Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ma & Pa Kettle

How best to describe my mother- and father-in-law?


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.

* * *


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.

25 comments:

Lo said...

Hey, Charlie, darling.....great piece, but...I, too, am a child of the Depression and I must admit I understand your in-laws too well. Fortunately, I HAVE learned to throw some stuff away, but it is still very hard after spending much of my 83 years turning trash(mine and other people's) into treasures. I am just glad that you and your wife have managed to escape the worst of this curse (or talent). It really gets bad when you just run out of space in your house and you have to start choosing between your dog or that broken (but fixable) lamp.

Fay's Too said...

You are wonderful!

flying eagle woman said...

I am so GRATEFUL for your existence!
:-) Shawna

mapstew said...

They sound wonderful Charles! :¬)

We managed to get the kids to throw out more than half their stuff during the big redecoration of August 2010. How come they still do not have enough room for whats left? (It all went to good causes, nothing was actually dumped. Do you know anyone who wants a perfectly good 'non ultra-slim flat-screen' TV? Neither do I! It's going to the recycle centre tomorrow.) :¬)

DJan said...

It helped me to start pitching things in the recycle bin when we moved after 15 years in the same rented apartment. We are now halfway across the country but have MUCH less crap than we did, not wanting to haul it with us. It's a great way to learn how to decide what's important to keep and what can go...

laytonwoman3rd said...

I don't understand my situation at all. My Mom grew up during the Depression and WWII. She knew how to make do, re-use, etc. But she throws away perfectly good stuff. You have to fight her to hang on to something that still has life left in it, like a scuffed up pair of shoes that's just right for slipping on to walk the dog. "I bought a new pair to replace those. Why would I want to keep them; they'll just clutter up the place." Clutter is the devil to my mother. I, on the other hand, collect "stuff". And hate to throw things out. Putting anything without mold on it in the garbage is a sign of failure. I'm not one of those hoarders, or anything. I just ..hate to throw things out. Because they don't really go away, you know. They're in the landfill on the other side of the mountain, waiting to slide down into the valley and bury us one day.

Tiffin said...

Oh crikey, this sure struck a chord. I was raised by a family (both sides) who could make soup out of an old turnip and a rock. When my Scottish grandma discovered the wonder of the modern pressure cooker, her joy knew no bounds because cheaper cuts of meat could have the bejammers cooked out of them and turn themselves into a wonderful stew. Waste not, want not was the eleventh commandment. I give Mom lovely nightgowns for Christmas and she ferrets them away, continuing to wear the Swiss cheese special, keeping the others for "good". Mom, you're 90; "good" might not happen. Go for it.

lisleman said...

I remember watching those shows growing up. Just this year I caught one episode on cable and I saw myself in Pa's procrastinating on fixing things around the house.
Better than reality TV.

Warden Files said...

Wonderfully excellent reading.

Kim Ayres said...

Never saw those movies, but my in-laws were from a similar generation. As my mother-in-law passed away last autumn, and my father-in-law is now in a nursing home, Maggie is periodically visiting their house to sort through things and finding vast stores of... stuff. For example, it appears my father-in-law would cut out all the envelopes addressed to him, presumably to pass on to other people if he needed to give them his address - a sort of recycled business card.

Sausage Fingers said...

Nice post, my in-laws are Gerogia farmers and share many of the traits of yours. I laughed at many of the points since they remind me of them so much. The old lady with the gun looks like she just walked in on you with her daughter and is not a happy camper.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

There's a little bit of my parents in that tale too. As a child, I used to find it perplexing and embarrassing that my parents grew all their own vegetables and that my dad kept a big compost pile in the back yard and collected rain water. Nobody did that in the 60s in Winnipeg!

Now I realise how ahead of his time he really was.

Wandering Coyote said...

Interesting how events like the Depression affect people. My grandparents who are the same age as your in-laws (Grandpa died, but Grandma will be 90 this fall) seemed to not be able to wait to shed the depression & live like they had always dreamed. They never had shit anywhere, and always had new, expensive stuff when they could get it. They even had a room in their old house that was beautifully furnished & appointed & decorated, but NO ONE was allowed to use it! It was basically a show room that said "Look, we have arrived!" This value of "arriving" was passed down to their children, so that my mom & her siblings were frequently judged on how well they had "arrived." Odd, eh?

KleinsteMotte said...

How to live without and make do may be revisited if the system of economics is not changed. JOY.Love your stuff!!

Attila The Mom said...

I love you Charlie, I really do.

Ponita in Real Life said...

Holy cow, that brings back memories! I used to watch those movies... I think I am a tad older than you. Having grown up roaming the country in an Air Force family, I know all about making do with what you've got and the 'recycle - reuse' frame of mind. We always had a roof over our heads but money was scarce and we improvised a lot. Still do a bit of that to this day... but only a bit!

Alice said...

We watched those movies, and whenever my Grandma asked my Grandpa to say grace before dinner, he kept with a very short "Much abliged." Just like Pa.

My mother's parents were pack rats. Mama saved every styrofoam tray that she received food shrink-wrapped to. Literally a closet full of them in all sizes. She also hid $20 bills all over the house. They found close to $2000 when they cleaned it out.

TechnoBabe said...

There is some of that philosophy in those of us who did not have anything when we were young. I am only in my sixties but we really did not have food or toys or extras. Hard to believe when so many children today have so much they don't know what they actually have. I like how you show compassion as well humor toward your in laws.

Angie's Lil' Nothings said...

Wonderful. Reminds me of my Grandparents. I miss you Granny and Pappy...(psst btw Gran...they now sell lunch meat in reusable bowls. You would love them. So I save them in your memory, drives Tony nuts!)

Pat said...

God bless your Ma and Pa-in-law and may Martha's Pa rest in peace
I so know where they are coming from - not just the thirties but WW2 made dam sure you never threw anything useable away. The only thing I draw the line at is manky things in the fridge.
I still can't understand why people would think it normal to leave food on their plate and throw perfectly good food away. Some people even think it's 'manners.'

Robert the Skeptic said...

Oh my god, this is soooo much like my father-in-law, Mel. He grew up in a tent in Utah; dirt floor, outside plumbing.

He wears old tattered clothing in public, we had to twist his arm to accept our "used" fridge and I wrote about the lawn mower story.

His roof leaks but he paid for a 30 year roof and, by gum, he's gonna wait the full 30 to replace it.

He earns way more in retirement than he needs but he won't spend a cent. The neighbors think he's impoverished by his clothing and his dilapidating residence. He uses juice cans and jelly jars for drinking glasses... the list goes on.

He toured out new house and called it a "mansion". He's beyond changing. At least he recycles the newspaper and takes out the garbage... the cloud of flies tells him when it's ready to go.

Madame DeFarge said...

Could have been worse, I suppose. They could have been the Beverley Hillbillies. But you are wise enough to see the wisdom that they had behind the facade. Long may it continue.

Mr London Street said...

Really enjoyed this. I feel sad that one of them is left behind.

Unknown Mami said...

You could make hedges or plant holders out of the old tires. You could use the old oil for squeaky hinges.

Syd said...

I have a friend who is only 48 who does this. He gets stuff that is thrown out in the trash and intends to repair it--like four vacuum cleaners that just sit unused. His place hasn't had a vacuum cleaner through it in a year and dog hair is everywhere. I don't get the pack rat mentality. I do a lot of fix up things but fully admit that time is $$. And I'm not afraid to hire someone rather than spend days and weeks wracking my brain and getting no where.
My parents were children of the depression and so they saved lots of things. Most of those things have come my way!