29: Old-Fashioned Ways

29: Old-Fashioned Ways

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Old-Fashioned Ways

Chop your own wood, and it will warm you twice.

~Henry Ford

We named it the year that wasn’t—wasn’t good, that is. The dog died. We buried him in the backyard and cried like babies instead of acting like the stalwart adults we knew we should be. Then the central air conditioning and heating unit went out. The repairman said it couldn’t be fixed; it would have to be replaced. A quick overview of our savings showed us that we had barely enough to purchase a new one. Then my husband lost his job. When education budgets get cut, those with the highest salaries usually go first. It doesn’t matter that you are two years from retirement.

We were stunned. Although I also worked, my job alone would not pay our bills. Should we use the little bit of savings that we had to replace the heating unit or hang onto the money, in case we needed those funds for car payments and all-important “incidentals” like groceries? I decided that I liked eating, and my husband concurred. So what would we do about staying warm during the approaching winter months?

Our house is what my grandmother would have called “old-fashioned.” We have wooden floors, high ceilings, and a main hall that separates one side of the house from the other. A wood-burning stove sits in a spot central to that hall. I am sure that at one time, the previous owners of the house must have used the stove to heat the entire 2,600 square feet. But could we?

We called a chimney professional to inspect the stove. Having it pronounced “safe to use” launched us into trial-and-error mode. There are no gas starters in old-fashioned stoves. We had to learn to build a fire the Boy Scout way—twigs, paper, and kindling in a sort of teepee, and then a log perched on top so that the air could circulate beneath it as it heated up. After several attempts, we had our first roaring fire. The next step was to get more firewood. We reasoned that we could buy cords of firewood. But if we could cut our own, we would save even more money. After checking with a local policeman, we learned that we could cut up fallen trees along the roads near our house. That required a chainsaw, but my husband’s birthday wasn’t too far away; so we asked family and friends for gift cards to the hardware store to purchase the saw.

Getting the family involved evoked a lot of curiosity and several e-mail exchanges. They were a little amused at first, imagining my husband in his Paul Bunyan role. But then when we saved $100 on our monthly power bill, they all took deep breaths and started thinking of other old-fashioned ways that we could save money.

My daughter suggested that we go through the closet and check the care instruction tags on many of the items that I routinely sent to the cleaners. Some of them said “can be hand washed,” so we made a list: red blouse, brown skirt, blue knit top, etc. At the top, I wrote, “Wash by Hand.” Some of our sweaters were even washable! At the end of one month, I checked our budget. We had cut our dry cleaning bill in half.

A friend suggested that we have a fall garden. We found a spot on the screened-in porch that was somewhat protected from the wind and used two large flower pots to plant a few veggies. I’ll admit that it did take a bit of attention, covering them when the nights’ temperatures dipped; but it was worth it.

A neighbor gave us two cats. They took care of any unwelcome visitors in, under, and around the house, and we were able to cancel exterminating services. That saved us another small chunk each month. And though we knew we were spoiling them a little when we occasionally gave them table scraps, we felt better about not wasting any leftover food.

We also decided that since there are just two of us, we didn’t need to use the dishwasher, opting instead to wash dishes by hand. To save money, I was cooking more at home, with fewer drive-through stops at local fast food restaurants. That, together with our home-grown vegetables, provided the means to eat healthier as well as to cut the budget in yet another way.

All my husband’s wood chopping was death on the socks he wore with his Paul Bunyan boots. I surprised myself when I offered to darn them instead of rushing right out to buy him new ones. I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it. But I remembered my grandmother putting something inside the sock to make it stretch out, then sewing thread crisscross over the hole until she closed it. And yes, mending by the fire does create a rather nice picture for the memory section of the brain. So does reading to each other, snuggled by the fire. The year that “wasn’t” was becoming the year that “was.”

It is almost springtime. In years past, I would have headed to the garden center to purchase plants for the flower beds. But this year, my husband and I rode down the roads where he had cut wood in the dead of winter. There—among those same fallen trees—were volunteer wild flowers peeking out to test the warmth of the sun. Having traded his saw for a shovel, my husband dug up flowers to transplant into my flower beds. They’ve never looked lovelier.

My husband was offered a job at a local college. We are elated. But we are not going to abandon our “new” old-fashioned ways. We did go through some of our savings, so retirement had to be put off a few years. The change in our lifestyle will help us accumulate extra dollars each month that can go back into that fund. We’ll start a spring vegetable garden and continue washing dishes by hand. And we’ll chop, split, and haul wood to prepare for the winter. But the best part of it all is that we are healthier. In fact, we both lost five pounds. We didn’t go to the spa or join a health club. We just worked hard. And we slimmed down and toughened up—you guessed it—the old-fashioned way.

~Elaine Ernst Schneider

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