String Too Short to Save by Glenna Johnson Smith

Today I watched a man throw my week's accumulation of garbage into the maw of a giant truck. I don't consider myself wasteful, but as the noisy machine chewed my trash I could imagine my mother's scowl of disapproval.

I can't recall from my childhood in the 1920s that we had any garbage to speak of. In many ways my mother was like all the other women, but she did have a reputation for being more frugal than most, because she had been brought up by a grandmother who was considered a miserly recluse.

Like Grammie Knight, Mama never did join in the American excitement of throwing away the old and buying new from the Five and Dime.
Glenna with her mother, Kathellen Proctor Johnson

As a conforming teenage I was sometimes embarrassed that Mama didn’t buy ninety-eight-cent flowered percale house-dresses like other women wore. Summer people gave her boxes of clothes. She ran the post office, but she kept her sewing machine in a window where she could see approaching customers, and at odd moments she would darn, patch, and make items over for herself, me, relatives, and neighbor kids.

Although I often thought she looked bizarre, she enjoyed her secondhand finery. For many winters she wore a maroon wool dress that went through a variety of collars and cuffs. My favorite was a lovely beige lace set cut from the discarded underpants of a summer lady.

Ashville Post Office, where Glenna grew up. On the steps is Glenna's aunt Annie Thompson.

Once Mama made me a dark-green wool skirt. “What will I say,” I complained, “if people ask me if this was something of my grandmother’s that you made over?”

She gave me her sweet-smug smile. “This cloth comes from a suit your Great-Grandmother Lassell had made, back in the 1890s.” I must admit I liked that skirt and wore it through high school and college. When I outgrew it, Mama took it back, and I suspect that somewhere in a wool quilt or braided rug, pieces of that green serge still live.

Mama patched and darned sheets and tablecloths, and when they finally had to be discarded she cut them into pieces, ironed them, and packed them neatly for emergencies. Once a young family was burned out, and Mama’s old, soft white pieces served for diapers, crib sheets, and handkerchiefs. Often they were used for bandages.

When a much-patched dress was too worn to wear, Mama saved the buttons, snaps, buckles, and hooks and eyes. Then for future quilts she cut up any pieces that still held together. In later years she never could understand why people bought new cloth for quilt making. The whole point of quilting was to get something beautiful and warm from discards.

Remember this old joke? “What’s in the box, Emma?” “String too short to save.”

That could have been written about Mama. She saved every greeting card that came into our house, cut out the pictures, stuck them into scrapbooks, and sent them once a year to be given to people in a hospital’s contagious diseases ward. Since she was using something a second time it didn’t bother her that a scrapbook had to be burned when the patient could no longer look at it.

Mama loved making doll clothes from scraps and never forgave me for having all sons. What fun she would have had with her great-granddaughters, my dear granddaughters!

Glenna, left, and her childhood friend Corris Martin

Mama was a talented cook, but saved food just as much as she saved everything else. Although we had neither icebox nor refrigerator (only the rich had them), none of our food ever spoiled. She went every day to the butcher or else the fish man came by, and she bought just enough for the day. What was left from noon appeared at supper in a salad, stew, or casserole. If there happened to be an extra serving, Mama would take it across the hill to old Aunt Tune. Although there were no surplus food programs, I suspect it was a rare day when Aunt Tune, who lived alone, didn’t receive a bowl of stew, some johnnycake, and a piece of pie from somewhere.

But back to the garbage. I tell myself that something must have been thrown out back then. Not shoes––Papa learned to put on new soles and heels. Not old pots and pans with holes in them––they could be patched. Not old magazines––they were given to shut-ins. Wastepaper was needed to build the three wood fires. The kitchen stove was lit every day for cooking and heating the water tank, but my parents didn’t believe in heating a room with nobody in it, so the post office stove wasn’t lit on Sundays, and the living room stove was lit only on Sundays and an occasional evening. We slept in cold bedrooms, but that was no punishment. My bed had a feather tick and blanket sheets, and on cold nights, smooth hot rocks from the oven, wrapped in old pieces of blanket. The rocks cooled off in the night, but by that time I was so cozy and warm that it didn’t matter. I still like to sleep in a cold room.

Glenna's parents, Kathleen and Seth Johnson, 1917.

Because Mama raised and canned her own vegetables and picked and preserved her own fruit and berries, we had few tin cans to discard. Lard and peanut butter came in little pails, which were used forever after for berry picking. She took a cloth bag to the grocery store, much like today’s shoppers are urged to do, and her own dish to the butcher and the fish man, so there were no disposable wrappings.

The few table scraps––peelings and all––went to a neighbor’s pig, or were thrown in a little pit behind the house. What the small animals and birds didn’t eat became compost. Out of that pile grew the biggest blackberries in town.

One of Mama’s recyclings bothered a few squeamish neighbors. We had no indoor plumbing, and our outhouse was behind the little barn where Papa kept the Model T. Behind the outhouse was the reddest, healthiest stand of rhubarb anywhere around.

“Why waste a good source of fertilizer?” Mama would ask.

Some hardy souls came to pick it, and even the ones who didn’t would not refuse a second piece of Mama’s creamy rhubarb pie topped with high peaks of meringue.

Although we had few of the world’s goods in the 1920s, I can’t say that I felt deprived. Once when I was very young I asked Papa if we were rich or poor. He thought before he answered, “Poor, I guess.” I would have believed “rich.”

I had good food to eat, clean clothes, a safe and quiet world for dreaming and playing, and a comfortable bed for sleep. What else could “rich” provide?

As she grew older Mama was aghast at American throwaway consumption. “It has to stop,” she’d say. “There isn’t enough for everyone forever.” But many of us of my generation in our modern wisdom looked around at the woods and empty spaces. We pointed with pride at our technology and our spewing smokestacks and said of course there’ll be enough.

If Kathleen Proctor Johnson were around today she’d be proud of her grandsons and their wives, who use their resources carefully and respect the environment. Yet, if she could see what a garbage dump many of us are making of our world, I think we’d see her pursed lips and scowly smile and she’d say, “Why didn’t you listen?”

Book available from Islandport Press.

In her book, Old Maine Woman Glenna Johnson Smith writes with eloquence and humor about the complexities, absurdities, and pleasures of the every day, from her nostalgic looks at her childhood on the Maine coast in the 1920s and 1930s, to her observations of life under the big sky and among the rolling potato fields of her beloved Aroostook County, where she has lived for nearly seven decades. The book also includes some of her best fiction pieces.

Glenna Johnson Smith, 2010

Glenna Johnson Smith was born in 1920 in Ashville, Maine, in coastal Hancock County. In 1941, she graduated from the University of Maine, married, and moved to a farm in Easton, in Maine's Aroostook County. A teacher for many years, she also was heavily involved in school and community theater productions. Her writing has appeared in Echoes and Yankee magazines and other publications. She now lives in Presque Isle, Maine.

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Islandport Press


Created with images from Glenna Johnson Smith, taken from "Old Maine Woman," and by missvancamp - "IMG_3138.JPG" • jessicahtam - "Buttons" • Hans - "rhubarb stalk red vegetables vegetables rhabarber curled"

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