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Seven Stories

Story 7: Pick Up Your Own Pins

by Anna Hiebert

Half a dozen shiny pins gleamed in the little pile of dust at my feet. I was stooping to pick them up before sweeping the pile into a dustpan when sudden angry rebellion stopped me halfway. "I've had enough! Pick up your own pins!" I snapped inwardly at the careless droppers of pins.

For months, ever since I had arrived back in the States, dismay, exasperation and frustration over the colossal waste in evidence everywhere had been building up within me. The pins were just the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

In my early youth the habit of economy had been instilled in me by my parents. I remember vividly how my father, tired after a day's hard work in the store, would wander from room to room switching off lights we children had not bothered to turn off, patiently reminding us the while that "electricity costs money;" how at mealtime he would quietly leave the table to find the stale bread in the pantry while we of the younger generation who had not known hard times blithely reached for the fresh soft slices set before us.

Anna's parents, Johann and Helena Jungas

Because father was a man of few words, what he did say was often deeply impressed on my memory. "Ek yave nusht drum wo fail ye ayti, ohba ek yave drum wo fail ye weg schmieti." "I don't care how much you eat; I care how much you throw away." He never begrudged us the best, but for himself he was satisfied with the simple things of life, and he constituted himself a one-man team to economize, to save and to salvage whatever he saw going to waste. By example and admonition he tried to instill in his children the same spirit; he taught us the value of things temporal and spiritual. He did not save in order to have more, but that he might be able to give more liberally to others.

Mother's views on economy were as well defined as father's. Having grown up in the Old Country, she had known poverty and deprivation. Her parents could not afford to keep her in school, so as a young child she sat with her dressmaker mother and sister stitching far into the night. It was indeed mother's economical ways that helped my father as a young man decide to ask her to marry him. There were, it seems, two young ladies, both very pleasing, and it had been hard to choose between them. Then father hit upon a plan to discover which of the two was the most economical. He would give each an apple and watch how thickly or thinly she would peel it. As father told it, mother took her apple, wiped it, and to father's astonishment and great delight, ate it, peel and all. I never did hear whether the other girl got a chance at the test or not.

Together they had built up a business, made a home for their own children and found room in their hearts and home for five motherless little girls, when sudden disaster struck and overnight they were all made homeless: the store and their home upstairs burned down.

Faith in God and hard work brought them through the difficult and often discouraging years that followed. If economy had not been learned before, it was taught by necessity now. Indeed, I was certain I had learned this lesson by the time I got married some ten years later. I felt my face flush with pride when my father remarked to my young husband that I was "shparsam"--frugal. My husband had grown up in a large minister's family where money was scarce and luxuries nonexistent.

After buying a used Ford, we had just enough money left for gas and oil to take us to school halfway across the continent and to pay the first month's rent for a two-room basement apartment. Again faith in God and work, coupled with the most rigid economy, saw us through the following year as both of us struggled to finish our studies before applying for service overseas.

Anna and John at a train station in India

If we had foolishly thought that now at last we knew all there was to know about saving and getting along on very little, we soon found otherwise. The years my husband and I spent in India with our growing family not only reinforced our early training, but opened our eyes to the great need of other peoples, their poverty contrasting so sharply with our own abundance--an abundance that bred careless wastefulness.

Our work was with the outcastes, the poorest of the poor who lived in poverty beyond any we had ever encountered. A mud hut of two or three small rooms and an open porch-like space for cattle at the front, bare of furniture except for a rough wooden bed interwoven diagonally with rope, a chair or a stool, perhaps a small table, and in the corner of the inner room, clay pots balanced on three well-placed stones, feeding the fire carefully with bits of dry branches or cakes of dried cow dung while smoke stung her eyes as it curled upward to escape through the thatched roof or found its way out through the open door. Such clothing as they possessed showed evidence of having been repeatedly beaten upon rocks in the nearby stream by the village dhobi. A few scrawny chickens and perhaps even a buffalo or a pair of oxen completed the sum of the man's possessions.

Anna with some Lombardi women

Family travel in India

Many could afford only one meal a day, supplemented by a bowl of think rick gruel in the morning, or round flat bread baked over an open fire. A cheap grade of rice or a grain similar to our kaffir corn formed the bulk of the main meal and was served with a very hot sauce made of red or green chilies cooked up with a bit of onion and salt and thickened with dal, a kind of split pea. Fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, were added when affordable.

