Because she lived exactly one block away, I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother as a child. Irene was born in 1921 so she experienced the Great Depression as a child. Having been born in Dodge City, Kansas, she also had the misfortune of experiencing the Dust Bowl as a child. Those two cataclysmic events changed her forever.
Irene’s parents started the Beeson Museum in their Dodge City home in 1932. After the museum closed in 1964, Irene sold the bulk of the collection to the Boot Hill Museum but she retained many items in her own home. I was fascinated by each and every one of them and couldn’t understand why she seemed so uninterested. She explained that she grew up around all of that stuff in her house and it was her job to clean the display cases and exhibits. She saw it all as a burden.
The good news was she was so unimpressed by it all that she allowed me to play with all of the pieces. I learned how to iron linen handkerchiefs using a real, live antique iron heated over the fireplace and obviously burned the hell out of my hand in the process. She allowed me to use the coffee grinder with the wooden drawer. I learned how to darn socks. In the midst of all of this, she relayed to me how life on the farm evolved through her childhood.
My great-grandfather, Merritt Beeson was an extremely capable man. He adapted to the changing times and provided well for his family throughout the Depression. Irene told me there was only one time she could recall them not having enough food to eat. I’ve always found that to be remarkable given the images we’ve all seen of the terrible suffering experienced by millions of Americans. Those were still quite lean times, however, and my grandmother’s mantra for the rest of her life was always “Waste not, want not.”
The kettle under the dripping faucet collected water for my Golden Retriever, Abigail. I couldn’t walk out of a room without immediately being reminded to turn off the light. She saved EVERYTHING. You just never know! We cleaned windows with newspapers and vinegar. I bet you she brushed her teeth with baking soda and salt until the day she died.
Those years with Irene had a profound effect on my own habits. My mom is famous for saying to me, “Okay, Irene.” That’s the family equivalent of “Okay, Boomer.” Now I’m the one going around turning off lights and keeping the house cold during the winter. Put on some damn clothes if you’re cold! I prefer grinding coffee manually because it’s too easy to burn the beans with an electric grinder. And I still like to clean with straight vinegar.
I wonder what habits we have picked up during this pandemic that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Will we require ample personal space? Eschew handshakes? Avoid eating in restaurants? Will air travel once again be reserved for the elites? Will the inevitable global economic crash put an end to fast fashion and excessive consumerism? I strongly suspect there is no going back to the way things were in 2019. Welcome to the new normal.