© Copyright 2018 by Kathryn Lynch
I had a wonderful mom
who was often considered “different” because she was caught up in
old fashioned thinking about how life should be lived. As the
eldest child, I tried to protect my mom so that others would not
realize how different she actually was. I can finally share
that with others.
You might think that living above and working in a grocery store relieved the children of any worries about necessities. Nevertheless, the toughness of every day living saturated them to the core with insecurities, and all of them grew up with what was later called the Depression Mentality.
I remember from the earliest age, that when my maternal uncles and aunts came came to visit for the Holidays, the notions of saving, preserving, frugality, bargains, and sales, as well as the cost of this or that item, were the primary subjects of interest. Hands waving in the air, voices rising, the victor was always the one who put forward the least costly solution to the problem under discussion.
So it was, that as the years passed, the economy improved and times got better. American life became more carefree. People owned their own homes. There were two vehicles in the driveway. Dads were promoted and made enough money at a job to support their families comfortably. Satisfaction about the present and positive hopes for the future became the norms of the day.
My mom was totally and completely unable to shake the attitudes of the past. She did not relax in spite of my dad teasing her, or arguing that he was “her security”. She could not be convinced that there no longer was a need to scrimp, save and hoard because the “good times might not last.” My sisters and I joked mercilessly about these quirks, though we were careful not to get caught making fun of mom by either of our parents.
Mom cashed checks from our parents' joint account every time she went to the bank and hoarded the cash which she hid in a drawer, a cupboard, a toilet paper roll, any place unlikely to store money. When someone was to be paid, she placed the exact amount of cash needed on the desk she maintained in the house, in order to complete the transaction.
My dad had a friend who lived down the street. He was respectful to mom, nice to us kids, and even liked the dog. Art did odd jobs to support himself, so dad hired him to mow our back yard every three weeks. When he finished the job, he would come to the desk so that mom could pay him. On this day, instead of cash, she paid him by check and he went home.
As soon as he closed the door, mom began to rant and rave that “Art stole the money!” “The cash was gone” (taken by him when she wasn't looking ). She had been forced to write him a check. I urged her to wait for dad to handle the problem. Mom searched every imaginable cranny while waiting for him to come home. When dad arrived, he expressed doubt that this had happened. The resulting argument went on for some time. Art never returned and we mowed the lawn after that. 13 months later, mom found the money where she had stashed it, in an old file cabinet drawer.
Every Saturday morning mom took me with her to “Saint Vincent's. (Second Hand Store) I could always look forward to two wonderful adventures as a result. First, she argued with the Clerk over the price of each and every article of clothing she had chosen, pointing out every flaw. The result was that the overall cost for her purchases was reduced by only a dollar or two. Second, I spent the time imagining how my peers would laugh at me when I showed up at school wearing some of these “flawed”, old fashioned garments that mom said, “fit me perfectly”. Well, they did fit! When my younger sister refused outright to wear any more castoff clothes, her overall relationship with my mom deteriorated significantly. Rebellion was not tolerated in my mom's world.
Every Sunday, mom cooked a roast with potatoes and carrots. This meal was the family favorite, especially among those of us who were growing teenagers. We heaped food on our plates, ate, and filled the plates once again. There were never any complaints. Mom shopped at the old Pike Place Market in Seattle. She had a favorite butcher who always had her weekly roast set aside for purchase. Without any warning, the Sunday dinners suddenly featured chicken or meatloaf, no more roasts. I learned later that the Washington State Health Authorities had closed down the market because the butcher was selling horse meat to his customers and that was forbidden by law. Mom saved money on the horse meat. Beef was expensive!
In the middle of my high school years, dad and mom built an air-raid shelter in the basement. The “room” was large, made up of walls of sandbags piled atop each other. Inside was an area which allowed for the storage of food and for the shelter of family members. I wondered silently how we would survive when atomic bombs were designed to obliterate everything for miles around, but children's personal opinions were not generally welcomed or accepted.
The concept however, appealed to the insecure desires of my mom to hoard and hide food. I remember carrying down crates of applesauce and dill pickles. She canned chicken, ham, rhubarb, and raspberries, which also went down the stairs to be preserved for a future in the shelter. Finally, a battery operated portable radio completed the preparations. We were ready to be bombed!
My sisters and I realized in short order that the sandbags muffled the noise of activities within. After school we went to the basement. Day after day, the radio blasted loud music. We sang, talked too loudly, laughed, and ate. After several weeks, I ate all of the applesauce. My youngest sister wiped out the pickles. We all shared the chicken, ham and raspberries until those were gone as well.
One day mom asked me to get two jars of applesauce from the shelter, for dinner. I admitted that it was all gone. Mom rushed down to the shelter and when she discovered all of the empty cans and jars, she roared with anger. We laughed until our eyes teared. (when she wasn't around, of course) Those of us who remain, laugh about it to his day.
As the years passed, mom never had to work outside the house because dad made more and more money at his job. We had grown up and left the family home, so the two of them had no financial worries. Nevertheless, mom still had the raging desire to hoard food. Two, eight foot tall freezers were filled with meat and fish. At her request, dad had shelves built along the garage wall, so that she could store nonperishable food items. Soon, large numbers of cans including chicken noodle soup, tomato soup, evaporated milk, coffee, and various vegetables filled the spaces. Finally, during a year that dad's commissions peaked at $220,000.00, mom made her most unusual and memorable food-hoarding purchase, a case, of 48 cans of hominy grits.
When they first appeared on the garage shelves, I asked mom what you did with them. She seemed resentful when I asked, so I concluded that she had no clue about their purpose. My dad said he had “never eaten them”. One thing was certain; they were ON SALE.
After some research, I learned that hominy grits were a type of processed corn used by Mexican people to make tortillas, by Native Americans to make a type of bread, and by some people in the South as a type of cereal.
Since we are not of Mexican or Native American heritage, nor has any of our family resided in the South, the hominy grits became the subject of the “Great Hominy Grit Giveaway” When anyone came to visit, dad gave them some meat or fish. Then he took them into the garage to choose a vegetable. Hopes always remained high, but no one ever chose the hominy grits.
When the U.S. Post Office was collecting canned food for the poor at Christmas, I proposed stuffing the mailbox with grits. Dad would not allow it. Since he could not imagine eating them himself, he felt that overwhelming poor people with hominy grits was disrespectful.
Year after year, the 48 cans remained on the shelves. We always entered the house to visit through the garage. Every time, the hominy grits stood at attention on the shelves, waiting for the laughter which was sure to follow. Even the grandchildren knew that they were the butt of a family joke.
We finally lost mom. I remember coming back into the house after her funeral, consumed with sadness, but the hominy grits still made me smile.
In the months that followed, we laughed again, at times threatening to cook dad some grits. We tried to give them away many times, but no one was ever interested.
A year or so later, the hominy grits just disappeared. I knew dad had thrown them out, but I never asked about them. I was saddened by their loss because there were no more laughs when we passed through the garage.
It seemed as if the last of my mom had gone from the family home.Epilogue: April 18, 2008 would have been my mom's 100th birthday. On that day, I purchased two cans of hominy grits. With one, I prepared cereal. It was surprisingly tasty, much like the cream of wheat I ate in my youth. I used the other one to make some Native American bread. After toasting it and adorning it with butter and jam, the grits disappeared in a manner far different than the cans of long ago.
Afterwards, I held one empty can aloft and thought about my mom. It was a fitting tribute.