Eking out a bare existence as they did, with very little cash to buy things, these villagers never wasted anything that could possibly be put to any use. Mud, clay, and sometimes even branches became walls; palm leaves and straw served as roofing. Cow dung, patiently gathered by the children and women and worked into a thin paste with water, laid the dust of the dirt floor of the hut and dried into a hard, smooth surface or, patted into cakes, was pressed against the compound walls to be used as fuel when dry. Clay and stones made rather efficient cooking stoves. Ashes, sand--everything had its use. The plentiful coconut had many uses besides that of food. The rough outside fiber was used by the women to scour brass pots, if they were fortunate enough to own any, or was taken to the city where it found its way into mattresses for the market. The coconut shell, if not used for fuel, was made into ladles by the simple addition of a split bamboo handle. Large leaves pinned with thorns or sewed with sharp grasses became disposable plates much used at feasts and weddings. The leaves of certain palm trees were cunningly woven into mats or coverings for ox carts. The large tins in which kerosene was shipped were turned by clever fingers into household utensils, dishpans, lamps, pails, or crude lanterns; or, pounded and flattened, were joined to form walls and roofs for portable bazaar stalls. Villagers rarely, if ever, bought anything in tins; hence the tins we foreigners discarded were much sought after, for their uses were many. They made excellent coffee mugs, and those with covers could be used to store foods such as sugar and spices. Old cloth too ragged to wear could always be turned into circlets to steady the pots of water they carried on their heads. Nothing was wasted.

John with village potter

Turn where we might, everywhere we saw the most unlikely materials become useful and even beautiful and decorative. Inevitably, this way of life became more and more a part of us and our own way of life, partly of necessity and partly because to waste would be to deprive our neighbor.

Coming back to the States periodically for furlough was always a shocking experience. To see the abundance and the resulting waste, realizing that many could be clothes and fed with what we carelessly threw away, was painful and frustrating. During the first months I could not bear to throw away the lovely American tins and bottles. I stored them in my basement with a vague idea of finding some use for them, until finally the pile became too big and I reluctantly agreed to have them removed to the dump.

My last return home was no exception. We had just left a country harassed by famine. Our first American meal was served to us in the home of a relative stationed at an air force base near Tokyo. American meat! American vegetables and bread! American everything! We were delighted. After the leisurely meal I was helping to clear the table and wash the dishes when, to my consternation, I saw my hostess throw the leftovers, one after another, into the garbage bag. Impulsively I remonstrated, "Why not save that for tomorrow's lunch?" During the four days we spent there, I saw mashed potatoes, bags of American buns only slightly stale, vegetables, foods of all kinds disappear into new plastic garbage bags. I found it hard at times to swallow the lump that rose in my throat.

On the American liner that took us from Japan to the States, I was again aware of much needless waste. Though we traveled tourist class, the food served on one plate would easily have sufficed for two people. At first I tried to eat everything on my plate, but gradually I had to stifle my scruples and leave food uneaten. Picnic lunches served on deck left paper plates, paper cups, plastic forks, knives and spoons--many unused--as well as unopened packets of salt, pepper and sugar strewn about. I rescued two or three dozen of the plastic "silverware" for my grandchildren to play with; there was nothing more I could do.

And now here I was in America, the land of plenty, trying as best I could to stem the tide of wastefulness in this home for girls where I was employed. A glance into the garbage can in the kitchen often revealed half-eaten or wholly untouched chicken pies that had come out of the oven but an hour before, quantities of freshly heated peas (the girls "preferred the small kind" or just "didn't feel like eating peas" that day), sandwiches of tuna or egg salad--not one but many, some completely untasted. In the sewing room the same spirit prevailed. Pattern pieces were strewn on the new fabrics wherever there was the most space, with no thought whatever of conserving material. I tried to suggest more economical methods, but, as one girl pointed out, "It doesn't matter--my father pays for it."

And then one day there were the pins, the shiny new pins in the dust at my feet. Just a straw, but the last straw--something seemed to snap. I was suddenly tired of bearing the responsibility for other people's wastefulness. I straightened up, swept pins and all into the dustpan and threw the lot into the wastebasket. "I've had enough! Pick up your own pins!"

P.S. I found some lovely large scraps of cloth in the wastebasket yesterday. Somebody may want to use them to make small stuffed animals...or something....