One does not expect to learn about conservation via the sight of one's 85-year- old great-grandmother hunkered down bare-bottomed under the rosebushes, but there it is. In my formative years, "Grandmary" taught me to reduce, reuse and recycle everything from bacon grease to urine.
"Pee makes the roses bloom bigger," she told me when I commented that other octogenarians did their business in the toilet. "Why throw away something useful when it can do good in the world?"
I shouldn't have been surprised. A framed cross-stitch hung above the towel rack in Grandmary's bathroom. Instead of the usual homily about home-sweet-home, however, I read -- all the years of my adolescence -- these words in amber embroidery-floss Xs:
If it's yellow, let it mellow.
If it's brown, flush it down.
Grandmary grew up in the early 1900s on a Missouri farm. Every day, she braved a flock of irascible geese to use the outhouse. She saved dishwater to throw on the kitchen garden outside the back door. She and her sisters wore the same dresses six days a week until their elbows poked through the sleeves and their hems dangled ragged above their knees. Then, they cut up the salvageable cotton and sewed patchwork quilts. My relatives conserved resources decades before the idea of global warming entered anyone's consciousness, recycling because garbage service didn't extend to 40 acres in Nowhere, Missouri, and reusing because the Great Depression eradicated the word "expendable" from an entire generation's vocabulary.
On June 5 of this year, California governor Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought and issued an executive order to assist local water districts with conservation efforts. My great-grandmother, were she still alive, could have served as his chief advisor.
In her 20s, Grandmary left her job as a teacher to become a bareback rider in Howe's Traveling Circus, where she met and married my great-grandfather. They worked as a comedy duo in vaudeville, living out of one suitcase until they moved to Northern California. There, my great-grandmother set a tub in the sink to catch graywater and hung a clothesline.
As a child, I never wondered why Grandmary wore a ski hat and a flannel jacket in the house, didn't question why she tossed potato peels, wilted lettuce leaves, and eggshells -- plus silver strands gleaned from her hairbrush -- into a bucket to be dumped onto a compost pile that would later nurture tomato plants. My great-grandmother's eccentricities charmed me. When my father disparaged her house during the summer months as "colder than a Midwest snowstorm," I pulled on wool socks and scampered to the kitchen to help Grandmary concoct cat-gravy from leftover chicken.
This was a woman who used every part of the bird. What meat we didn't devour got shredded for pot-pies. Cooked organs went to Grandmary's dog, Smokey. She boiled the bones for broth, then poured some into a cast-iron pan, dropping in chicken scraps and a dollop of lard, sprinkling in flour to thicken the mess before dumping it onto a pie plate. "Come on, Melissa." She took my hand. "Strays need to eat, too."
I'd follow her across the road to the forest. She put down the plate and tapped a stick against the aluminum like a dinner bell. Suddenly, yellow eyes winked from the trees. One cat leapt down from a branch, while another appeared on a boulder. Mangy tabbies and toms crowded around the pan while Grandmary chuckled. "Never throw anything out," she instructed, "except for old underwear."
Now, I look around at my plastics, at my television rendered obsolete by HDTV, at my belongings tossed out simply because I want new ones. I'm as guilty as anyone of keeping my house at 68 degrees, of leaving lights on, of purchasing items without thinking about where they came from or who sacrificed what to get them into my hands. But recently, I hoisted myself into the attic to clean and came across a scrap of my great-grandmother's patchwork.
The piece measured six inches by 12, all clashing colors and patterns. I admired the spidery embroidery that held each fragment together on a cotton backing. But what to do with such an artifact? It was too small for even a sofa pillow. "I could frame it and hang it in my bathroom," I thought.
I descended the attic and tacked the scrap above my towel rack. Inspired, I turned down the thermostat, and pulled on a knit cap. I placed a pan in the sink to catch dishwater. Clumps of cat fur went into a bucket, along with apple cores and dryer lint. In the backyard, I scoped out a compost pile site.
My pink rhododendron bush had begun to bloom. "Those flowers could be bigger," I reasoned. I looked around furtively, lest my neighbors label me eccentric, then dropped my drawers.