My mother believes that being thrifty is the key to heaven. That’s the only way I can explain why a woman who’s been comfortably middle class for quite a long time still has an almost religious belief in frugality. And its not because I haven’t tried hard to understand from whence this passion comes. I’ve wondered whether it may have been instilled in her as a poor child in the 1950s (she was the 8th of 11 kids) when she grew up in a rural community in the hills of Clarendon and every shilling was the meagre reward for her father’s back-breaking labour on a small plot of farmland. Whatever the reason, one thing I can tell you for certain is that my mother is an absolute fiend when it comes to being thrifty.
Just to give you a small example - as children my sister and I were quite fond of hot dogs but we quickly learned that we had to move very slowly when pouring a bottle of Grace Tomato Ketchup over a freshly cooked sausage. This was because moving too quickly might mean the entire contents of the bottle might come gushing out and soak your hotdog. Why? Because my mother was in the habit of adding water to the ketchup in order to “stretch it” and frequently forgot to tell us to “pour with caution”. She employed a similar stretch-it strategy with dishwashing liquid which usually meant that you had to use twice as much dishwashing liquid to clean the same number of dishes.
To this day, my mother faithfully saves every plastic bag that comes her way. One had to open our kitchen drawers with great care, as opening them suddenly could mean that thousands of bags that had been carefully folded and tightly squeezed into the drawer might burst out and smother you in a mountain of plastic.
Wrapping paper was also a favourite item for hoarding – sorry, I mean recycling - by my mom. On Christmas mornings she’d admonish us to carefully remove our presents from their wrappers so that the paper would not tear. That done, she’d gently remove the tape from the wrapping paper, fold the paper carefully and put it away for later use. One Christmas she was particularly pleased to find that she’d received a large new appliance wrapped in pretty red paper. I’m pretty sure she was more excited about all the paper she could re-use than the appliance itself. And trust me, my sister and I received gifts wrapped in that same red paper for at least the next two years.
And since we’re on the topic of saving things, my mother is firm believer in never – and I mean never – wasting food. Opening the door to our fridge was always an adventure. A plastic container that once held Creamy Corner ice cream might now (much to our disappointment) store boiled bananas from last night’s dinner. The margarine container in the back of the fridge? The last thing it was likely to hold was margarine. It was more likely to contain the remains of the mackerel from Sunday morning’s breakfast. My sister and I used to joke that only carbon dating could reliably give the age of some of the food in our refrigerator.
Having said all of that, I think the highest expression of my mother’s thriftiness is the survival of her backyard garden for almost 30 years. In the time that my mother has lived at her current home there has never had a day when she’s not been able to reap fresh fruits and vegetables from her “plantation”. Because her “crops” are planted rather haphazardly you may not at first recognize the bounty surrounding you when you walk into her backyard. But if you look around carefully you’ll see that her garden produces mangoes, gungo peas, breadfruit, otaheiti apple, yam, bananas, and lemons. At one time we even had a grape vine from which, true to form, she picked the grapes, juiced them and attempted to make wine. I kid you not. (If I remember correctly, my sister christened the vintage Chateau de Sour Grapes).
Let’s be clear though, while my mother’s frugality sometimes annoyed her children to the point of exasperation, I now realise that it was not without purpose. Although my siblings and I never had a lot of material things we always had enough to eat, clothes to wear and were able to go to good schools. That may not have been possible if my mother hadn’t carefully managed her family’s finances and kept us out of the poorhouse. I also recognise that my mother’s extreme thrift was exercised most fully on herself and she did this without a whisper of complaint. So while it is my fondest wish that my mother, in her old age, would take the time to enjoy a few luxuries, I understand that old habits die hard and I salute the iron discipline and perseverance that turned those efforts to save money into lifelong habits and those habits into unchangeable parts of her character. Thanks mom.