Holz Sullivan said...

Liz: Yes, I was only eight but I remember a lot of what happened that day. That frightening accident set so many things in motion in our home but we all came out of all right, didn't we? Thank you for keeping the story going...more to come.

Barbara Holz Sullivan said...

Sadao: You reminded me of another way that Mom was careful and frugal...always packing a picnic to go whenever we traveled, even if it was just one of us leaving once again to return to our own homes. There were very few items that Mom bought at a store. She would occasionally send us for a loaf of bread at Brenner's or Manternach's. German sausage and cold cuts would come from Trenkle's Sausage Company. She would drive to the country for fresh eggs from a local farm and Joe the Milkman delivered our milk. If fresh vegetables didn't come from our garden, then she would run out to the produce truck that stopped in our neighborhood.

Judith Richards Shubert said...

Barbara, your story about your mother is an amazing tribute. I loved learning about her.

footnoteMaven said...

So glad to experience your beautiful writing again. You're also very lucky to have family members who read your work and contribute.

I think of you often and hope you're feeling better.


Barbara Holz Sullivan said...

Judith and fM: Thank you so much for your kind words. I need all the urging I can get. Especially from two writers I so admire. Your blogs and productivity are inspirations.