The more I chat with my elders, the more I realize that “sustainability” really isn’t a new idea. Sustainability is just a different way of saying “using what we have,” or “making a way out of no way”.
I was archiving old family photos recently, and decided to send my dad copies of a few different photos from the late 70’s. One picture – of me and my brother in our Sunday best – made my dad launch into the story of how he got the money to buy us new Easter clothes even though he had just been laid off for the third time. We had hard economic times in the 70’s. I still remember hearing the stories of customers having to wait for their appointed day to get gasoline. And then in the 80’s and 90’s I listened to my school teachers talk about the astronomical $3.85 gas prices. But my dad’s story convinced me that while I’m a generation X’er, I’m also of the sustainability movement that went unnamed in the 70’s. This new buzzword has long been a way of life for many families.
My mom had already picked our Easter Outfits. All she had to do was go back to the mall to make the purchase. She was heartbroken when she found out my dad had just been laid off. Of course it didn’t make sense to go buy Easter outfits when they had no income and a mortgage payment due. But my dad was thinking differently. Long before his third layoff stint he had decided that his children would not experience the lack that he did as a child. When he pulled out the checkbook to pay for the outfits, my mom immediately became angry and walked out the store. She knew they were flat broke. But my dad knew he had seven days before the check would clear.
The author and her brother on Easter in 1978.
My father’s plan was simple: cardboard. Even then, cardboard was a sustainable good that could be recycled to make money. Clearly my fuming mother did not know of his plan. As soon as they got home with the new clothes, my dad went to work. He went to grocery stores and asked them, could he have the cardboard? Then he went to a clothing store and asked them if he could have their cardboard. He must have gotten card board from half of the stores in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After about three days he finally had enough money to put in the bank before the check cleared, with some left over to treat the family to Western Sizzling for Easter Dinner. My dad continued to collect cardboard to generate income while he was laid off. Cardboard became a sustainability tool for my parents – “a way of life” until times got better.
I was laughing and thinking all at the same time that my dad understood sustainability in a way that most people are searching to analyze and figure out.
After 30+ years, that picture of me and my brother has come to life. It brings about so much appreciation for my parents struggle – a greater appreciation of how they paved the way for us to live a better life. Sustainability for us proved that we had everything we needed to build upon. My parents, both blue collar workers, taught that us if you want it, create it. If there’s no door, create a window. This demonstrates sustainability at its best.
My brother and I took up our own cardboard business years later when the Nintendo first came out. My parents couldn’t afford the new gadget so my brother and I collected cardboard everyday for about six months until we could buy a Nintendo. It was the late Dorothy Height that was often quoted as saying, “We as woman don’t always do what we want to do but we do what we have to do!” In our family, I can honestly say for the sake of sustainability we always did what we had to do.
Post by Demetria Ledbetter.