Posted June 20th 2012 at 8:38 am by
in First Person Policy

Off to Church in Our (Sustainable) Sunday Best, 1978

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.

The Story:

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.

Off to Church in Our (Sustainable) Sunday Best, 1978

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.

4 responses to “Off to Church in Our (Sustainable) Sunday Best, 1978”

  1. Christina says:

    Thank you for sharing such a touching and amazing story. I think you’re absolutely right that sustainability is not a new idea: it’s the way that many things were 30-60 years ago when you bought a pair of shoes or a winter coat and expected it to last you through the decade.

    My mom is pretty sustainable too. She has been driving the same Honda for nearly two decades, has never had cable TV, and doesn’t own a computer (she goes to the library for that). If she picks up a plant on the clearance rack of a store she will wait weeks until she “finds” a pot (which has usually been put out with someone else’s trash) before she plants it. She was a single mother who raised three kids on her own on a secretary’s salary. Like your parents, being sustainable was about survival and about providing for her children.

    So in contrast a major challenge would appear to be living and operating in a sustainable way when there is wealth: in industry or society. If you can afford an SUV or you can afford to pollute, what is the incentive to be sustainable and conserve resources? I guess this gets at the relationship of sustainable behavior and economics.

    I think that the key to moving to a more sustainable society is in teasing out the ethics and values that our parents taught us and applying them to live a sustainably-principled lifestyle with or without wealth.

  2. Brian says:

    Wonderful Story Demetria! Can it be that human beings have been living sustainable lives in so many ways and in some many cultures around the globe! What have we done? Why have we left their ideas and their values in the past? We need to breathe life into them again in the present. Your story reminds me of this. Can these bones live?

  3. Demetria says:

    Christina, Thanks for echoing your sustainability comments. I know all too well what happened even 60 years ago with my grandparents. My mom shared the stories of how they made everything stretch. I remember the stories of how they would take my mom to Delaware to pick tomatoes in the summer months so they could have money. My mom has 9 brothers and sisters so that had to make things last from year to year and brother to brother/sister to sister.

    I also share your concerns as well in terms of environmental sustainability. A few yours back, I had the opportunity to go to a major port. To see the pollution that occurs as a result of the global economy is something to think about. How can we sustain? Good thoughts here and I’m so happy to be able to share my thinking because these thoughts have been lurking in my mind for quite some time now.. demetria

  4. Demetria says:


    I appreciate your global reminder, cultural awareness and biblical perspective. I think we have to have message runners that will carry the message of hope so that when the bones are near distinct that “yes” they can live. For instance as I mentioned above my mother was use to making things stretch but by the time she got married she must have forgot what it was like picking tomatoes in Delaware. I too had forgotten that my brother and I had sold cardboard to get a Nintendo until my father told the story of the Easter outfits. What makes us forget? Is it our innate nature to forget what happened yesterday and then reinvent tomorrow? demetria