Storytelling: Hard-working mom used savvy to stretch family's tiny budget

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My mom never threw anything away. She found other uses for everything.

In the 1940s, when we were a family of 11 kids going on 12, her saving ways proved practical for keeping us comfortable, despite the fact that we were among the poorest families in the neighborhood. It also was our contribution to the war effort.

We lived in a relatively isolated hillside section of Lawrenceville. Except for city steps up the hillside, the only way in or out of the neighborhood was a steep, cobblestone road that was often impassable in winter.

Mom's improvising began in the kitchen where, for instance, she made several meals from one chuck roast, turkey or ham, with the bones used for soup. When we ran out of stuff for sandwiches, we would have tomato sandwiches, the juice softening the four-day-old bread we bought for a penny a loaf at a local bakery. One of her favorites was rolled oats, which she thinned with sugared water for breakfast and thickened with extra flour for cookies.

Economies of all kinds became our daily routine. It was cold in our drafty, wood-frame house. Old newspapers and rags were stuffed into the seams and spaces around the doors and windows to help keep out some of the cold. At night, the wind whistled through the cracks and crevices of the house, making the creepiest sounds.

Water for wash day and for Saturday evening baths in the washtub had to be heated on the cast-iron kitchen stove. There was no working hot water heater, so warm had to do. Mom washed everything that wasn't white in her old Gainaday appliance with a hand-operated wringer, using as little soap as possible. For heavier clothes she used bar soap and the scrubbing board.

In the empty lot beside us, clothes lines were strung between the house and makeshift posts. The heavier, harder-to-clean clothes got extra time hanging out on the lines. In winter, we got the clothes back freeze-dried.

Our clothes were passed on down the line. Shirts, dresses, pants, coats, sweaters and socks that had seen better days were mended. Shoes with holes got cardboard insoles. Mom spent many a night mending or sewing on her foot-operated machine. Shoelaces, which could be bought for a nickel, were one of the few replacement items.

Mom's most frugal feat was the one for her feet. None of us had slippers, a luxury beyond our dreams. She converted Dad's old work shoes into makeshift slippers for getting around the house and yard.

She removed the broken shoelaces, making it easier for her to slip in and out of them. They fit so loosely that she seemed to float inside them. I believe that is why she called them "canal boats."

Mom wore them every day. She would shuffle from room to room in them and up and down the stairs to the bedrooms and the cellar. There were mishaps and falls, which she endured without a whimper, but often a prayer. "Help us, oh help us, we need thy daily help Lord," she would murmur from room to room.

Keeping those canal boats warm in winter was a challenge. She was the first one up every morning, restarting the fires in our stoves. She would put her canal boats on a ledge of the living room stove. They soon were warm enough for going out to the yard or down to the cellar. One night, she left them on the stove after going to bed and the shoes started to smoke, nearly catching on fire.

While her makeshift slippers were warming she would lean against the stove, so she could warm up too. The heat helped alleviate some of her pain, especially in the final months of her life after Martha, child No. 12, was born.

A year after Mom died, we got central heating and a water heater -- one that actually worked. After that, we used coal all the time. No more searching for wood in the nearby woods when the coal bin got low. No more heating water for the washing machine on the stove and no more Saturday night baths in the washtub. The stove in the living room where she warmed her Canal Boats and herself became obsolete.

My brothers and sisters have often wondered what ever became of Mom's canal boats. Sadly, they eventually were discarded along with other remnants of her household economies that would put to shame most of today's society, so fraught with its frivolous and wasteful ways.


Gene Scott, a retired publicist and editor now living in Livonia, Mich., can be reached at PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255. First Published March 1, 2013 5:00 AM


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