Mom, wherever you are, I hope you can hear this: I’m sorry. You were right. 

My late parents, Barbara and Arnold, grew up in North Dakota, one of the most rural states in America. Their village was tiny, and most citizens only spoke Norwegian. My own father didn’t learn English until he was 6 years old. Later, when my parents reached their teens and early adulthood, the Great Depression hit the United States, which in turn affected other parts of the world. It was 1929, and the country was devastated by a massive drop in the stock market, which impacted everyone, whether they owned stocks or not. My parents’ psychology was mainly shaped by the Depression.

Because of that experience, my mother was super-thrifty and stretched every dollar she could, not just during the Depression but for decades after. She’d grown up with poverty knocking at their farmhouse door, and that experience never really left her. They weren’t impoverished like some families were, but the specter of hunger lurked in everyone’s imagination, if not reality. Interestingly, my father did not have the same reaction: his approach was almost the opposite of my mother’s. My dad was confident and a “big-spender” while my mother was a “penny pincher.” At the time, I liked dad’s style; I wanted to be generous, too.

Now, in my mid-60s and living in a world being reshaped by over-consumption and climate change, I aspire to be like my mother.

• When I was young, I was mortified when my mother washed plastic wrap and sandwich bags for re-use. “MOM! We’re not poor. We can afford to buy new ones!” I was embarrassed when friends would come over and Mom had various plastic bags hanging on the clothesline or draped over kitchen accessories. She even re-used bread wrappers. “Mom, you’re nuts!” “Why?” she’d say. “They are perfectly good and re-usable.” Yep. Mom was right.

• Every gift-giving occasion, Mom made it a point to have all of us kids unwrap our gifts very carefully, not tearing the paper but removing the tape, and folding the pieces of colorful paper to use the following year. How I longed to simply rip into the packages the way I saw kids dive into their presents on TV and in movies! Once in a while, I’d be a brat and rip open my beautifully wrapped gift, whether it was for my birthday or whichever holiday, and see Mom cringe. “MOM! We can afford to buy new paper every year! This is nuts!” Why?” she’d say. “It’s perfectly good paper to wrap up gifts next year.” Yep. Mom was right.

• Every time we went out to eat at a restaurant, Mom would carefully wrap up what she hadn’t eaten in a paper napkin; sometimes, she brought her own container to use for her leftovers and encouraged us to do the same. She’d take home the bread that was left in the basket. (Soon after, it became common for food establishments to provide so-called “doggy bags,” for taking uneaten food home). My mom’s behavior embarrassed my dad because he didn’t want to be perceived as too “poor,” and to out of necessity have to take food home. “MOM! We can afford to leave food on our plates!” “Yes,” she said, “but it breaks my heart to think of the work that went into making this food or the chicken that gave its life to just have it wasted and thrown away like trash. Chickens aren’t trash.” Yep. Mom was right.

As a global society, we are now dealing with mountains of plastic that are wrecking entire ecosystems, killing animals, and putting people’s lives at risk. We are dealing with deforestation and the devastation and excessive use of trees for things other than their primary purpose: being the lungs of the earth. And food? One of the most significant causes of greenhouse gases and the destruction of the atmosphere is food waste. Yep, Mom was right.


Ellen is a proud daughter of FDR New Deal Democrats. She’s been writing “Consider This…” for decades. You can reach her at beautybitesbeast.com.