What would Grandpa do?

In the current moral panic about consumption — whether it’s sugar, fat, fast food, nicotine, caffeine, prescription drugs, water or petroleum — we have a rather vague perception of where we are and how exactly we got to this point. That’s why I found the discussion about school cupcakes, over on Sean Kirst’s blog last week, to be quite illuminating: when and how, precisely, did American kids turn into such wanton snackers? And can we really figure out a way past our present lifestyle if we don’t know how we wound up with it?

If you’re contemplating candlelight dinners of freshly harvested radishes (the whole “singing kumbaya in the dark” thing; not that singing kumbaya is itself bad, on the right occasion) and feeling like you just can’t do it, why not just — for starters — attempt to dial it back to the lifestyles your family lived ten, twenty, thirty years ago? These lifestyles are within living memory. But perhaps they’re forgotten in the imperative to get back to an “Earth-based” ancestral lifestyle that we are separated from by several generations. Maybe the absolute first steps we need to retrace, lead back to ways and people we personally remember. The tools for change may be in your own basement.

The difficulty we have in this approach is that, according to the American Dream, we’re supposed to be living “better off” than our parents and grandparents. It may be easier to idealistically dream about going “back to the earth,” but going “back to the backyard” feels like such a letdown, a failure even. (Who in the middle class is really content with raising their family in a house the size that their parents grew up in?) And the new, improved Green American Dream tells us we’re supposed to be living “more consciously” than they did. But your parents and grandparents didn’t think hard about sustainability; they just did what they did. Isn’t sustainable living supposed to be more transcendent than using your grandpa’s non-electric mower to work on one part of the lawn this afternoon? (Aren’t we supposed to be living on organic farms and not mowing lawns at all, or living in ecologically sound urban utopias? Isn’t the suburbia of our fathers supposed to be evil?)

Sometimes it’s necessary to make a clean break with the family past. If Grandpa drove a gas-guzzling T-Bird after he got done push-mowing the front lawn, by all means don’t run out and buy a Hummer. We have the advantage of hindsight, however — we can leave out the bad things they did, and remember to do the good things they did.

Are there any habits you remember your parents or grandparents having that now seem to make good ecological or health sense? (You might want to first see if you have the will to commit to doing those things, before you start a radish garden.)

11 thoughts on “What would Grandpa do?

  1. Mrs. Mecomber

    Good post.

    I grew up on a mountain in southern NY, where we could take only two showers a week, cut our own wood for fuel, and conserved water as a lifestyle (our well was small). I think after the energy crisis of the 70s, many families desired to scale back their luxurious lifestyles and get back to “basics.” Obviously, few stuck with it (or were scared stiff after Ruby Ridge).

    Schools and government programs encourage consumerism (remember Pres. Bush’s inspiration for how we little peons could defeat terrorism: “go shopping”?) Television and other media pump us full of trash until we resemble that bubblegum-chewing girl in Willy Wonka. Look at Social Security and other social programs. My poor children will be taxed out of the country to support these excessive and unsustainable programs. The pork barrel consumerist mindset seems to fill all escheleons, from the roly-poly kindergardener to the man behind the official seal of the presidency.

    Truly there must be a change in the spirit of our country before there is a change in policy. Global warming horror flicks aren’t going to motivate people. We need to be good stewards because we want to be good stewards. Right now, society does not want to be a good steward.

  2. Robinia

    Well, as I am already a grandma, maybe that is why I feel so connected to the things my grandparents did… but, I do. I, like Mrs. Mecomber’s folks, have a small well and woodstove (although a good portion of our heat is from the sun, and all is conserved by earth-berming and extra insulation). We know how to fix things, from clothes to chairs, to washing machines to used dishwashers. We buy (or get at no cost) a lot of used stuff, which we find very serviceable (even lots of the pieces of our 2-decades-old house were re-used materials). We not only know how to cook, but also how to process foods to keep them through the periods that they are not in season locally. We know how to grow and propagate trees, flowers, foods, and herbs for flavoring. We know how to build things that we need from stuff we have laying around the place. We know how to entertain ourselves without relying on TV.

    I think the saddest part of the dumbing down and de-skilling of US citizens to make them into fat, perpetaully-unsatisfied consumers is the loss of a commonly-shared native cuisine. In all other cultures of which I am aware, there are traditional foodways– particular foods and ways of cooking them that are typical or common in the society. Surely, sometimes only women cook in a culture– but, what other culture do you know of in which mostly machines do the food preparations in industrial settings, and the ordinary citizens have lost most of the capacity to cook? It does not seem like a good thing, I think.

