#20 Family

In Family, Save cash on December 24, 2009 at 12:25 am

At this time of year, it is customary to think of one’s family. Personally, I think of my Spinster Aunt and Glasgow Granny whose distinctive approach to gift giving is legendary among my siblings and cousins.

When we were children, the Christmas cards we received were traditionally the fronts of those from previous years detached from the bit with the signature of their original giver, and re-imagined in postcard form. Granted, my six year old recycled 2008’s Christmas cards this year, but at least he cut them up and made his own collages. And besides, I don’t give him any pocket money so he can’t buy his own cards. The more charitable might see my relatives as being ahead of their time, a vanguard of the eco war; more likely it was just a case of good old Scottish tightfistedness.

But it was their presents that were truly memorable. Usually these were free gifts obtained with cereal or un-pc pots of jam; occasionally they did splash out and one year we all received a book of second-class stamps. I didn’t use one.

This year I have become an ardent admirer of the art of belt-tightening, but my aunt and grandmother’s rational for their pursuit of it is less clear. Though by no means wealthy in the Tory-shadow-cabinet sense of the word, they were nevertheless a solidly middle class mercantile family who bought shares, sent their children to public school (at least until my father disgraced the family name and was swiftly removed), spent time in the colonies, had a billiard room, and ran an account at RW Forsyth. [Needless to say, two generations of layabout writers and theatrical types has ensured rapid downward mobility.]

And yet they never made home improvements or even installed central heating (which has meant the family home is now a rare example of perfectly preserved Edwardian domestic architecture, barely habitable but a fascinating historic record), bought job lots of everything when they saw it on special offer (even shoes) resulting in 50% of the food in their cupboard being well past its sell-by date (in particular a tin of WWII powdered eggs that by now must surely be worth something), and sat in one room of the house all evening to conserve electricity (in fact I doubt that billiard table was ever used for more than storing wine). Even pushing 77, my Aunt still travels by overnight coach rather than splash out on a train ticket, and part of her Christmas present this year is a laminated picture of herself and five loose crackers left over from a charity dinner. And I had to go to meet her to save on postage, though to be fair, she did buy me a sandwich.

I suppose the lesson is ‘look after the pence, and the pounds will look after themselves’. Plus, contrary to popular belief, expenditure on education does not equate to having lots of ready cash (all available cash having been spent on the education). Or perhaps it’s just that spending money was considered vulgar. My late father always said you could tell how posh someone was by the state of their furniture – the more battered the armchairs, the more old school their owner. A new three-piece suite, on the other hand, was a sure sign of being nouveau riche. Maybe that’s why we never got a new sofa.

My mother’s side of the family, on the other hand, lived in a (nice, neat) council house with an outside toilet and a tin bath (as opposed to an Edwardian bathroom suite with a shower that sprayed from the sides). Their husbandry took the form of growing their own vegetables, making their own cupboards, knitting their own clothes. This grandfather, Andover’s most sought after painter & decorator, didn’t trust banks, passed up the opportunity to start his own business, and refused to buy his own house when the council offered. Their currency of choice was Co-op stamps, which kept them in electrical appliances, and instead of a billiard room they had a shed. Whenever we went to stay for our annual summer holiday, we’d eat fluffy potatoes and succulent green beans; there’d be cake at tea time, and every Christmas (until arthritis got the better of my gran) I’d get a lovingly knitted jumper and a hand painted toy or picture.

Though as a child I obviously favoured the family who gave me the best presents, my older self has learned to be less judgemental, to accept that people have complex reasons for behaving as they do and to love them anyway, to realise that they all loved us equally, and to smile fondly at my relatives’ idiosyncrasies while exploiting them for anecdotal purposes.

  1. This is a great essay on family. As my grandmother taught me, people are funnier than anyone. On another topic, we live out in the colonies. Should your job search lead you to
    Canada, send a note on my blog and we will see if it is possible to get you out to our area and show you genuine North American short grass prairie Edwardian home architecture.

    If you come quick, we have about half a dozen former occupants of the home still living…we celebrated Christmas with them last evening and you do not need to move quick because they do; not at all. But they will be moving onward and upward in the next few years.

    If you go to the June 5 blog entry, there is a picture with William Honecker Sr. Homestead in the caption. The third little box in the row counting front to back, the one with a chimney, is the house. The second box is the bunk house where the boys slept–no chimney for fear of fires–no fear of freezing to death in those days… And the front one with the windows was the chicken coop. Among the gifts received from these folk last night were secondhand balls, home knitted mittens, a 16 inch doily, recycled Christmas cards as gift tags, brown paper bag wrapping, and a modern touch, stapled closures instead of tape. The 97 year old was sporting a new hairdo–she got her hair cut–now there’s a first. These dear little old ladies are in no way without monetary means. On one day in 2007 I assisted 5 of this family to go to the local financial institution and deposit inheritances from a sibling. On that day alone our town got richer by more than what we earn in five years…so this frugality is a learned thing, learned by living through the dirty thirties or whatever you call the depression of the 20s and thirties.

    The greatgrandchildren have learned to live with this other mindset. They left their DSs at home and there was no electronic entertainment of any kind except for Skype, a practice these elderly folk do not understand in any way, except “FREE.”

    I look forward to reading other of your blog entries. All the best of the season to you and yours.

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