Grandma Cumings was barely five feet tall, with snow-white hair that reached to her waist, a jar full of hermits and chocolate chip cookies, and a predilection for gardening and saving money. I grew up going over to her warm house every other day or so while Mom, Grandma’s youngest daughter, helped her wash her hair and tidy up around the house. We had sandwiches (peanut butter, tuna salad and tongue), a selection from the cooky jar, and cold milk. Then while the women talked, I’d sit down in Grandma’s bay window to practice my embroidery, and talk to the latest canary. (Grandma had several over the years, all named Tweetie.) I felt snug, safe and very loved.
What I didn’t realize during those childhood years was that the same woman who taught me cross-stitch, pie-making and an elegant French twist, was also a lady who, in spite of little schooling and decades of being a housewife, ran her own business and supported the family during long chunks of time. Had I known, I would have admired her even more.
Along with courage, determination and a certain amount of pigheadedness, Grandma also taught me:
Do what you have to. Grandma lost her mom at a young age — and when she was married, with kids in diapers, walked up to her in-law’s home a quarter-mile away, to take care of them. While Grandpa worked as a mailman during the Depression, she managed a chickenyard, took care of the house, did more than her share of reading (she loved to learn), and managed a flourishing garden whose products were also put out for sale, along with eggs and dressed chickens.
How did she do it? I have no idea…but she did.
Look for the good in situations — and people. While in her teens, Grandma took a nap in her parents’ home one summer day. She ended up in the basement, under the mattress she’d been snoozing on. Michigan tornados come up fast, and this one literally turned the house upside-down.
Sure, it was devastating. But that was also how she met her husband, the great love of her life. (He’d come to take photos of the house for the newspaper.)
When life gave her scraps, she turned them into quilts. Literally.
At some point, you’ll be the one taking care of yourself. The final years of his life, Grandpa had a series of strokes. Grandma kept things going somehow. After his death, she discovered that they were deeply in debt. Whether Grandpa did it deliberately or not, she never knew. But because they were married, the money was hers to repay.
First, she cut her budget to the bare minimum. She sold antiques and rented out rooms. Finally, she took a series of jobs as live-in housekeeper to wealthy couples, traveling with them, cooking and cleaning. (She was in her sixties.)
She never asked her eight children and their families for a cent. (Grandma was proud.) Sadly, they didn’t notice, either, until they realized that certain heirlooms were gone. By then, the debts were paid and life was easier for her.
Fix it — or wait. Grandma had grown up on a farm in modest circumstances. Her parents were farmers, who’d learned to keep their equipment in good repair. My dad grew up on a South Dakota farm with no Home Depots nearby, with little to work with except what he could scrounge up. Give him spit, wire and rubber bands, he joked, and he could fix anything.
If the item wasn’t repairable, perhaps it could be jury-rigged. Refrigerators were held shut with belts, or gates pulled tight with baling-wire. She stubbornly refused to do anything else. Meanwhile, money could be gradually saved up for a new one — new, that is, to her.
Grandma would have loved Craigslist.
Don’t spend what you don’t have. Bills came first; only then would she parcel out money for ‘luxuries’ like food. Grandma’s food and clothing were home-made. And beautifully done — she was expert at it. (That’s how she got those housekeeping jobs, after all.) She set aside a small savings, and made do with the rest.
She learned it so well that after the debts were paid, her Social Security seemed like a fortune. She traveled to see her family, driving or using the bus. Christmas cookies and presents came out of the same fund. When she died, her estate came to very little. But she wasn’t in debt.
Be generous. Grandpa and Grandma’s farm had regular visitors during the Depression who stayed for a week or a month — or just for supper. Even in my time, she hosted anyone who came into town, from relatives to visiting missionaries. They may not have had fancy accommodations, but the beds were clean, the stew was good, and the biscuits homemade.
Be frugal — but don’t keep the gravy. I learned all sorts of ways to save money under Grandma’s tutelage — but sometimes those tips had the opposite effect. I canned much more than we needed, and stuffed the freezer so full that some items got freezer burn before we finished eating them. Grandma did this one memorable Christmas day, when she served some nauseating leftover heated-up gravy. Her grandkids didn’t dare say anything, for fear of a lecture on wasting food. So we all ate it, making gagging noises at each other whenever she turned her back. To this day, I have a healthy fear of frozen giblet gravy…and a tendency to over-hoard.
Love your family. They’re your real treasure. Grandma fussed at us all, young and old, to wipe our feet and use the cooky jar. She knitted mittens and hooked rugs…and encouraged her grandchildren to get the education she’d missed out on. She loaned books, handed out bouquets from her lilacs with a lavish hand, and never hesitated to protect and cherish her family members. (That included, by the way, anyone who’d ever stayed at her house or eaten at her table.)
I’m not the only one who’s learned from their grandparents. Others have, too. I’m grateful, though, that I was old enough to begin to ask the right questions, before Grandma died at age 72. (True to form, she died of a blood clot that traveled to her heart — because she refused to wear support hose after surgery.) My husband and kids, however, were years in the future, and can only rely on old photos and stories. I wish I would have asked more, especially about things like chickens and starting your own business. But her practical ways and good sense helped us keep a roof and bills paid over the years, even when money was tight and the soup kettle included just a handful of chopped meat.
Thank you, Grandma. Love you.