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My mom, the frugal role model

She instilled the value of hard work and self-reliance.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 1, 2009 3:30AM

Yesterday would have been the 73rd birthday of the person who probably should be writing this column: my mother, Geneva Burgess Hanes. 


She was the youngest of 10 kids born to an uneducated Tennessee couple who eventually pulled up stakes and moved north for opportunity -- that is, for the chance to work in South Jersey factories and vegetable fields. 


Despite hunger, poverty and violence, my mother became the first in her family to finish high school. She owned two dresses ("one on, one off") and never had a square meal or a bath in a real tub until she married my dad right after graduation.


They had four kids in five years, which sounds impossibly grim by today's standards. But we didn't seem to notice that we were poor. Everyone we knew pinched pennies. Nobody did it like my mom, though. 


Ground beef and homemade book covers
Mom could coax a meal for six from a pound of ground chuck. She canned and froze vegetables, many of which we grew in the yard, and made jam from strawberries we picked at a nearby farm. Bread came a dozen loaves at a time from the bakery outlet and two quarts of whole milk turned into a gallon thanks to the alchemy of milk powder and water. To her, "convenience food" meant getting one of the kids to peel the potatoes.

Our wardrobes relied heavily on hand-me-downs from cousins plus bargains picked up at dime and discount stores. We got school shoes and Sunday-school shoes in the fall and a pair of sneakers in the spring. Woe betide the person who didn't take care of clothes or footwear. It had to last. We made it last.


Somehow she found the money for things that mattered, such as a set of encyclopedias bought on installment and braces and glasses for three of us, also paid on installment. A doctor's office was right next door, which was lucky since someone was always getting croupy or bee-stung -- and Mom found a way around that, too, having us mow the doctor's lawn for part of the bill.


Teaching by example
Watching her, we learned to be resourceful, responsible and kind. Required to cover our schoolbooks, we cut down grocery bags and folded them to fit. Once knee socks got too old to stay up, we put rubber bands around them. When I lost the screw from my glasses I repaired them with a bent straight pin, a fix that lasted until my next vision exam.


As soon as possible, we started earning money; I was picking and selling berries and flowers by age 9, and babysitting at 11. But when it snowed and we shoveled a path to an elderly neighbor's mailbox, we wouldn't have dreamed of accepting the quarter she always tried to give us.


Mom died in August 2003. Some weeks before her death, she fretted that she had so little to leave us because her illness had been costly. I miss her for many, many reasons. Chief among them is that I wish I could thank her for how much she did leave us: a legacy of working hard and making do but never ceasing to hope that things would get better one day.


If she could have read this blog, she would have found herself right at home. If not for her influence, I wouldn't be writing it.


Published March 14, 2008

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