Why I Sometimes Act Like I Was Born in the Great Depression

Another batch of memories in preparation for FAMILY LAW, which is set in the world of my own childhood. My grandmother turned 105 this week, and so these are all her. She’s at the center of many of my warmest, best memories.

5. My grandparents did not believe in wasting money on snacks during car trips. Not that we took many car trips. Mostly we drove up to my great-grandmother’s about three hours away, and my grandmother treated this expedition as if we were packing up the wagons and crossing the plains. She filled up a thermos with ice water—sometimes it was a mason jar, if she couldn’t find the thermos—and she built tidy stacks of Saltines and peanut butter. Sometimes Ritz with peanut butter. Sometimes apples or chocolate chip cookies or Lorna Doone shortbreads or some such, but always the ice water and crackers, and she would always sit in the front passenger seat with plastic bags jammed around her feet so that she could hardly move. My grandfather would drive, and my mother and I would stretch out luxuriously in the back with pillows and magazines. My grandmother would twist around and offer us a sip of water or cracker about a hundred times over the course of those three hours, and sometimes I would answer in a huffy tone that I didn’t want anything and I didn’t even like Saltines that much, but now I would love to hear the crackle of that plastic bag as she bent down to sort through her offerings, digging through Ziplocks and napkins, so eager to give me something I wanted.

6. We halved everything. My grandmother and her siblings grew up in the Depression, and I spent a lot of time around them. There was a general attitude of conservation. We got half a paper napkin at meals and a half stick of gum on car trips. We washed out ziplock bags and dried them on the dishrack. There was the tucked-away clump of plastic grocery bags—did anyone NOT save those grocery bags?—which would be used for bathroom trash bags and carry-out sacks for when you got sent home with Tupperware leftovers.

7. I wish I had let my grandmother properly teach me to sew. She was excellent at it—she made my early Halloween costumes by hand and occasionally made me an entire outfit when I was small. She sat me down for lessons a few times, but I was unenthusiastic. I got the basics of hemming, but I’m not that good at it.

I can see her threading a needle, sucking the end of it into her mouth, tying it off, settling into a rhythm of tidy stiches and looping thread. As a child, I found it boring. As I got older, maybe I found it too domestic? Old-fashioned? Subservient, even, as if you’d get stuck fixing things that men had broken? No, I don’t think I thought that deeply. More likely, sewing pressed the same buttons as my failed piano lessons—I just wasn’t willing to put in the work.

Now I see the competence in it. The self-sufficiency. The way my grandmother could take the old and make it new again. The way she could turn an idea into something you could hold in your hand.

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