A few weeks ago, my lovely friend Tina said something that triggered my earliest memory and made me laugh hard. She was telling me about the new cartop tent she was about to buy. What? I responded in disbelief. You can buy a tent, now, for the top of your car? (Obviously, this would be new stuff. Expensive new stuff.) The reason I laughed so hard was because more than 60 years ago, my dad had built a cartop platform for supporting a pitched tent.
In my memory of this tent and platform, of camping in the woods, I’m just two-and-a-half years old. It’s an age people doubt you’re really remembering. It’s true that my brain wasn’t completely developed; I was still just beginning to understand language and to grasp some basic things about the world. But that doesn’t mean the details aren’t clear. They still are, for me. In fact, the memory of this trip is in two parts, and both have good detail.
Part I: Our car is parked in the woods in a small clearing, with dark woods all around us. It’s still morning and I’m sitting on the hood of the car with my smiling mother reaching down toward me from the heights of the tent’s door. I’m sure the reason I remember this is because it struck me as strange to have a tent on top the car, where my parents had just slept instead of in their bed at home.
Part II: It’s the night before: I’m tucked into the back seat of the car, wrapped in blankets, the doors safely shut. Darkness is falling, and a comforting sleepiness is also about to descend on me. Maybe I do nod off. But before it’s completely dark, the car door by my head opens. It’s my dad, holding a closed fist out in front of me.
“I want to show you something,” he says. I bet those were his exact words.
He opens his fist just a bit. Through the crack between his fingers, I can see a dark bug and also a light. The light goes off, then on again. I can see that it’s coming from the underside of the bug itself. How odd!
Again, I’m guessing that the weirdness of a light on a bug’s body is what cut the groove into my brain, why it’s still there in detail. And why my dad had the urge to show it to me that night, whether I was quite asleep or not.
Growing older, I couldn’t question the reality of the handmade wooden platform, because it was stored after its last trip in a small, dank basement room underneath the front steps of our house. The closet-like room also housed some kind of big tank, for water, maybe (I never asked), and the raft-like thing stood upright between this tank and the wall, crisscrossed with spider webs and the spiders themselves with their egg cases. In case of an approaching tornado, my dad said, this room—the narrow spaces between the tank and the walls—would be where we’d take refuge until the storm was over. I hoped we would never, ever see a tornado that threatening. And indeed we didn’t. But seeing that raft always there in the basement, I never doubted my first memory. It was shaped like a squat church window, roughly five feet square without the point, and made of what I think were some old two-by-twelve planks secured horizontally. I have no idea how my dad got the heavy thing onto top of the car, or how he strapped it onto the Chevy’s curvy bubble-top so we could safely travel the highways of northern Minnesota.
This is the father who taught me, by example—going way beyond the tent platform—that new stuff sucks. He wouldn’t have used the word sucks, but he completely embodied the sentiment through his way of living and creating, without saying anything.
If we were out walking, I’d watch him bend down to pick up nuts and bolts and other bits of metal. “You pay good money for this at the hardware store,” he’d always say. He’d file it away in his basement workshop, a crowded but orderly room that had all his necessary tools: table saw, band saw, various drills, and other tools or supplies I couldn’t identify. He’d sometimes make his own lumber, beautifully grained and fragrant, from a dirty old log he recognized as quality hardwood. To me that was magic. I loved smelling the sawdust and seeing the grain appear. I was an agate hunter (a cousin had showed me what to look for, and somehow convinced me of the rock’s exaggerated value), and the lined pattern of the wood looked just like the red or crystalline stripes I saw in my favorite stones.
My dad experimented, and he didn’t always succeed. We had a Franklin stove in our garage, which gave him the idea of recycling newspaper by rolling it into logs for burning, to heat the garage. But the paper rolls were too dense to burn. I remember gray smoke coming off the log, and no flames. I know we cancelled the newspaper subscription after that and got our news from TV and radio. Another time he decided the plain cement of our basement walls would look better as brick. So he cut some leftover sheetrock into brick-sized rectangles, painted them red, and glued them to the wall. It looked a lot better than the fake-brick plastic sheeting others were buying. But I think the total surface area of our basement walls was too daunting, and he didn’t finish the job.
