A Lesson In Economy

I find it easier to photograph white, pink, or red flowers in diffused light. That is why I paused before entering the car for our trip to visit Mum this morning to photograph the prolific white abundance of Félicité Perpétue and the pale and deeper pink roses over the porch.

We visited my mother in the garden at Woodpeckers. Whilst waiting for her to be wheeled out to join us I focussed closer than last time on the splendid colour of the beautifully kept borders, containing, amongst others,

cultivated aquilegias; marvellous mauve geraniums; clusters of allium puffballs fit for ’80s dresses; perfectly produced roses; and shapely white lilies.

Plants in larger pots are strategically placed, as is a resting flowerpot woman.

Mum is no longer able to walk at all, but is content to sit comfortably, despite missing her mobility. Unusually, although her recent recall is quite good, she is currently struggling to remember details of long ago.

What she does does remember from the past is procedural processes which have become automatic.

What do you do when, aged 21, with two small boys, and a husband fighting in France, you leave Leicester for London to find rented accommodation to be near your in-laws; it is 1944 and everything is rationed, and will be for the next decade, by which time there will be five children; women didn’t work outside the home, and the family were living on a van-driver’s salary?

If you have the intelligence and the internal resources, you economise – you make all the family’s clothes and you cut essential expenses where you can.

Mum needs fairly constant use of a tissue for her nose. This morning she came out without any. Jackie returned to reception to ask for some, and came back with a stack of generously-proportioned serviettes. No way will Jean Knight use the whole of one of these even to catch her dinner.

They have to be divided into four. Normally, as she did with dressmaking patterns during my early years, she cuts them into equal squares. There were no scissors on hand here so, before she allowed herself a sniff she had to manage the process with her arthritic fingers. The rest will be squirrelled away to be quartered in her room.

I have some of these ingrained procedural memories, too. If I don’t use a generous restaurant serviette I pocket it to add to Mum’s stash. My youngest children were amazed that I ate bread that they would consider stale. Well, while still in primary school I would be sent to buy yesterday’s bread because it was cheaper and lasted longer, as were bags of broken biscuits on which Chris and I spent our bus fares.

I will probably never get to the end of my drawer of scrap paper only used on one side, and I still have a button box that Mum is the last person to have used.

Later this afternoon Elizabeth popped in for a chat and stayed to dinner which was more of the same as we had enjoyed yesterday. Jackie drank more of the rosé while my sister and I drank Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2019.


  1. I have a fear of throwing the useful away, as does my husband. I don’t know where it came from, but my mother was born in 1940, so it isn’t difficult to figure it out.
    I still have the remains of her mayonnaise jar of buttons that every grandchild played with. I have fabric scraps from three generations of quilters, some of which were used for masks.

    1. Thanks very much, Rose. Yes, not difficult to figure it out. And the fabric scraps’ recycling proves the point that you never know when something will come in useful

  2. I have to admit to chuckling with you as your mum tore up the ‘serviette’ into more usable sized pieces! My mother, aged 96 when she died in 2010, did the same with paper towels in the kitchen, and accused me of “eating them” when I used a whole paper towel! She made all her own clothes, and those of her two little girls (me and my sister) from birth until we were in high school (mid-teens), using recaptured buttons, pre-used patterns, and scraps of cloth where that would work! And when she would receive letters on full-sized paper in the mail, she would tear off the bottom 1/3 to be used for phone messages, or even for letters to me and my sister!

    Your garden and that at Woodpecker’s always have some surprises for me — this time the lovely columbine flowers, which I think of as high altitude flowers!

  3. Your mother is looking good, Derrick, despite losing her mobility. Procedural knowledge tends to stay embedded in one’s brain, especially when connected to times of hardship, My parents and grandparents, may they all rest in peace, also economized, although by the time I was conscious of it, the family was already reasonably well-to-do. However, I will never forget having a survivor of Leningrad blockade to dinner, who turned pale and started shaking when I was clearing bread crumbs off the tablecloth. She said that what I was throwing away would have been an entire dinner for her in

  4. Pressed the button a moment too soon, sorry. I meant the Siege of Leningrad, and the lady was talking about mashing bread crumbs with water in the winter of 1943.

