Where does frugality end and parsimoniousness or down right stinginess, begin? That may depend on who's giving the answer and what hardships and meager times they've endured in their own lives. It does help to understand that some people go well beyond being frugal, not in an attempt to hoard things unto themselves, rather to assuage a constant fear of some disaster taking away any and everything they own.
I met Granny when I was six years old, she in her mid seventies. We moved into a four room house next door to her when the tiny three room house we were in became just too small for our ever expanding family. I took a liking to the old lady right away, as did all who knew her. It was generally accepted that she was the stingiest person around. No less, she was a friendly and hard working woman.
Granny had retired from the local cotton mill and shared a home with a divorced daughter who worked at the mill, a spinster daughter, bedridden for twenty years with a severe form of crippling arthritis, and a grown grandson, the son of the divorced daughter.
It would be an understatement to say her financial situation was meager. Her husband had died one year before the enactment of social security, so she received no funds on his account. If I remember correctly, her total monthly income was an eleven dollar 'government' check, supplemented by a two dollar check from the state's old age pension fund. Even in the fifties and sixties, that amount was hardly enough to buy four weeks worth of food, much less pay her share of the utilities and house rent. (I'm not sure about the amount of the rent. I do know that at one time, the mill owners charged twenty-five cents per room, per week).
Fiercely independent, she held onto every penny for as long as she could. In order to put food on the table, she maintained three gardens. One was devoted to corn which she had ground into meal by the local milling company. Her fee for their services was a portion of the ground meal. No money changed hands. One garden was devoted to sweet potatoes. She grew a bumper crop every year. The third garden was set aside for various vegetables such as butter beans and other crops, mostly those that could be dried or canned for future use.
Many was the time I would rush to Granny's back steps after school. She would be sitting there shelling butter beans or shucking corn with her time worn and gnarled hands. I was eager to help with the chore because I knew I would be rewarded with some of the most fascinating stories of her early life and childhood. All I had to do was say 'Granny, tell me a story'. People, a person who can remember seeing their first car and light bulb could keep you entertained for hours with true tales of their lives.
Deeply religious, She kept Sunday as 'The Lord's Day'. That's the only day you would not find her hands firmly grasping a hoe handle. She did not attend church. She did occasionally part with a couple of dollars which she had me enclose in a note and send to a preacher on the radio. The note was written by me, but in Granny's words, asking for prayer and a mention of her name on the broadcast. (Granny could neither read nor write). And too, there was the occasional prayer meeting held in the 'parlor' of her home. Quite a crowd, sometimes. Seating for the worshipers was provided by a local funeral 'parlor'. Funeral home attendants brought lots of folding chairs. The day after the meeting, the attendants came and picked up the chairs, all free of charge. Looking back, I can see how, if born under different circumstances, Granny Rollins would have rivaled Hetty Green.
Before dawn, she was up and standing over her wood stove in the kitchen, preparing a poor man's breakfast for herself, her invalid daughter and grandson. Eggs were provided by her hens kept in a chicken lot out back. Meat, if any, was provided by the three or four hogs she raised each year on land donated by the mill owners. Not one for taking the time required to make biscuits, every meal was accompanied by a large 'pone' of cornbread. It was cooked atop the wood range in a flat cast iron skillet which had been placed over a hole provided by removing one of the lids from the stove's eyes.
By the first light of day, she had taken breakfast to her daughter, cleaned the dishes, changed from her kitchen apron to her field apron, donned her bonnet and was headed out the back door to her gardens. Sometimes, I secretly watched her there for long periods of time. The hard, red clay was her enemy as well as the giver of sustenance vital to a life free of hunger. It demanded a bent back, calloused hands, no pay and long, relentless hours.
Her bonnets all had large brims. Facing the earth for hours at a time, her bonnet acted as blinders on a mule. She saw only red clay and more red clay, and weeds everywhere. If you called her name, she would look up and smile a toothless smile, always with a drop of sweat at the end of her nose. The clay, the hoe, the weeds and the prayers for a decent crop were Granny's life, hopefully to be lived til "the Lord calls me home".
She stopped midday to go back to the house to cook a bit of 'dinner'. Then it was back to the gardens til time to cook supper. Supper, too, was a meager meal. Butter beans, maybe a can of 'store bought' greens, if her turnips had 'run out', baked and buttered sweet potatoes and corn pone, always corn pone.
I could write an essay on Granny's stinginess, alone. The only heat in the house, save a small 'laundry heater' in the invalid daughter's bedroom, was that wood cook stove in the kitchen. I spent a many evening in that kitchen just to be in Granny's company. Though she had three large piles of wood, enough to last her lifetime, during the winter she spent her after supper hours huddled near that stove. She kept a watchful eye on the small fire, waiting til it had almost gone out before adding one or two more sticks of wood. She did this while, all the time, wearing a heavy overcoat.
Granny was always concerned about expenses, such as being able to pay her share of the 'power' bill. The house had no electrical outlets. Without even a refrigerator, the only power consumption was by four light bulbs, one in each room, dangling from a cord in the center of the rooms. The sixty watt bulb in the kitchen was turned on each evening only when it had gotten so dark, it was no longer possible to see without it.
The cast iron wash pot seen in the picture was almost as important as Granny's hoe. At hog killing time, in the Fall of the year, she built a fire under that pot and rendered lard from hog fat. She used it to render 'cracklins', as well. And it was also used to make her own lye soap. I never will forget a time when she was boiling dirty clothes in that pot. I stepped over to speak with her for a few minutes. While we were talking, she took a broom handle and lifted one of the garments from the steaming water. She looked at it wistfully and said, "Well, they don't look much better, but at least I got the stink out'n em".
I went to see Granny when she was near death. She was lying on the settee in the parlor;, the same settee she had used for a bed for all the years I knew her. She didn't seem too concerned about her time coming to an end. Actually, she was a bit miffed. Earlier, she had soiled the sheets on the settee. Her working daughter, Alma, went to the 'bureau' where sheets were kept and came back with some 'new', unused sheets Granny had bought many years, earlier. She said to me, "I told Alma she was not about to put my brand new sheets on this settee and she'd have to make do with something else".
This woman never saw a doctor nor dentist. Never bought an article of clothing in the many years she was my neighbor. She went for years without setting foot off the home and garden property. All she really wanted was the strength to put that hoe to the ground another day. And another day, til the time she heard her Jesus say, 'Laura, its time. Come with me. You will never go hungry. Come sit at my table and feast with the saints. Laura, come home'.
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I was born and raised in the city. When grade school was out for the summer, all my friends stayed close to home, taking occasional trips to a beach or theme park. None of them would have agreed to spend their summers the way I spent mine. I chose to spend them in the country with my cousins and uncle, and my aunt, 'Bertie Jane'.
What is your earliest memory? I will tell you three of mine as I don't know which is earliest. When I was little, the house was not heated past bed time. If the temperature was 10 degrees outside, it was 10 degrees inside, not long after we all went to bed.
If anyone ever lived a frugal and very simple life, Clara Walker did. We were neighbors from the time I was born til my family moved a couple blocks away when I was six. Most all my memories of Clara were formed during those six years.
My father shaved every Saturday night after his bath. The smell of the week's sweat was washed away, replaced by the clean light fresh smell of the Sweetheart soap he used.
When I was eleven or twelve, I did something I'll never do again; probably couldn't do again. I walked twenty-two miles in a single day. Just on a lark. At that age, I was often besieged with fits of 'larkism'.