The Kettle movies were cornball comedies shot in the 1950s, but to my in-laws they were documentaries on farming, child rearing, fashion and the social graces. To Mom and Dad, there was nothing funny about them: a Kettle movie was as serious as an Army training film on digging latrines that drain away from the troop tents.
I tell myself that my in-laws are different from other people because they are from another time and place. Like characters from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, they grew up during the Depression and the Dust Bowl: he on a hardscrabble ranch in Montana, she on a desolate farm in South Dakota.
But unlike most of their peers, my in-laws live in a perpetual 1933, smack-dab in the middle of a Depression that has never ended for them. At eighty-six years apiece, this is just a small sample of their Kettle-like wisdom:
- Never ever throw anything away—including anything molting in the back of the refrigerator. Never mind if it's broken, burned-out, or smells like a mis-dug latrine: there might still be a use for it someday. If by chance there isn't, it will end up on one of Mom's semi-weekly garage sale tables for 25¢.
- Never ever buy anything new. This is one of Dad's major wisdoms. No matter what it is, from a lamp to a sofa, he can get one that is "just as good" for four bucks. Tops. If it happens to be broken, burned-out, or smells like the back shelving of the refrigerator, it will end up on one of Mom's semi- weekly garage sale tables for 25¢.
- Never ever pay anyone to repair anything. There is an important "until" clause in this one: Never ever pay anyone to repair anything until it is so incredibly fucked up that only a professional fixit guy can fix it. If the fixit guy just laughs his head off and walks away, then buy another already-repaired one for four bucks. Tops.
Having witnessed their wisdom a thousand times, there is a whole lot I don't tell my in-laws. I don't tell them that I pay to have my oil changed, my tires installed, and my brakes replaced. I also don't tell them that I do not keep the old oil, the bald tires, and the filthy brakes lying around the yard, even though I might need them for something someday.
Because of her parents, Martha and I have our own family wisdom. Never ever tell Mom and Dad that we knowingly, willingly, and with thought aforethought, actually throw our broken old shit away.
The reason people laugh at Ma and Pa in the movies is because they are pure yokel. We laugh at their ignorance and naïveté, but never at who they are as people: dirt-poor, unschooled, simple country folk who make do with what they have.
And so it is with Mom and Dad. I shake my head at some of the things they do, but I also know who they are and where they have been. Life has never been easy for them, a life of backbreaking work with mostly no return. And very little play because I suspect no one ever taught them how to play—or allowed them any play time.
The Depression of the 1930s is long over, the farming days are gone, and the fake Kettles live on only on film. So too will my in-laws pass, the real-life Ma and Pa, who have given me their beautiful daughter, a ton of laughter, and a sense of how hard the life of two have-nots can be.
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Since I wrote this piece my father-in-law has passed away. My mother-in-law is 90 and still lives on her own in southern Colorado.