Wants vs. needs and contentment

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silverware on table

“Maude baked her own bread. When it became stale, she sliced the whole loaf and put it in the oven. It dried out and became a light brown. Each slice was spread with her home-churned butter, sprinkled with sugar, and covered with sweet, hot milk.”

— “Maude (1883-1993):
She Grew Up with the Country”
by Mardo Williams

For many living today, if no one in the house feels like cooking, there’s always pizza or McDonalds. Or, let’s face it, about a hundred other choices. The only requirement involved is someone to get it to the table.

My maternal grandmother didn’t mind telling me that she really did not like to cook. She was amazed, really, that anyone did. She preferred more challenging tasks. Many times, her kind-hearted husband, Henry, would stop by the local grocer or a meat market just down the same street, and with a few coins exchanged, he would bring enough for the evening meal, with perhaps enough left over to be turned into yet a different meal the next day.

She told me he would often go ahead and cook the meal, “because he was a better cook than I ever was.” Grandma told me that if he cooked, she would do all the clean-up. Just as the two traded the same nickel to bet on a game of dominoes over many years of marriage, they shared both indoor and outdoor chores, while raising six children.

One of his favorite meals, she said, included fried potatoes and onions. Grandpa grew up with so little that this felt like bountiful living. His father had been killed in an accident, and his mother had no other choice but to put all of her young sons “out” to homes (mostly those with farms) that would take them, in return for their hard work. The youngest, the only girl, remained with her mother.

Contented

It seemed as though it never occurred to Henry to feel he had lived a tough life. He was kind and happy-hearted, quiet in a mellow sort of way. He worked a full-time job for the city schools. He loved growing all sorts of things, including berries, flowers, lambs and colts. He built and put up Purple Martin houses and thoroughly enjoyed watching those birds set up housekeeping.

His car always looked as pristine as the day it came off the lot, and his property never seemed to have a weed take up improper space. None of these accomplishments could have always been enjoyable, nor nearly as easy as much of it would be today, and yet it seemed my grandparents accomplished quite a lot with not a hint of complaint.

Waste not

It seems, somehow, that people used to be more satisfied with far less. A simple bowl of bread and milk or a plate of fried potatoes counted as a happy meal, long before McDonalds coined this trademarked name, which they put in a box with a throw-away toy inside. People bought what they could afford, and made each penny count.

There was both good and bad before the existence of public assistance; no mother should have to farm her children out, knowing they would otherwise suffer and go hungry. But people knew how to make many things with flour and sugar, eggs, milk, salt and potatoes. They stretched those simple ingredients as far as possible because they knew it was up to them and no one else to see that their family was fed.

Anything that could be grown was tended with hopeful intent. Money was coins and dollar bills, not a plastic card. It was a real commodity — you either had it or you did not. No one talked about living within your means because that brilliant statement went without saying. When a child was told no, there was no whining until winning. “No” really did mean “no.”

We didn’t have many extra frills, but we usually ate pretty well. With that said, it always surprised me when my Dad would say, “I’ve got a hankerin’ for bread and milk,” we would watch him gather up a bowl, bread, milk and sugar. Much to our dismay, he seemed happy as a kid on Christmas.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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