My theme for this week's posts will be something I don't often feel: optimism and appreciation. Especially these days, with the world on edge in more ways than one, we need to pull together, tighten our family unit as well as our belts, and prepare to weather the storm. We need to keep our attitudes as positive as we can and remember, as I said yesterday, it will get better eventually.
I find it ironic I'm facing down the spectre of living the life my grandparents did – looking a second Great Depression in the face. Living through a period of want made a huge impact on the kind of people they were. Not knowing where their next meal was coming from, or if it even was coming, must have been terrifying. I know for a fact they ate some pretty odd things, because they were still eating them when I was a kid. Pickle sandwiches, for one. And banana sandwiches. If you can imagine it, and it's edible, it goes between two slices of bread and thick swaths of mayo.
My family isn't that desperate, though we have started going to a no-frills grocery store. At first I was really down on the idea. My husband suggested it and up went my lip in a snarl. That place? We aren't that desperate. But I went along, being a good sport, but mostly so I could sneer and say, "See, it's awful. Nothing even looks edible."
Weirdly, once I got there the experience was fun. Seeing the labels trying their best to imitate their name brand counterparts, without infringing on patents, was amusing. And the place was clean – not at all what I'd expected. The clientele were people like us, not to sound a snob or anything, though it's kind of hard not to when I say that. But what I mean is everyone there seemed to be in the same boat, families like ours out to cut a few costs where they could without really having a big impact on lifestyle.
Once we got the groceries home we tore into them, he to prove to me things were edible and me to prove the opposite. And guess what? Keeping in mind I don't admit this often, he was right. With only one exception - my kids' standard cheese-flavored crackers, which tasted like cardboard - the food there wasn't bad. It was different than name brand, but not necessarily in a bad way. Considering the price difference, it was actually damn good. Learn something new everyday.
The main point is we were finding a way to save money – and a pretty significant amount, too - without being at each other's throats, like we'd both been afraid would happen. After all, what are the two things couples fight over? That's right: money and the remote control.
As far as previous attempts to budget, how shall I say this diplomatically, they've never really gone over that well in our house. A big part of it was that the suggestion always came from the guy who made the big money, and it was directed toward the fair lady charged with disbursing said money on necessities like clothing to show off her "endowments" and things the kids simply "had to have." Being effectively told you're a whore with money is a dicey thing. It has to be handled carefully. And it seemed no matter how Paul did it, things always wound up with me not speaking to him, after informing him in a loud voice what a Republican pig he was. Not really warm and fuzzy, is it?
But for whatever reason, this time the budget thing worked out. I can't even explain it. Part of it involved mellowing – on both sides – and part realizing retirement is strangely seeming closer than it used to. Seeing Paul's parents enjoying their own retirement years made me wonder, what will we be doing? Will we be taking trips, like they do, or picking bottles out of garbage cans to turn in for money? Sobering, when you think of it that way. And with the economy the way it is, a more plausible scenario.
Getting back to the first Great Depression, there were the infamous bread lines, unemployment lines, runs on the banks … You never think things like that will come back around. It's history you see in black and white photos from the 30s, and it feels far away and foreign. What's frightening is the potential second wave isn't just strolling by. It's galloping. It's not a slow slide, but a precipitous drop off. It's hard to bear looking at the charts, seeing all the red dives going straight down with barely an uptick to speak of. Companies are going under, or declaring bankruptcy, every day.
It's weird, though. In everyday life it doesn't feel like much has changed. I still get up for work, still send the kids to school, still buy groceries (albeit at a different store), still pay the bills (okay, Paul does). Life's really very normal.
For my grandparents, that wasn't the case. Things hit home immediately. Then again, they were rural and living in a South depressed before the Depression. They didn't have as far to fall. They hit bottom more quickly. Suddenly money for extras disappeared. Then went money for basics like clothing and shoes. People handed down what they could. Being rural neighbors they helped as they were able, but everyone was so strapped that didn't amount to much.
Hard times like that make people do things we consider strange. My maternal grandmother, for example, hoarded. I mean everything. When she died, back in 1994 or so, the family went through her possessions. In the shed behind her house they found stacks and stacks of jars. Boxes and boxes of folded pieces of aluminum foil, newspapers, empty jugs that once held milk, rolls of string. What began for them as necessity turned into habit. To be ready for the next hard time she saved whatever she could.
It seemed pretty nuts. We laughed about it, but not having been there it's hard to tell what you'd do. If times wind up that bad again you just never know. Maybe what I'm throwing out today will start looking a little more precious in a few weeks.
It makes you stop and think before you just run out and buy something, not a bad habit in any economy, really. And those things you have lying around the house, usually way more than you need, you just appreciate more. Suddenly it becomes, "Maybe instead of buying something new I can use this thing I already have," or, "Since I don't need three blenders and a closet full of clothes I never wear I could donate them to someone who does."
All that's a realization we have a lot more than we think we do. Especially in this country, we're wallowing in stuff. We've been prosperous a long time; things have been good here. We don't appreciate that often enough. Having been near the top of the food chain so long you kind of take it for granted that won't change. But then months like these happen, and it sobers you up pretty quickly.
Maybe the worst won't happen. Maybe the government and big business will put the brakes on the sliding economy before we hit Depression levels. Or, maybe we'll get a taste of what our grandparents lived, what they always warned us about. We brushed it off, and even laughed. When you live in a country like ours all that deprivation seems pretty far-fetched. Funny how it catches you off guard when it feels like the floor's about to drop out from under you.
With the holidays coming up I'm going to be thinking a lot more about ways to enjoy them without dishing out a ton of cash. I'll also consider adding new traditions to the ones we already practice, sharing those with you just because it's all warm and fuzzy and nice to think about. It relieves some of the tension of worry.
Hopefully we can get a dialogue going, sharing ideas, holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" or whatnot. Okay, maybe not that last part. It's a little more touchy feely than I'm comfortable with. In fact, could you take a step back? If I can clearly see the pattern on your shirt you're standing a little too close.
It sounds like fun to me. It's something to do, something to share. Plus, it takes a lot of heat off me when it comes to blog posts. If I post about an existing tradition we have, or an idea for a new tradition everyday I won't have to come up with any original thoughts. Original thoughts make my brain hurt a little. And when my brain hurts, well, let's just say it isn't good.
Put on your thinking caps. After the Thanksgiving holiday I'll shift toward that most commercial of commercial holidays, that fussiest of fusses, my daughter's birthday celebration. Oh, then Christmas, so anti-climactic in comparision with Thing 1's shindig. It'll be fun, and it'll give us something to do to keep our minds off the impending apolcalypse. Repent now, or forever hold your …. pent?
Hang in there.