Tight Times

All this talk of a recession got me to thinking. Before the gas hike, people carelessly spent money as if dollar trees grew in the backyard.

Aug 6, 2008 at 2:06 pm

All this talk of a recession got me to thinking.

Before the gas hike, people carelessly spent money as if dollar trees grew in the backyard. Television sold us notions of what middle class families owned, which we bought.

Now everyone's shuddering in fear of high prices as if that's a new nightmare. Inflation and tight times always exist, but smart people always prosper.

One day I flipped through an old photo album and immediately noticed how content my family looked in the pictures. The brick and concrete buildings in the background that were Lincoln Court housing projects made me remember how my mother could squeeze pennies like a vice grip in a bodybuilder's palm.

Her motto was "Never buy what you can't afford." As plain as our apartment appeared in those pictures, the furniture was ours outright. A rent-to-own van never showed up threatening to carry our stuff away for non-payment.

When the '70s faded into the '80s, Mom got her suits and slacks altered and lowered the hems of her blue jeans that had become high waters. She pressed and curled her own hair. She got new heels for her shoes, but she wore heels only to church and to job interviews.

When she took me shopping, the only things she bought for herself were a couple pairs of "good stockings" and cigarettes that kept her company at night while she prayed and cursed about something called a budget.

Our budget, at one point, was less than $200 a month and about $10 in food stamps because Mom had only one child. That meager amount didn't make her mad at the system — it made her want to earn her own money. And she didn't want us to be labeled "poor."

That horrible word reminds me of the evaluation we gave raggedy textbooks at school. "Poor" means not as good as 50 percent of what everyone else can do. I never felt poor.

Mom introduced me to enriching things that made me feel better than average. I participated in summer reading programs at Lincoln Park Branch Library, and one year I was featured in the paper for reading the most books. Some summers I went to the YMCA day camp while Mom worked.

For entertainment, we had a black-and-white TV and listened to records she bought in college before I was born, like Roberta Flack's First Take, Stevie Wonder's Talking Book or Head to the Sky from Earth Wind & Fire.

We spent birthdays at the zoo and toted a picnic basket filled with potato salad and hamburgers. We challenged each other in card games like Gin and 500, and during Mom's bathroom breaks I peeked at her hand and traded her winning cards with bad ones. She tried to teach me Bid Whist, but it was too hard.

As snacks, I ate rice crispy treats, hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter on crackers and syrup bread. When I played with kids in the neighborhood, we walked to the Candy Lady's house and bought Dixie Cups full of frozen Kool-Aid that cost a quarter.

I helped carry shopping bags from Findlay Market, and when we had a lot of groceries we used to ride with a bootleg cabbie named Bill, whose leather seats scorched my thighs in the summertime. Sometimes we shopped with a butcher on Linn Street who weighed out any measure of meat, even if it was just a dollar.

We rinsed out glass pop bottles and saved them under the sink. When we accumulated bunches of cartons, we stacked them in a cart, wheeled them to the store and got 10 cents for each bottle. One time I remember we collected enough to buy a chicken, a bag of potatoes, a few sweets and something to drink.

I didn't ask why Mom and I visited Grandma's house every day, because I understood it was group therapy. When Grandma wasn't feeling well, we did her shopping or accompanied her to the doctor.

Grandma enjoyed the Marvin Gaye album and new stereo Mom bought for her when Mom landed a "good" job. That was 1983, and she was the secretary at my school, bringing home about $120 a week. Grandma was my after-school program while Mom worked.

They took turns buying each other's groceries. We would eat dinner at Grandma's, and on Sunday she fixed fried chicken, greens and hot water cornbread. Mom made a lot of quick-fix, starchy stuff like Rice-A-Roni, but once a month we went to pleasant restaurants with linen napkins and a salad course before the meal.

The remarkable thing is how well Mom transitioned from being a 22-year-old sorority sister to being a mother. Mom's sorors, who didn't have children, eventually stopped calling to tell her about parties. She didn't have extra money for going out. She narrowed her priorities to me and us.

Her tunnel vision must be how she saw us through tight times. A tight budget forces you to closely examine your priorities, and I think Mom taught me some really pragmatic things about money that stuck.

I still go to Findlay Market on Saturdays, and I cook at home. I get books, CDs and DVDs from the library, and I've worn many of the same clothes for years.

Thanks to Mom's frugality when I was young, I can look at this recession as something beatable instead of a bully keeping us down.

CONTACT MILDRED C. FALLEN: [email protected]