  3. Len

    My dad always did “Saturday morning errands” in one big trip, after trying to figure out the shortest route. This was in the Cherry Hill NJ area, so the distances were generally greater – and with a lot more traffic – than, say, the Syracuse area, but I’d guess that doing the same now up here still saves at least some gas.

    I’d guess that he started doing that more as an “engineering mind game” than to save gas, but the end result was still the same.

  4. sean

    oh, man. great post.

    my mother’s people were from scotland, and she grew up in the depression. she saved rags in a bag that hung by the stairs, and used them to patch our jeans – or to elongate them when they got too short, especially in the 70s, when adding a flowered drape design to the bottom of a pair of bell bottoms was actually OK.

    she dumped her coffee grounds in the garden or used them to fill holes. she grew rhubarb by the garbage cans and made jelly out of it. she hung her laundry in the yard or in the basement throughout my childhood, and we did not get a dryer until i was in college. she kept an old cake bin full of buttons, and always had the right button whenever we lost one. when clothes got ripped, she sewed them. and one of my favorite memories of her sense of conservation, something i believe came straight from scotland, was that when she made an apple pie, she’d use apples she took off the ground; you could always cut off the bad parts, and she figured why waste the good apples, still in the tree.

    as for my dad, he was the master of the creative fix. we did not get new bikes until the mid-1970s; until then, they were always used. if we wanted lights on the bikes, he’d use a brace and put on a flashlight. and he anchored the swingset by putting the braces in coffee cans filled with cement.

    i remember my sister saying, not long ago, that people say they can’t live within a budget like their parents, and that it’s baloney. our parents – and i think this is a collective generational truth – had 1 TV, 1 car, budgeted like mad, and were happy with modest homes in modest neighborhoods. they did not take big vacations and did not worry about it … they were like tom bombadil in lord of the rings – they could hold the ring in their hands, flip it up in the air, and it created no lust or temptation in them.

    funny you did this post, ellen, which really hits home. i’ve been planning one of a different take, but based on a similar thought. i’ll be curious as to your thoughts.


  5. Ellen Post author

    I think maybe the discussion on your column about Halloween candy just naturally leads in this direction anyway.

    “she kept an old cake bin full of buttons, and always had the right button whenever we lost one. “

    Great idea – mind if I steal it?

    I think my own parents’ generation (ie, parents in the 70’s and ’80s) had to cope more with making decisions about the new onslaught of entertainment gadgets than with making decisions about stretching food and clothing. (It was really a trickle of gadgets then, but later would become an onslaught…) They tended to make extremely deliberate decisions about WHAT family gadget to invest in (and it wasn’t even a given that we would actually get the gadgets).

    I still remember the intense, drawn-out debate between my dad and us kids about that wonderful new invention that “everyone” was getting – the VCR. He insisted Betamax was the better machine, and we really had to do a full court press on our basic argument of “But Daaaaad, they say VHS is the format that’s going to still be around in 50 years!” (ha!) All he cared about was how good the picture was and how long the tapes would last.

    I think, by that point, my parents not only lost that particular argument, but parents everywhere were starting to lose that argument. Do parents today really critically examine the quality of these gadgets their kids want, or is everyone just dazzled by what the gadgets can DO? I bought an iPod earlier this year and when I showed it to my dad later, he became immediately disinterested when he found out that you can’t replace the battery yourself.

    In any case, having an emotional connection to frugality probably can really help.

  6. Phil

    I still remember getting our first color TV–just in time for the Mets v. A’s World Series in ’73. It wasn’t for another 3 years before my parents sprung for cable, despite almost daily complaints by my sister and me. Only one TV, but we did have 2 cars (we were living in the suburbs and my dad didn’t want to strand my stay-at-home mom.

    I remember the quarts and quarts of applesauce and stewed tomatoes that my mom would put up for the winter months. She also made home-made caramel apples for Halloween (until all the stories about razor blades in apples made her cynical about what was once her favorite holiday.)

    Fast food was a once or twice a year thing, but my dad would more frequently spring for impromptu lunches from Pickles Deli in Dewitt (still there!) and seasonal German sausages from Steigerwalds in the city (still there!).

