I could never turn the doorknobs in my grandmother’s house when I was a child. My great-grandmother, who had lived through two World Wars and The Great Depression saved every single rubber band that came into the house. That single rubber band that held together the daily newspaper for a few years…you do the math. Grandma Anne would carefully take them off the newspaper and place them on one of the many interior doorknobs of her daughter’s house. Opening the doors required reaching up with both of my tiny hands, endeavoring to get a grip and eventually calling her daughter, my grandmother Johnnie Jo, for help.
“Why does Grandma need so many rubber bands?” I’d ask my grandmother.
“My mother lived through the Depression and the wars when you couldn’t get any.”
“You seem to have plenty now. Maybe Grandma could stop?”
“She’s afraid there might come a time when she’d need them, and she might not be able to get more,” my grandmother would reply semi-patiently.
“But she never uses them for anything.”
“I know, but she’d miss them if she couldn’t find any.”
“She could find them on the doorknobs,” I’d reply confidently.
Child logic. Rinsed and repeated every visit.
My maternal grandmother Margaret saved and reused every possible brown paper bag or clear plastic bag that came her way. She would carefully flatten out aluminum foil to reuse, washing it if needed. She even had a special, organized drawer in the kitchen for these things. Cool Whip containers and jelly jars were free Tuperware for the delicious leftovers she inevitably sent home with me until I was nearly 40. – I still desperately miss her chicken and dumplings.
After she died at the age of 91, my mother began clearing out her things and found countless nice bed jackets, nightgowns, and bathrobes she had bought my grandmother over the years. Everything was carefully and lovingly kept in tissue paper in the gift boxes they’d arrived in. Whenever my mother would inquire why her mother didn’t wear them, if they weren’t to her liking or didn’t fit, Margaret would reply, “Huuuuuuuuuunnnnnn,” (Hon, as in honey, was her preferred term of endearment, dragged out into a Southern drawl of 20 or more syllables.) “I like them just fine, but they’re too nice for every day. I’m saving them for a special occasion.”
“Mother, I can buy you more. Enjoy them while you still can.”
“Ok,” she’d lie.
On March 13, 2020, a day late into the COVID-19 panic buying, I jumped online and ordered extra pans of my favorite Kremer watercolors and Shimmer Inks and Colira metallic watercolors from John Neal Books. The very idea that I might be trapped inside for a few weeks while running out of cobalt blue turquoise or pale gold, or that I might never know the joys of Colira’s new blue/pink interference color Medusa was as unthinkable as running out of toilet paper.
I felt guilty about the people who would pack, ship, and deliver my absolute essentials, but I consoled myself with the reality that I was able to help other small businesses at a time when their products might not fly off the shelves as fast as hand sanitizer.
When the products arrived, the impulse to hoard them, to save them, to cherish them and look longingly at their undisturbed labels and surfaces coursed through my veins. Such careful conserving of supplies has been hard wired into my brain if not actually identifiable in my genes. Instead I disinfected their packaging with an alcohol based cleaner and dived in.
The organic potatoes we carefully ration. The organic Fuji apples and Haas avocados I lovingly wash, eat, and enjoy while ripe, never taking for granted that we are still able to get them, delivered by people on the front lines no less. To waste them is always wrong, but now, when more might or might not be an option, it is even more so. Don’t even get me started on the toilet paper thing.
I now know first hand why my grandmothers saved rubber bands and aluminum foil. They lived through a time that I could not even imagine in the future. Every breath, even in Atlanta with its pollen count over 8000, breathed in automatically is precious.