Christmas cookies

She gave us desserts such as rice pudding studded with prunes, “ice cream” made from sweetened, whipped and frozen cream skimmed from the top of the milk bottle, graham crackers glued together with gritty frosting made of cocoa powder and margarine. My mother liked to save money. Never an extravagant cook to start with, the new house and its mortgage encouraged her to further measures of economy.

We ate soup made from leftover Thanksgiving turkey bones, bought day-old bread (“it makes better toast”), bottled homemade root beer in salvaged ketchup bottles, and lived one entire summer on radishes, swiss chard, and eggs from a flock of hens we raised.

Our sheets were made from flour sacks, my underwear was fashioned out of sugar sacks, and there was cardboard in the soles of our shoes. Sitting together in the dining room after supper, the family listened to the radio in the dark to save electricity. We never used the living room; we ate in the kitchen.

When I needed braces on my teeth, she was convinced that I had pushed them out of alignment by resting my jaw in my hand during the many hours I spent reading. I could have my teeth straightened, she declared, but only if I promised to repay the cost when I was an adult. The same thing happened when it was discovered in grade school that I needed glasses; I had ruined my eyes reading too much and it was my fault she had to spend money.

She sewed our wardrobe; my new clothes were always too big for me. That way I would get full use of their fabric before I outgrew them. When I entered junior high I used hand cream made with a formula provided by her Home Economics circle; it smelled like dog hair. I wanted a school sweater and she knit one, but without the white stripes on the cuffs and in dark maroon instead of the regulation crimson (“that light red will just show all the dirt”).

I could go on and on but instead I got out, I escaped. I went through a period of my life when I left all the lights burning in my apartment all night long. There was another period when I bought a new garment every week and left it hanging in the closet as “too good to wear”. It could be called conspicuous consumption; looking back, it probably was therapeutic.

She is very old now and, more than ever, accumulates money faster than she spends it. Old habits die hard. I think I am what could be called her caregiver. I do most of her shopping because she is housebound. The other day she needed some things and gave me a list.

When I delivered her grocery order I had a present for her   :   a jar of fancy Christmas cookies from Sam’s Club so she would have something to offer holiday visitors. She tried to reimburse me for the gift and I refused to tell her how much I had spent. It gave me a perverse pleasure to know that if she realized they cost more than a dollar per cookie she would never open the jar.

A friend messaged to ask if we were really so poor as to sleep on flour sack sheets. This is not about being poor; it is about obsessive economy. The mortgage mentioned above, issued for 20 years, was retired in four years.