    Children were less catered to in the 70’s. My parents’ music (big band) ruled the record player and the radio only played WONO, the old independent classical music station. I listened to my transistor in my room and din’t get a record album until high school. The best entertainment in our house were the weekly trips to the library during the summer and free ranging political discussions at the dinner table. I was expected to hold up my end of the conversation even though my Republican parents loathed my developing liberal worldview.

    We took one vacation a year–an annual visit to my grandmother’s house on Cape Cod (hence my Red Sox fandom). My parents would occasionally take an adult vacation and I would be dumped off with my aunt/uncle/cousins. I swear that one of those vacations resulted in my sister. Trips were usually picnics to Green Lakes or Cayuga Lake.

  7. sean

    the record player bit is perfect. my parents could tolerate the beatles & simon & garfunkel. outside of that, it was their music … a lot of big band stuff, mills brothers, etc. same deal in the car: no way we were going to play cklw, which was the best rock station we could pick up.

    it was a big deal when my parents picked up a stereo console, after years of record players.

    the whole communal aspect of this really is amazing. i remember being bored out of my mind at 10 or 11 on a sunday afternoon, watching nfl football on a crispy november afternoon until i got sick of it, going out to play football in the street … and then walking a mile to a drug store open until 5 to buy comic books, because it was the only thing we could find that was open on a sunday.


  8. Linda

    I grew up in the ’50’s and ’60’s as the child of a widowed school teacher. What I remember most was an overall understanding that you didn’t buy or do anything until you had first saved the money for it. We were the last family in our neighborhood to have a tv for that reason, and last family to have a clothes dryer, too. My mother definitely wouldn’t understand today’s proliferation of rent-to-own stores and maxed-out credit cards!

    I don’t remember being bombarded by constant advertising for things we couldn’t afford. Of course, without a tv, I wouldn’t have seen those advertisements very often anyway!! Our neighborhood was its own little world, and it was enough. I actually feel sad for so many young people today….they are so dependent on batteries and electricity for fun, so dependent on advertising to tell them what their next interest will be, and so dependent on money to keep it all going.

  9. sean

    i could do this all day, but here’s another one …

    we lived around the corner from a city playground in dunkirk. beyond the playground was a swamp where the power lines went through. beyond the power lines were a slag heap used for dumping by the steel plant. and beyond the slag heap was the steel plant itself, black glass, black walls, black fumes, mordor.

    we lived at that playground. in the winter, we would shovel off the basketball court and play hoops in our sweatshirts and jeans. in the spring, as soon as it was dry enough, we played hardball there until we outgrew the field – an automatic double being a shot into the swamp. in summer, the city would hire a couple of teenage attendants … it was open from 9-noon, closed for lunch, 1-5, closed for dinner, 6-9. we were there with those attendants from morning until dusk. we shot baskets. we played kickball-baseball, hitting a pitched volleyball with a bat. we pitched pennies. we caught frogs. we played home run derby. we sat on the picnic table and talked. when the attendants left, we climbed onto the roof of the shelter.

    we did that day in and day out for what seemed like forever, but was actually more like 3rd to 7th grade, when we got too old and too cool and began looking for something we didn’t realize we had just left behind.

    and now we want it back – for ourselves, and for our kids.


  10. Ellen Post author

    One of the things I loved about growing up in Fairmount (and still appreciate it now that I’m here again) was that it was within biking distance of undeveloped/former industrial land. I thought every neighborhood was like this, that it had places where you could roam and explore. We were not supposed to go up to Split Rock (the former munitions plant), but on a couple occasions we did. Mostly we stuck to the trails closer to home. There was also a “Lost Lake” that the creek came from (just a large pond, really!) and there was an almost mythical old railroad line that secretly went through the hills all the way to Auburn, they said. (This was the Syracuse-Auburn trolley – the one that went through the middle of Tuscarora Country Club) I suppose some of the things we did were unwise – it’s not like any place is safe from predators – but that’s really just a metaphor for life itself, you have to have access to place where the map says “Here There Be Dragons.” Kids today just do not have that – except maybe there are much darker places of the soul they venture into, judging from things like Columbine.

    (BTW, my grandpa did roam those hills back when you could get away with hunting up there. I guess the moral of this would be that one’s neighborhood used to be a place for physical activity other than jogging.)

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