It seems to me inventors and experimenters would rather move on to the next project than follow through on a tedious practical application of something that might have actually worked. In any case, my dad moved on to soapmaking. Somehow he’d gained access to the leftover slivers from the showers of a nearby gym, and he taught himself how to make new, normal-sized bars out of them for our family’s baths and showers. By the time we’d used those up and gone back to soap from the store, he’d gone on to cutting the rusty bottoms out of trash cans—the small metal ones everyone had back then—for compost. He’d dig holes under them to increase their capacity so that, for most of the winter, just one bottomless can, set up near the the back door, would handle the whole season’s food scraps, and my mom barely had to leave the comfy warm house to dump them. Inside, in his basement workshop, my dad would be addressing some other problem, like the need for a new closet rod, a long one with a diameter to fit a coat hanger’s hook. He didn’t have a dowel that size, but he did have a long-enough piece of wood with the dowel inside it—all he had to do was free it by shaving off the four edges of the wood piece, then sanding it. I wonder if that closet rod, with its slight imperfections, is still holding up the coats of the people living in that house today.
Nearing his last days, my dad got busy redesigning his hospital room. He maintained that the awkward food cart, always in the way, should be replaced by a board that came down from the ceiling. He said there ought to be two chairs for visitors, not just one, and they should be collapsible to save space when not in use. There was more, but I don’t remember it. I do recall realizing, for the first time, that my dad’s primary gift to me was a readiness to question the status quo. To nurture and practice resourcefulness. Nothing had to be the way it was. Nothing that could be made or found needed to be bought. And this was the nature of life. It’s how you got to be creative. It’s why you talked back to the harebrained ads on TV. It’s what made life fun.
Too bad it was a gift I hadn’t opened right away. From my teenage years to middle age, I often bought into advertising and the unending rapacity of the Joneses as an ideal. Imagine! An ideal! This in spite of the fact that I also had a mother who, in her own very different way, also lived a life that knew happiness didn’t come from things, or from shopping for new stuff. It certainly didn’t come from money, in her view.
My mother’s essence was shaped by the rural poverty of her Wisconsin childhood. Her youth was almost devoid of new stuff. Yet, when she lay dying, her chief comfort was remembering her “deprived” years, growing up on a farm with her two sisters. These were the stories she naturally slipped into during her final days, propped up with pillows on her hospital bed. They were the same ones I’d heard all my life—and never got tired of listening to. (If some new detail did come up with the replay, so much the better.) Besides telling these stories often, she wrote them down for me not long before she died. It was my inheritance from her.
What I learned from them, from her, is that poverty does not necessarily equal misery. In fact, it seemed to me that the very things the family lacked usually meant some pleasure to be enjoyed.
For example, not having a refrigerator meant that in the summer, the girls could go into the woodshed and sit on top of the deliciously cool blocks of ice that were stored there, after being cut from the lake the previous winter. The girls just had to brush away the sawdust. My mother called this cooling strategy a luxury!
Another example of pleasure from privation: Being without central heating in the farmhouse—the second-story bedrooms had vents in the floor—meant that the girls would dress together for school in the welcoming space behind the downstairs woodstove. Both my aunt and my mother spoke of that warm little corner with great affection. My mother thought of that stove—wrote about it—as a sheltering, benevolent being with a cheerful isinglass face.
