23 Lessons I Learned from My Depression-Era Grandparents

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Me with most of my grandparents, and my dad and brother, in May 1986. Back row: Nana and Poppy (Barbara and Andrew Juettner), Dad (Robert Juettner), John, and front row: PawPaw (Wally Weaver Sr.), me, Mamakate (Katherine Reagh Weaver), and Grandma Jeanne (Jeanne Wells). Pictured separately (below): Grandpa Hank (Henry Eugene Wells, Sr.). (Yes, I have more grandparents than most people.)

My grandparents missed most of the panic about global warming, but frankly, they also had it covered. No air conditioning for most of their lives. Minimal consumerism. Here, in relatively random order, are a few lessons I learned from them that I wish we could all remember today:

  1. Hoard it or give it away, but don’t throw it out, because it could be useful to someone. Wash out those baby food jars and use them to sort nails. In fact, sort everything neatly and store it for future use. (Nana and Poppy excelled at this!)
  2. If old clothes don’t fit or are raggedy (this one is from Grandma Brady), cut them into pieces and make quilts.
  3. Don’t waste perfectly good food. Those leftovers that have been in the fridge for a week are just fine. Eat them! Or mix them with something else and then eat that. Just heat it up–you’ll kill the germs. If the cheese is moldy, just slice off the mold, you’ll be fine. (Those are mostly things I learned from PawPaw, who told me many times that HIS grandfather’s policy was “I can afford for you to eat all you want, but I can’t afford for you to waste anything.”) Oh–did a fly fall in your soup? “Don’t worry”–and this is an exact quote from Mamakate–“He won’t eat much.”
  4. You don’t need paper towels to clean windows. That is a waste of paper towels. Old newspapers work better (Poppy told me that, and he was right).
  5. If possible, go for a walk every day. (Nana and Poppy always did, even while visiting us in rural Alaska where a walk outside–especially at their pace–LITERALLY meant being eaten alive by mosquitoes.)
  6. A cocktail before dinner never hurt anyone. (I think most of my grandparents would agree on that one.)
  7. Be prepared. Keep lots of nonperishable food around in case there is a sudden famine. (Today’s survivalists had nothing on Mamakate!)
  8. Clothes dry better if you hang them outside in the sunshine and fresh air. They smell nicer, too. (Another Mamakate tip–I don’t recall if she ever used a dryer, though one appeared in her house at some point after she passed the age of 80.)
  9. Why would you leave a light or any other appliance on when you’re not actually using it?
  10. Why would you throw out a broken appliance when you could just learn how to fix it? Poppy could fix anything, I think, including clocks and watches.
  11. Grandpa Hank
    Henry Eugene Wells, Jr.

    If your kids won’t wake up in the morning, just pour ice water on them. (That one was from Grandpa Hank. I never actually put it to the test with my own kids, but he promised me it was quite effective.)

  12. If you take really good care of your car, it will in fact last forever. (That’s another Grandpa Hank gem.)
  13. Don’t worry about trying to lose weight. Nana told me, “it comes off fast enough when you get sick.”
  14. Why would you watch television when you could be reading? When Nana’s vision deteriorated, she switched to large print books. Poppy put his newspapers under a magnifying glass device that was bigger than your computer, but he still read them.
  15. Whatever is wrong, you can deal with it, just think positive. Grandma Jeanne was right on target with this advice.
  16. Children should be spoiled rotten, but with love and attention, not with stuff. (Corollary: I can, in fact, do no wrong. If you don’t believe me, you can ask my grandparents. Well, you might need to find a medium and hold a seance, but that’s okay–I’ll wait!)
  17. You are never too old to follow your dreams, even if that means scuba diving at age 70 (PawPaw) or riding a motorcycle in your 80s (Grandpa Brady), even if your children scold you about it. Speaking of scolding:
  18. Never point a gun at another human being unless you intend to shoot him or her. Even if you think the gun is not loaded. (PawPaw had a great story about this–Mamakate pointed a gun at him jokingly once, and when he vociferously objected, to prove it wasn’t loaded, she shot a hole in the roof of her father’s store.)
  19. We are all responsible for taking care of our communities, whether that means taking a leadership role (which it often does) or just participating in cleaning and maintaining common spaces.
  20. Ice cream is always appropriate. (See point 16.)
  21. Once you’re over the age of 18, you get to make your own decisions. That rule still applies even when you get old enough that your children start trying to stage a coup. It’s still your life and independence is always appropriate.
  22. Your religion and politics is your own business.
  23. Corollary to #22: Be polite. Profanity is frowned upon. Teasing, however, is TOTALLY acceptable. 
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