  5. A wonderful post Derrick! So glad your mum is able to enjoy your visits and is doing as well as she can. Your flower shots are gorgeous!

  6. I’m sorry your mom seemed more forgetful today, but I’m happy she’s still enjoying your visits. I imagine many who lived through difficult times keep the habits they needed to survive.
    Beautiful flower pictures. I especially like your pink roses over the porch.

  7. Serviettes are often a bit thicker than tissues, so your mum was very wise to economise. It has been a difficult enough time for the younger ones of us who are mobile and less subject to restrictions, and it must have been even harder for your mum. I’m glad she has flowers there and that it was a nice enough day for an outside visit.

      1. I saw the comment from the lady about the tin of buttons saved and wondered if I dare tell her I save a bag of buttons Mama (my grandma) had saved. I dare tell you! It is not that long ago (surely?) that cardigans were routinely sold with spare buttons.

  8. Such a touching post. Your mother is an amazing person, clearly. It’s lovely that she is in such a good home.
    We, too, used to have broken biscuits as an occasional treat – I remember my mother’s triumph when she found a particular market stall that sold ‘seconds’ (in terms of graded items, not helpings!!)
    Your garden is looking ever more lovely – beautiful individual flower shots.

  9. The flowerpot-woman is a cutie! 🙂
    Your beautiful Mum is a treasure! I love hearing about her life in days gone by AND today! She is an inspiration and a joy! 🙂 I’m so glad you got to go visit with her! 🙂
    The photos of her hands are so beautiful…there is nothing softer or stronger than a Mum’s hands…hands that have worked so hard and loved so tenderly.
    (((HUGS))) <3
    PS…one time when my hubby's grandfather was visiting us we served everyone an afternoon snack (a homemade brownie) on a napkin. When he was done eating he shook all the crumbs off of the napkin, onto the floor, and folded the napkin and put it in his shirt pocket. His daughter (my mother-in-law) scolded him for putting his crumbs on the floor. His response, "I could use this napkin again a few times and I didn't want the crumbs in my pocket."
    My youngest who was only 5 at the time said, "It's okay, Grandma, don't be upset with Great-Grandpa…us kids get crumbs on the floor all the time…we'll just sweep 'em up." 🙂

  10. The flowers at Woodpeckers are just lovely! I hope the residents are able to enjoy them from their windows when they’re not visiting outdoors. Thank you for sharing some of your mother’s remarkable life. As for reusing useful items, I have my button box, my mother’s button box, and my grandmother’s button box with Aunt Leslie’s and Aunt Jen’s buttons thrown in there, too. My mother was very thrifty, reusing aluminum foil, plastic baggies, and even tea bags. My dad drew the line at the tea bags.

  11. Glad your mother looks well and that you can visit her.
    yes, children nowadays can’t understand simple things as “hard bread”. I remember my mother showing how to make “pain perdu” for the first time. (I believe you guys call it French bread?) and explaining to me that bread was never thrown away in their house. When it became too hard to munch, they just dipped it in milk and egg, with a touch of vanilla to fry later.
    I also just remembered my first visit to London in 1972. Easter. Bloody cold. I was staying at the place of old English friends of my parents. Narrow houses Londoneers fancy so much. There was a gas heater in my room. It could only work if you put a penny in it. Remnants of those ten years you mention. One did not waste heat either.

    1. More memories inspired by these comments, Brian. We had frost patterns on the insides of our unheated bedroom windows in the morning. Thank you very much.

