Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On rummage sales and lilies

This Saturday, our kids' school held a rummage sale fundraiser. I contributed three large boxes of excess shoes and picture frames and sweaters and candle holders that had been stacked for months in storage containers, awaiting a summer yard sale that never happened. It felt good to deposit the contents of those Rubbermaid bins into the school gym. And it felt even better knowing that I was cleaning house for a good cause.

Yes, it felt good. But as nice as it was to open up some closet space, and as useless as those goods now were to me, I still had a voice in the back of my head telling me that each thing I was giving away might yet prove valuable, might come back in fashion, might fit me again. I've always been a pack rat. My blood pressure rises a bit when I relinquish anything that has the remotest possibility of future utility. Shouldn't I keep it just in case?

I (and my mother and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins) grew up with a "waste not, want not" outlook on housekeeping. My grandparents, who, like the rest of that generation, lived through the lean years of the War and the Depression, went on to raise nine children on a dairy farm that eventually went bankrupt. My grandmother had neither the time nor the resources to spend on domestic bells and whistles; she did what she could with what she had. Meanwhile, my grandfather spent much of his time jerry-rigging a whole assortment of machinery to avoid having to replace it. Frugality was a means of survival. Frugality seems to be in our blood on that side of the family; we don't throw things away easily.

Shortly before I was married, one of my mom's dish sponges tore in half. It wasn't one of those "expensive" ones with the Teflon-safe scrubby stuff on one side. Nope. Just a basic, 50-cent yellow dish sponge. But it had scarcely had the chance to perform its humble duty before being rent in two. The average American would, I think, have sent it to an early grave in the city landfill. But we are not the average American.

My mom had to restore that sponge to the life for which it was intended; she took a needle and some sturdy grey thread, and with nurse-like care stitched the torn halves back together. And when that sponge got dirty, did she throw it out? Oh, no. She sent it through the laundry and brought it back on kitchen patrol next to the sink. When no longer fit for kitchen service, it did time in the bathroom. How long it remained in this degraded position, I don't know. But in the end, worn, tired, and scarred, it took a ride to its final resting place amongst the tuna cans, banana peels and spent coffee grounds of our fair city. However, none can say that it met an untimely demise. Not at our house.

It's not that any of us thinks we're still living through the Depression. The lean years have passed, but the habit of frugal living hasn't. My parents have always been careful with money, while at the same time keeping an open hand and a generous spirit. My mother, who will sew a 50-cent sponge back together one day, will the next day be cheerfully writing substantial checks or preparing lovely meals to give to people she's never met. Her frugality and her generosity do not conflict; if anything, her frugality has made her generosity possible.

I hope that someday the same could be said of me.

I may not have inherited quite the same degree of waste-nottishness as my mother, but enough of it remained in the gene pool that I still tend to hang on to things that most people would throw out in a heartbeat. When loading up those boxes for the rummage sale, I nearly kept an out-of-date, hand-me-down baby blanket none of my kids had ever used. It had no aesthetic value. It had no sentimental value. It had no practical value. Its only value was in the "just in case" of the thing—just in case I have another baby and our 34 other baby blankets get ruined before the child outgrows them. Ridiculous, I know.

I, of all people, should realize that, on the day when "just in case" actually arrives, we will have all we need—and probably much more. I have never asked for bread and been given a stone.

When we lived in Dallas, our annual household income (including our "income" from student loans) was well below the Federal Poverty Line for a family of 5. When I look at our tax returns for those years, I have no logical explanation for how we got by, let alone for how we lived so comfortably. Not even my ├╝ber-frugality seems to account for it. The figures don't add up. But the figures didn't add up the time when that boy handed over his five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd, either. The math was all wrong. Statisticians would have predicted significant food shortages. And yet, there were leftovers. When we moved, I gathered up box after heavy box of our worldly goods. We filled a huge moving van full. And even then, with nearly all our belongings out of reach, we continued to live in relative comfort and ease. One pan to cook with. Paper plates to eat on. A few changes of clothes to wear. Running water. A roof over our heads. We lacked for nothing. The experience made me see how much of a luxury all those other things were that I thought I needed.

Today, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, our household income is still many thousands of dollars below the "Low Income Limit" for our county. Low income? True, we won't be buying a vacation home in Bermuda anytime soon. But we drink wine. We eat almost too well (cinnamon rolls and bacon!) Our kids are enrolled in a private school. We have many, many, many toys, games, clothes, gadgets, pairs of shoes.... Low income? Really?

As I said, I donated three large boxes of excess belongings to the rummage sale. I'm sure I could have come up with several more without noticing the slightest change in the way we live. Our "low income" American family has more stuff than we can possibly use. We're wealthy enough to just give it away. If I decided to count my blessings, to name them one by one—even if I limited myself to counting material blessings only—I would have no time for doing anything else.

I will probably always be frugal. I might even catch myself sewing dish sponges back together. (It's in the blood, you know.) But I hope I would do it with a sense of gratitude and with the knowledge that I am, quite literally, rich. Rich in every way. So why waste any more time worrying about the "just in case" scenarios? Better to consider the lilies and start clearing out the closets. They'll be filling up again with Christmas gifts anyway before I know it.


drgrauke said...

Wonderfully said. You bring back fond memories of my Dad who dutifully washer the coffee filter and reused it until it fell apart.

Erika said...

Here here. It's in the blood. I can think of many sewing up the sponge stories, but what a beautiful way to look at it!

Carissalayla said...

Hannah, I just love you so much! I am glad that we have reconnected and I get a lovely glimpse into your beautiful life and heart.

Stephanie said...

I like how you finished it up with "Consider the lilies and clean out the closets." It has inspired me to do some cleaning-out myself.

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