If your toaster breaks six months after you buy it, what do you do? Chances are, you pitch it and buy a new one for $30. But Brenda Reid, my 89-year-old family friend who is like a grandmother to me, can take a toaster apart and repair it. She can also magically remove blackberry stains from a white shirt (by stretching the fabric over a bowl and pouring boiling water through the stain). She knows how to candy flower petals to decorate a birthday cake, darn a sock and restore a burned pot with only baking soda. Her knowledge is typical of women of her generation who were raised during the Depression, lived through World War II, and then raised their own families before there was Dollarama and all sorts of consumer products that cost so little. These women are resilient and self-reliant—as well as smart with their money.
My grandmother, too, could fix any problem with what she could find in her kitchen and ran her home on creative thinking, as well as parsimony. If my doll’s arm fell off, she’d find a way to put back on. She never ordered take-out because she could whip up dinner in mere minutes. And if you complained of the cold, she wouldn’t turn up the heat but rather tell you to put on a sweater. When my grandmother died recently, I realized how little of this knowledge I’d retained.
While life skills like theirs used to be passed from one generation to the next, since the 1950s, there’s been a break in this knowledge chain. To start, many of us don’t cook any more—according to a recent article in Nutrition Journal, only a little more than half of us spend any time at all cooking in a given day. And while Brenda used to repair anything broken—including resoling her own running shoes with a mixture of turpentine and rubber—the low price of stuff prompts Consumer Reports to recommend to readers that they toss broken things if the cost of fixing them is more than half their price. Which inevitably it will be.
It’s time to reverse these trends and start doing things for ourselves again. Sure, some of us are canning and knitting and making salumi in the basement but we need to adopt this DIY attitude more broadly and learn these life skills. It can be more convenient and time saving—and, often cheap—to buy a replacement, but it would be better for all of us to learn some of the wisdom and ingenuity of this aging generation.
Women of all cultures have their own domestic genius. My mother-in-law, who has Gujarati roots and grew up in Mombasa, is a source of entirely different tips—heal a canker sore with honey, soothe a sore throat by sucking on cloves.
I don’t mean to romanticize the old ways. I’m sure the fumes from melting rubber in turpentine to fix those soles were noxious and there’s lots to be said about modern medicine. But as we rely more and more on consumer products, cheap goods and prepared foods, we lose our autonomy. Rather than take care of ourselves and think our way out of any problem we become dependent on the products that are sold to us.
Plus, it’s better for the environment to give, say, that toaster a second life. Think of all the metal and plastic used in production, as well as the energy and water embedded in the gadget. Recycling can’t capture all this. You also can save money if you do it yourself. Often, these tricks are more convenient than a trip to the store—and what if Walmart is closed?
Besides, climate change demands of us a new perspective. We must become conservers like these women did during World War II. Extreme weather events, like the ones that caused the blackouts and flooding we saw across the country last year, require us to become MacGyvers in all situations.
So this year I will make an effort to preserve what I can of these domestic arts from the women I know. There’s lots to do on the home front. For example, Brenda suggests using Vaseline to remove a heavy grease stain, like bicycle grease. (I’ve saved a sweater this way!) To restore a badly burned pot, she boils baking soda and water and it comes out clean. Brenda has resource books too. According to her copy of Better Housekeeping by J.S. Bainbridge (published in 1930), vinegar will remove sweat stains.
I’m asking everyone I can for suggestions. My brother-in-law’s mother, Anne Gorman, who was one of four girls raised in Dublin in the 1950s by a single-mother who also worked (think you have no time to darn a sock?), says you don’t need to buy paper towels to clean your windows. Newsprint works better—the ink doesn’t leave smear marks. To get her whites whiter, Ms. Gorman’s mom would boil the clothes on the stove with washing soda and then hang in them in the sun.
Forget about beauty products in a jar. Ms. Gorman’s mother would make a face mask with dry oatmeal and water. “It kept her skin very soft,” she says. Instead of going for a manicure, my grandmother rubbed her nails in the skins of juiced lemons and grapefruits; it leaves them shiny and white. She had long and lovely fingernails.
Rather than buying pimple creams, my mother-in-law suggests making a paste with chickpea flour and turmeric, applying to the affected area and leaving it to dry. It works! So does gargling with a water, salt and turmeric solution for a sore throat. For a cough, mix 3 tbspns of powdered ginger with 2 tspns of cloves, 1 tbspn of honey and a quarter cup of jaggery, melted with a little water in a saucepan. Take it by the spoonful as you would a cough syrup. (This also keeps for months in your cupboard.) “In the olden days, we didn’t go to the doctor much,” she remembers. “Home remedies worked.” For a cut on the hand, she says, press with sugar.
When it comes to meals, the savings in time and money can be most remarkable—if you know what to do. For a quick dinner, my grandmother turned to the fastest of fast food: the egg. Scrambled or turned into pancakes. In a yellowing and undated copy of Brenda’s Enquire Within Upon Everything, the author suggests an economical dinner of fat ham or bacon, with equal amounts of potatoes and cabbages, “bruised well together,” and fried. My mother-in-law boils lentils and rice, seasoned with garlic, ginger and butter, to make kicharee faster than a pizza delivery.
These women would know what to do during a zombies apocalypse—we should too.
A version of this essay was published by The Globe and Mail. See the Media section of this website to read it.