Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 4, 2008
Husband Art and I traveled to Wisconsin last weekend to help his mother Donna celebrate her 98th birthday and to bring her back to Kansas for a couple of weeks. On Saturday, as we sat at the breakfast table chatting about this and that, the doorbell rang.
Donna answered it and came back with a dozen red roses with a card wishing her a happy birthday from her niece Kris. Art began rummaging around, looking for a vase. Failing to find one in the kitchen cabinets, he went upstairs to check out the closets there.
But rather than a vase, he came back a few minutes later with a bottle of artificial sweetener, a bottle of diet syrup and a small bottle of sweetening tablets.
"When did you get these, Mom?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know - probably sometime back in the 1960s," Donna replied.
Art and I laughed. It was just like Donna to stock up on some item and then keep it for a rainy day.
The liquid sweetener contained cyclamates, which were banned in the 1960s on the speculation that they caused cancer. Donna had asked husband Tom to buy several bottles before they disappeared from the stores. No evidence was ever found to support the cancer claim, but the U.S. never lifted the ban despite the use of the sweetener in many other countries, including Canada.
"Oh, you know me. I don't like to throw anything away," Donna said, when we asked her about the sweetener.
Then she grinned and explained how she had recently opened a can of sweet potatoes whose top was beginning to "look a little funny."
"I just heated it up and mashed a little bit of it and ate it," she said. "Since it didn't make me sick, I ate a little more another day. I'm OK so far!"
This explanation led to a discussion about Donna's penchant for saving. Her frugality comes from having lived through the Depression - when people had to make do with what they had, and World War II - when rationing was a fact of life.
Donna was a young bride in the early 1930s when the Depression was first starting to hit the heartland, but her parents still had four children at home. Her youngest brother Art was 7 when she got married.
"At one point it got so bad that Art's soles were out in his shoes and my folks cut out pieces of cardboard to replace them," Donna said.
It was a lifesaver when in 1934 her father got the contract to haul the mail from the post office to the train depots and back. It was an around-the-clock job with a few hours between arrivals of the most widely-spaced trains. Husband Tom had to be pressed into service to help for a number of years until her brother Pete was old enough to help. Tom also hauled farm produce and was the manager of a gasoline bulk plant. During the war, he worked in a machine shop and became manager of an all-woman crew at Scolding Locks, a hair pin factory converted to produce submarine hatches.
In the meantime, Donna did her part by making things go as far as possible and pinching pennies.
During the first years of her marriage, she saved a quarter a week for 40 weeks to be able to pay for a much-needed tonsillectomy.
"It cost me $10 to get my tonsils out," she said. "They took them out right in the office there. They deadened my throat and took them out, but I didn't have a sedative. I was conscious all the time."
Once oldest son Tommy was born, stretching the food became even harder. She would buy a pound of hamburger, divide it into four parts and then put three of the parts in the icebox. To the remaining quarter, she added enough onions and bread to make hamburger patties to feed the three of them.
"And I mean one patty a person," added Donna. "That was all you got!"
"Wow!" Art interjected. "Instead of quarter-pounders, people lived on twelfth-pounders!"
Donna and her sister Arline bought bushels of tomatoes and canned them. In addition to the mail, their dad was also hauling raspberries, strawberries, apples, cherries and blueberries, and the two sisters canned the ones that were too ripe to sell.
Donna recalled working part-time in the women's hosiery and gloves department in a Fond du Lac store from 1939-1943. One week, she earned $1.04.
"I remember writing that down," she said. "A dollar was a big deal in those days, I'll tell you. You could get eight gallons of gas for a dollar."
Although gasoline, tires, food and other items were rationed during the war, Donna said what seemed to bother women most was not having nylon hose.
"The rayon hose were baggy and not as sheer as the nylons," she explained. "You'd have thought these women were really depriving themselves."
But Donna's pragmatic attitude served her well back then and continues to serve her today.
"I skimped and saved for 15 years - from the time I was married in 1931 until after the war," she said. "I was so used to being frugal that rationing didn't affect me that much. Everything seemed to go far enough."
"It's just second-nature for me now."