Thursday, April 28, 2011

Non-conspicuous consumption: lessons from Dad's hand-carved toilet paper spindle

             I shouldn’t brag, but there’s a new toilet paper spindle in my bathroom. 
It’s a large, resplendent, upside-down “G” made of “burnished silver,” with its important product hanging from the big curve.
            We’ve come a long way, baby.
            The new model is part of a slew of matching metal hardware known as “bathroom accessories.”
            Even though we stopped short of buying a hydronic towel warmer (what a deal at $600!) I feel guilty. The old TP dispenser wasn’t even broken. People who shop at the thrift store where we donate wouldn’t want it because it was built into our cabinet. But it seems wasteful to throw it away.
   I blame the guilt on my parents, who grew up during the Depression. My parents didn’t fit into our disposable society.  Like most families, they economized during the Depression, during World War II, and on into the 1990’s. They didn't buy new things just for show.
 Several years ago, while I was visiting Mom and planning a trip to the big-box store, Mom wrote down “toilet paper dispenser.” 
 I asked, “What’s wrong with your old one?”
          She sighed.  “Nothing—I just want a new one.”  That seemed contrary to her usual thriftiness, so in answer to my raised eyebrows, she took me to the bathroom. There hung a version of perhaps the earliest toilet paper holder known to man—two metal brackets hinged to the wall, forming an incomplete square, with an inch-long projection from each bottom corner.  The toilet paper roll was placed on a hollow wooden crosspiece that fit onto the inward-pointing ends, suspending it from the brackets.
          “That roller’s made of wood,” I stuttered.  I didn’t remember growing up with that model.
          “Yes.  About five years before Daddy died, the old one broke, and I asked him to get me one.  Instead, he carved this one.” 
            The carving was nicely done and the wood was smooth. Into each end, he glued part of a bicycle inner tube to “fill out” the hollow inside of the cylinder and to help the toilet paper roll off on command.
          “I bet he said, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,’ ” I said. 
          “Yes, he did.  He always said that.” She squared her shoulders.  It was hard for her to let go of anything Dad had made. “I’m ready for a new one. He’s been gone ten years now.” 
          “Sure, Mom.” I looked at the bathroom, decorated with contact paper in shades of white and delft blue, her valiant effort to add aesthetics to an old, high-ceilinged and chilly space.  Mom never asked for much.
Within an hour we'd purchased a spring-loaded toilet paper spindle, designed to pop springs, parts and paper all over the room anytime she changed the roll, day or night. (This is called “progress.”)
I kept Dad’s hand-carved spindle as a reminder of how Dad and Mom made things work without spending a dime.
          When I twirl my new spindle, the toilet paper roll spirals across the room.  If I could find the hardware to hang Dad’s spindle, would I?  
          Maybe if it came in burnished silver!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

There’s gold at the end of the nursing home rainbow!

These are my mother's cousins: Ted, Mary Ellen, Vonnie and Oren.  When I found Mary at  an assisted living facility, it was like finding a pot of gold at the end of the family history rainbow! Unfortunately, Vonnie died in June of 2010 and Oren died in March of 2011, making Ted's and Mary's memories even more valuable.

The first rule of family history research is: “Talk to living family members.” Many of us break that rule, thinking it’s easier to look for information on the Internet. But there’s absolutely nothing quite like a living relative, full of stories.

We’ve been seeking details on the death of Roy Aller, my mother’s cousin. Roy was born in 1909 in Teton Valley, Idaho, and died at the age of 26. Family lore said he was working in construction or logging and was killed when a kerosene stove exploded. There’s a death date—February 10, 1936—but no source for it, and no place of death.

A second cousin, Ted Furniss, who was six when Roy died, suggested some cemeteries where Roy might be buried. We both assumed Roy died in Idaho, Wyoming or Oregon, and were searching Internet sites for more information.  

You know what they say about assuming—boy, were we wrong!

Recently Oren, Ted’s brother, died, but my husband and I didn’t attend his funeral in Driggs because we’d planned to visit our son’s family in Portland. 

While there, we learned we were only 15 minutes away from the rest home where Mary, Oren’s sister and Roy’s cousin, lives.

It would’ve been easy not to go—I can find more excuses to avoid the front door of a nursing home than a kid assigned to do dishes.  I didn’t really know Mary, and I was worried she might have memory issues and not have the faintest idea who I was. However, I love family reunions. And a great one took place in Mary’s nursing home room.

At age 87, Mary was delighted to see us. Her health and memory are good, despite having had three strokes. She said I look like my mother. I thought she looked like George and Sadie, her parents.

She was about 12 when Roy died, and she said it happened in Alaska. She said he lived with another worker and was trying to start a fire in a stove to cook their dinner. Mary couldn’t remember what kind of work he was doing, but shortly before his death, he had sent his mother, Aunt Jane, a small barrel of cured salmon.  Maybe we can add “fishing industry” to the list of possible jobs that took Roy to the camp where he died.

Mary had felt badly about missing Oren’s funeral and we enjoyed talking about that wonderful man, who rode horses into his 80’s and attributed his good health to “an apple a day”—for breakfast.

For me, the best part was that Mary remembered my grandfather, her uncle.  He died in 1939, before my parents were married, and I never knew him.  She said he had nephritis and sat on the porch in the sun during his last years.  “I was about 15, and I’d sit by him on the step and tell him my troubles—he had a good listening ear,” she said.

Mary, thanks for the memories—of things that can’t be found on the Internet.