Additional pleasures came from not having transportation—most of the time no car, no horse, and no school bus. This meant that the sisters walked together, just over a mile, to their one-room school. Spring walks brought wildflowers along the way, which Mom could still passionately remember, and list, seventy years later: bloodroots, mayflowers, violets, miniature violets, trilliums, wild geraniums, anemones, jacks-in-the-pulpits, buttercups, wild plum blossoms. (Can anyone rattle off natural details like that these days? With love?) Winter walks were almost certainly dangerously cold at times, but the sisters looked forward to arriving at the schoolhouse, where a warm furnace waited, fired up beforehand by the teacher. There would be no lessons until the students had warmed themselves by marching up and down the aisles, stomping their frozen feet and clapping their still-mittened hands to invigorating music on the phonograph. If the weather looked bad enough to keep most of the other students from showing up at all, the Peterson girls would make a special effort to get there, because on those days there would be no lessons at all—only games and stories. There were no snowplows, after all. If a blizzard looked likely for the school day’s end, the families who did have horses and sleighs drove to the school and offered rides to their neighbors. The “always-jovial” dad of the girls’ two best buddies would take them home, everyone covered in quilts or straw and keeping each other warm—a “cared-for feeling,” my mother remembered. And as the snow melted again, the snowbanks were transformed into beautiful, intricate ice-lace.
There were no stores or shopping near the farm. My mother did mention holiday orders to Sears and Roebuck (and also that other use of the Sears catalog pages in the outhouse), but mostly her stories were about how they satisfied their needs in other ways.
With no grocery stores, their food came from a variety of places. They made use of natural sources, picking butternuts and many kinds of fresh berries, and fishing on the lake that bordered their land. (Mom spoke of using bent pins as hooks.) They had chickens for eggs and meat, and in the summer, a garden where they grew a variety of vegetables, including some they would store in the cellar through winter—carrots, rutabagas, potatoes—as long as they lasted. She never talked about where they got their staples—flour and sugar (my aunt mentioned big bags of the latter)—but I know the family made candy and bread regularly. School lunch was usually syrup sandwiches, carried in syrup pails. That doesn’t sound healthy or tasty to me, but the girls didn’t mind, because that’s what everyone else had for lunch as well. The family often traded or bought food from neighbors—part of a pig when one was slaughtered, corn for popcorn and chickens, milk, and fresh cream (though at times they had their own cow). They made ice cream with a hand crank, so didn’t have to go without that.
Almost without exception, my mother’s memories are joyful ones. You can almost hear the longing and nostalgia in her voice. So I found it curious that her tone changes when she describes her experiences getting to high school in a neighbor’s car:
“[W]hen we went to high school, Clara Mae and I would walk across frozen Mud Lake to Strandberg’s, where we’d get a ride to school at Balsam Lake with them in their 1917 Ford Model T. What we suffered those first two years at Balsam Lake High School! The cold mornings when the car refused to start, so we’d be late to school; the days when we’d drive through the pouring rain, side-curtains flapping and leaking, water coming up through the floorboards; and, in cold weather, parking the car on a hill outside the high school so we could get it get it going by pushing it downhill, and head for home. I remember one day we had a blowout and rode to town on the rim. That car meant a lot of suffering and unpleasantness to us.”
She’s talking about new stuff! Or at least a new invention the sisters hadn’t needed before. About fifteen years after I read this passage, I was able to get rid of my car. I’m not saying it was this car contempt that influenced me—at least not consciously. My car didn’t have leaking side-curtains, holes in the floorboards, or chronic starting problems, but I had plenty of other reasons to ditch it. That’s a story is for another post.
So I consider myself lucky: to have had parental role models of inventiveness, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, satisfaction, and independence from the influences that want us to think we need this and that, or that and this—the things they want to sell us. There were more of these kind of role models, I think, in the Great Depression. Will a few more of them sprout up from our latest eras of crises—the Great Recession and the Pandemic? Or is it too late? Is there some memory, still, of happiness with some sort of distance from high technology, lightning changes in daily life, unlimited travel, expectations, readymade and outsourced food, and a constant feed of new stuff?
Beats me. I only know we need these examples, these skills, and these life-philosophies more than we ever have. For the planet and our individual selves both.