Escaping Charlotte’s Web

My grandmother enmeshed her own descendants in her frugality.

Photo credit: Clem Onojeghuo | Unsplash

Thanks to the New York City Sanitation Department, my kitchen ghosts have finally backed off. Their tutting grew fainter when organic waste was declared recyclable, and the only sound I heard when the new receptacle arrived was the thunk of a wizened carrot hitting the bottom, along with my last pang of guilt about discarding food.

The loudest tuts had come from my maternal grandmother, Charlotte, who lived with us throughout my youth in Wales. Born in 1889 to parents of modest income, child number five of eight, her mother dying when she was nine, she learned the art of frugal management early. In her twenties, during World War I, she juggled scarce supplies to feed her two older children, and in 1935, as Wales staggered out of the Great Depression, her husband died. Four years later, World War II brought new privations; petrol and clothing were rationed, and wasting food became a criminal offense. How could she not have cultivated thrifty ways? As I came to know, those ways, once cultivated, were there to stay.

Victoria, her childhood monarch, had woven hemophilia into the genes of European royalty. Charlotte, with far less tragic, but equally marked effect, enmeshed her own descendants in her frugality web.

To me, a child of the ‘50s, “better” meant watching Sunday’s left-over beef and gravy emerge from our hand-cranked mincer to star in Monday’s shepherd’s pie. “Better” was learning to unpick a frumpy, hand-made sweater, wind the newly-washed skeins into balls and knit the reborn yarn into something beautiful. Best of all was seeing my grandmother’s zeal for thrift turned into a going concern at her chapel’s annual sale of work. Other congregants showed their frugality incidentally, sewing aprons and kettle holders from fabric remnants. Charlotte’s famed white elephant stall (donations stored in our garden shed for weeks) was the thing itself — a pure expression of the re-use principle, this time wearing an air of celebration, not constraint.

Because for every better there was a worse. Worse was being sent to buy bread, knowing that not a crumb of its crusty fragrance would reach my mouth until the heel of yesterday’s loaf had been polished off. Worse was the charmless stack of battered foil containers in our kitchen, which once held something and might again someday — perhaps that sliver of carefully-husbanded bar soap by the sink. Worst is the image of my grandmother, deep in dementia in her eighties, carrying home a single glove she’d found on the street, lovingly washing it, and pegging it out to dry.

In part, no doubt, because of her careful oversight, Charlotte never came close to destitution. When I was growing up, her situation was comfortable; her two sons and my father all had secure jobs. Yet that frugal impulse, stretching way beyond necessity, remained entrenched. Our household could have sprung for a new ball of string, but twine recovered from packets of butcher’s meat and from parcels delivered by the postman crammed a square tin box on our kitchen mantelpiece. Each coil, ranging from fine and dense to loose and fibrous, had been doggedly unknotted by my grandmother — or by me, if I had been press-ganged into it — while the box itself, having formerly housed mints or shortbread she’d received as a gift, provided its own object lesson in economy. (It was an open secret in our family that Charlotte’s wardrobe drawer contained a cache of such edible presents, reserved for moments of extraordinary need. One of us facing a gift-giving emergency, or a craving for chocolate, could always hope to be rescued by a timely nugget chipped from the mother lode. In a siege, we could have survived for a month on Turkish delight.)

All three of Charlotte’s children bore her stamp. My mother, an ardent reader, was frankly mystified that a person would buy a book, when the public library offered hundreds free. My older uncle, to my aunt’s despair, rescued as many “usable” items from the town dump as he delivered there; the younger, an architect, bought his clothes from the Princess Alice charity shops in his Surrey neighborhood.

If it wasn’t present hardship that drove them, it wasn’t meanness either, though their conduct could seem miserly. All of them were generous to others — they gave nice presents, they made donations; they paid their bills. And it wasn’t prescient worry about the environment. The giant cooling towers at the oil refinery across the river, belching steam in full view of our front windows, bothered them not a bit. What they felt was a knee-jerk recoil from wastefulness that is my inheritance too.

I disavowed it for a while, under rival influences. My mother-in-law, so far from wishing to handle a stranger’s castoffs, washed even brand-new underwear and sheets because you never knew where they had been. I learned to feel a little embarrassed by my family’s oddities, to disdain their habits a tiny bit. I turned my nose up at the notion of saving the wrapping paper from a gift, and rolled my eyes at my grandmother’s shock when I wore a sweater I’d bought, instead of keeping it for best. But despite these small rebellions against our family norms, the minute a neighbor gave me a bag of windfall apples, I felt compelled, however inconvenient the timing, to bake them quickly into pies, and then to freeze whatever we couldn’t eat. The cost-benefit ratio often got stuck on the glue of Charlotte’s web.

A move to America with my husband and two young children made these competing attitudes easier to parse. Three thousand miles is a powerful aid to perspective. Over time, I chose from each model the parts that made sense to me: bought new books, but continued to use the public library (wiping the book jackets clean as a nod to my mother-in-law); stopped saving endless elastic bands, but stock-piled brown-paper grocery bags, since three thousand miles made mailing packages a frequent task. I continued to snip the ends off tubes of lotion to extract each drop, but no longer stored every shoebox that came our way. And amid the yard sales dotting our neighborhood every Saturday, the treasure-hunting thrills of Charlotte’s white elephant stall returned to me in force.

But even the wide Atlantic couldn’t entirely block my chagrin at scrapping something with potential afterlife, however remote. It took the growth of recycling programs to manage that. Happy though I was to recast paper, foil, and plastic waste as “salvage,” for an urban apartment-dweller like me with no compost heap and ancestors carping in her ear, the problem of how to justify dumping food remained unsolved.

Now that NYC Sanitation has rescued me from the fear of food waste, the only sounds I hear from my kitchen ghosts are occasional murmurs of approval, since, despite my new, watertight escape clause, there are certain frugal practices I can’t, or won’t, be rescued from. I don’t scrape burned toast and shower the kitchen sink with its dismal residue — a sight I hated as a child — but I certainly do simmer chicken carcasses for broth. And since I’m always forced to buy more buttermilk than I need, I freeze what’s left in ice cube trays for another day. A friend who also grew up thrifty, boarded a plane in Boston to visit her family with a head of romaine lettuce in her bag. It’s bred in the bone, we just can’t bring ourselves to squander good food.

During an economic downturn, the pay-off is clear. In the late 2000s, at the height of the Great Recession, we old-school frugal types were ahead of the curve. No longer outliers, marked by quirky and slightly irritating tendencies, we moved briefly to the cutting edge of the zeitgeist. When newspaper columnists and radio guests advanced our customary actions as novel schemes devised expressly for those straitened times, we found it hard not to smile. Plan your meals in advance, so that leftovers can be served again in fresh and nutritious ways? Consider re-purposing items you already own? Per-leeze! Like Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, we had been taught by masters.

It didn’t last. Millions still feel financially squeezed, but today, an online search for “leftovers” brings up site after site referring to the TV series before any hint of household economy appears. We’re used to that. Sometimes in fashion, mostly not, it isn’t we who change. We’re Frugalistas — a tribe identified by journalist Natalie P. McNeal as lucky enough to practice thrift from choice, not bleak necessity or dour virtue or blind habit. We draw conscious satisfaction from avoiding waste. Those bittersweet miles that divided me from my earliest teachers gave me the freedom to undo the dense lace of Charlotte’s web and to weave the silk into a looser pattern of my own: one whose ties give stout support, but flex as well as bind.

Ceri Eagling grew up in Wales, has lived in France for six years and is a long-time resident of the United States.

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