      1. Glad for the memories… (We are our memories and those of our parents we have known. I always say my memories go back to Imperial India (my grandmother) and WWI (my grandfather). Not that they talked much about it, but they were there. Cheers Derrick

  12. I love the flowerpot lady. Too cute.
    I am glad your Mom is comfortable. She seems to be in good spirit.
    I remember when I had to empty out the farm after my Grandma had passed away. Tin boxes with rubber bands and twist-ties. Old buttons, old paperclips. Jars with nails and old foil. Nothing ever got thrown away, until I had to throw it all out.

  13. I’m still a bit of a squirreller – particularly in my art supplies!

    But I am getting better, and when I find a load of short pieces of thread or paper that I had packaged up, yonks ago – I put it in the bin…including this morning, and the pieces of thread were the right length, and it was less than a week ago I put them aside, but now that project is changed! I’ve still got more enough of those colours in DMC hank form so it’s not a complete ditching!

  14. It’s so nice to see your mother at that tranquil place. She belongs to an era when large families survived on so little, economising every which way it was possible. The key to coping up with life among deprivations was a magnanimous heart, which I am sure your mum is in possession of. May God bless her.

  15. I loved reading about your mum and love seeing her smile. My parents had similar habits in economy. If David and I get extra napkins (serviette) at a restaurant, they go into the glove compartment of the car. The flowers are beautiful. Thanks for the tip about diffused light.

  16. I love that you took a picture of her hands – hands that have done, and been through, so much. I think I’m much like your mum in some ways. I too write on both sides, save food others might have tossed, to make a soup or a salad the next day, and so on. If something only comes in a clunky, big, non-recyclable plastic box, I opt for alternatives rather than having to deal with the waste later. We are such a spoiled species. The way we are headed, I think we’re all going to have to relearn a lot of your mother’s skills in order to simply survive.

  17. A beautiful and poignant post this. It is difficult for our children, never mind grandchildren, to understand that we grew up having to scrimp, save, and re-use items. In many respects it is wonderful that they do not have to. I too enjoyed the photographs of your mother’s hands …

  18. I’m glad to see you’ve found Bill and Ben’s mother. Does she know where the two of them have got to? And, best wishes to your Mum. She’s doing really well for her age.

  19. I have an odd habit of saving rubber bands even though I hardly ever find a use for them. One of the son-in-laws once weaved them together to form a ball – it bounced well too! I think I’m just about half way to the next one.

  20. My father didn’t mind stale bread either. He had it drilled into him as a teenager about penicillin being developed from the mold.
    Mum is still looking great. Give her my best on your next visit, please.

  21. Wonderful pictures of your mum. I also tend to save 1/2 serviettes because a whole one is too big! Days, months later I often find a neatly folded unused portion of serviette in a jacket pocket. This post certainly made me smile.

  22. Your Mum divides her serviettes precisely as I divide my sandpaper. And like you, I always use the backs of envelopes, old receipts, and so on for scratch paper, rather that purchasing note pads. I’ve not yet given in to the habit of using some electronic devices for reminders and lists. When I go to the grocery store with my list written on the back of an envelope, people sometimes look at me strangely.

    1. The only way to do it, Linda. 🙂 Thanks very much. (Your Chekhov quotation is so worth remembering that I applied it to the post I will send tonight)

  23. So sorry to hear about your mum’s lack of mobility. But I am glad she is content and glad she retains her inner character. The napkin story was awesome. My grandma was famous for wrapping everything in the fridge in a old bread bag (as opposed to Plastic Wrap). My mother wastes very little and I do the same. Those habits of thriftiness went from “thriftiness” to “habit” to “I’m saving the planet.” in our family.

    1. Jackie is so pleased about this, for that is exactly what she does with old bread bags. She is looking so pious at the moment. Thanks very much, Jodie.

  24. Loved reading that and a lot made me remember my mother and grandmother !! How times have changed

  25. Your mother is looking good, Derrick, despite losing her mobility. Procedural knowledge tends to stay embedded in one’s brain, especially when connected to times of hardship. My home printer is loaded with paper, that has only printed on one side, and I turn my stale bread into bread crumbs 🙂

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