I was raised by a stay at home mom. I am perhaps the last generation raised by women who were expected to be professional homemakers. But my mom was so much more than that, and the lessons I learned were priceless. My earliest memories are of ‘helping’ her with household chores. Playing with Colorforms sitting under the ironing board while she ironed pretty much everything we wore before the days of ‘permanent press.’ Playing with the wooden clothes pins while she hung sheets on the line to dry (outside in the summer, inside in the winter). Putting my feet up while she vacuumed in front of the couch. And shopping! My mom was (and still is) the best bargain hunter I know. She was born just after the Great Depression and raised during WWII, and those values of thrift and hard work were always present in our lives. But that did not stop us from shopping! I learned to cruise the bargain bins at every store we frequented. To this day, little can match the excitement of a good sale. I did not realize at the time that the ‘budget store’ at Lasalle’s was any less than the regular departments, and the sale shoe racks at JC Penney beckoned to me. The Lamson’s warehouse shoe sale? A highlight of the year!
Were we poor? No, not by any means. We lived like a solid upper middle class family in an idyllic ‘wonder years’ neighborhood. But looking back, I see that this was mostly because of my parents being extremely smart with money, and my mom’s ability to get the best for less. We did not take expensive vacations like many of my friends’ families. Instead we had incredible adventures at the lake! We did not eat out much (did anyone in the 60’s and 70’s?) and takeout was not in our vocabulary. Every meal we ate was crafted by my mom. Although her spaghetti will always be my favorite, it was most exciting to have the quick meals after Saturday church - hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls or sloppy joes. We ate steaks on the grill because my parents would buy a side of beef (and use every bit of it!). The big freezer was always stocked with meal fixins and other yummy things like frozen peaches from my Grandma. The yearly canning of the tomatoes, and the sight of my mom’s bright red hands is an indelible memory.
Grocery shopping was a highlight of every week when I was young. My mom clipped coupons, scanned the ads, and made lists. She went to Sautter’s to get what was on sale there, Food Town for their sales, and Churchill’s to get the bargains of the week and a hunk of Colby cheese from the giant wheel. She would never think of overpaying for anything or getting something at one place if it was better or cheaper someplace else. This was her job and she was the best at it.
But even with all these mad skills, there was nothing my super creative mom was better at than sewing! And I’m not just talking home seamstress. I’m talking incredible craftsmanship and attention to detail, tailored dresses with matching coats kind of couture. She taught me to sew (for which I will be forever grateful), first by going to Singer sewing school (because she knew I would not listen to her), and always by example. I was adequate, but never the perfectionist that she is. I literally grew up in fabric stores and the fabric departments of the department stores. I could pull a pattern from the file drawers for her in record time. I loved looking through the pattern books, and picking out my ‘Ellen Originals’ by choosing the styles and fabrics that I wanted to create the perfect outfits. There was never a stigma of wearing homemade clothes. On the contrary - my friends would wonder what I was going to wear the next day because my orange crushed corduroy elephant bottom pants and a psychedelic smock top were so epic the day before! Anything I wanted, she made me including my custom one of a kind prom dress. My clothes were awesome. I thought this was normal. I now know it was extraordinary.
My mom is a registered nurse by training. She was a single career girl who saved enough money to pay cash for a new car before she met my dad. Back in the days when you could do such things, she willingly and expectedly gave up her career when my older brother was born and never looked back. She was not only our nurse, but the neighborhood nurse as well. If someone was sick or got hurt, my mom was and still is, the first one there to help. I will never know as much as she does, or be as compassionate, but I learned everything I know about taking care of people, and staying calm in crisis from her.
As a working mom myself, perhaps the most amazing thing looking back on my childhood was that I cannot remember a single day that my mom was not there waiting for me when I got home from school. She was usually in the kitchen, fabric stretched out on the counter, working on the next project before it was time to start dinner. I didn’t even have a house key. It was just a given that she was there every day. It was always a good day when she woke me up for school instead of my military trained dad. She gave my stuffed animals little voices and made me laugh. My dad just dumped the mattress off the bed when I did not get up on the first or second (or third) attempt :) She made me breakfast every day, and packed my lunch. Our house was her domain and we all knew it.
Because of our upbringing, my brothers and I all grew up to be thrifty, hard working and successful people. It recently hit me that we were the last generation of children to be raised this way. I regret not being as available for my children as my mom was for us, but times are certainly different, as are expectations, and we all do what we have to do and what is best for our families. Although it seems like life is so hard now, I think of my mom, and all of that ironing, cooking, and the incredible planning it took to be so thrifty so that we had everything we needed. Ellen Lafayette Barber, you made it look so easy. You rocked it and I just wanted to let you know that I am so very grateful. Although it may not have seemed it at the time, your hard work and dedication were not lost on this very lucky girl.
Happy Mother’s Day!