Sunday, January 19, 2014

Minds and Hands

I am a child of a child of the Depression.  Growing up I learned to be as frugal as possible.  Stale bread was always turned into breadcrumbs if it hadn’t already become moldy. Clothes were always dried outside and never in expensive dryers. Home repairs were at least attempted until the job either got too complicated or way too expensive to fix on your own.  No one hired painters.  If you wanted your room painted, it was done as a group project bright and early on a Saturday morning.  Children were for the woodwork and adults the ceilings. The walls were up for grabs. No exceptions.

Yard work was always hard work.  Thank goodness we lived in the city and our yard was not that big.  My kindly uncle who lived down the street taught me. He was quite the character: part railroad worker, part classical reader, big time gambler and amazing gardener.  His training (for all disciplines) came from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the job program started in the 1930’s for young unemployed men.  Hours I would spend with him and his garden as he regaled in his stories that always started with “Jackson, when I was in the CCC camps…” I have no idea where he got that nickname from but he was the only one who called me that.  I planted things I would never eat, yet delighted in cultivating. Rhubarb, tomatoes, horseradish, and zucchini were planted in his “victory” garden. I handled real fish heads that legend has it the Native Americans used to condition their crops. (Or at least that’s what he told me.) I learned how to save the seeds for the next harvest and to sun dry tomatoes on the back porch way before they were sold in expensive oil in specialty markets. And who could forget "zombie geraniums?"

I cringe when my children leave a room and do not turn the light out or leave the television on. I hate when someone has turned the thermostat to 72ºF.  I love a brisk 62-65º.  My children make fun of my sweater collection not realizing it was a necessity growing up. Surprisingly when my daughter came home from college this Christmas, she raided my sweater collection. I delight in relatively recent recycling trends although I feel my family had been doing it for decades.  Paper bags became book covers, or if we were really fancy, left over “Sanitas” that graced the many walls of our aged urban Victorian. The old adage "Waste not-want not" certainly was strongly advised.

Who could forget my mother’s “Depression soup?”  It was her comfort food on a cold winter’s day. It was simply warm milk, leftover noodles of any shape or variety and salt and pepper.  It certainly can fill an empty belly.

These are lessons that we have gotten away from in the last generation.  Simple items. Simple food.  Simple chores.  You lose a side of yourself when you don’t know how to fix something, make something, grow something or even try.  Life doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.  Not all manual labor is distasteful or without thought.  I have many friends ranging from an amazing internist who sews designer quilts to a highly regarded trial attorney who does cross-stitch. Necessary for warmth or decoration? Probably not. Good for mental health?  Ask them. We have not only intellect but also hands.  I love the motto of my sister’s alma mater MIT:  “Mens et Manus”.  Ah, Mr. Kaster what would I do without your sadistic Latin teachings?  “Mens et Manus” means “minds and hands”.  Life should be the right combination of the two in good times and bad.  Wonderful lessons from leaner times that we should think of today.

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