Mary Beth Writes

Len and I are watching the Ken Burns / Lynn Novick Vietnam series on PBS. We’ve watched Vietnam documentaries before and we’ve read many of the books from and about that era – but we are learning so much more than we already knew. It is gripping and exhausting.  I so clearly remember 1968 and 1969 - the years my brother was in Vietnam.

I said the other day that I would write about how my personal journey to and with Frugality started back then, so here goes.

My dad died abruptly of a heart attack in 1967 when he was 48 and I was 14. Those first months after he was gone were like living a rock polisher. Nothing was stable and it all hurt.

My mom and my 19-year old brother Paul immediately took over our family’s small printing business. Then the local draft board decided that even though both Paul and mom were working like crazy to keep the business afloat – that didn’t constitute “support of his widowed mother.” So they drafted Paul and -after basic, medic, and Para-trooping training - they sent him to Vietnam.  

Paul in his tent, in Vietnam

My flourishing middle class family of five, had, in what felt like a heartbeat, become just Mom and me. We were no longer financially secure. We were scared for Paul. She was working long days running the business; she did the full time job she’d always done and then much of Dad’s half of the business on top of that. She didn’t know how to operate the big 4-color press, so she hired a series of press operators, though none were as competent as dad or Paul.  It was always hard and Mom was always working.

Her endless working meant that if anyone was going to take care of our house, that person was probably going to be me.  When Paul went to Vietnam, I learned to cook supper AKA burn pork chops. (The secret is to dump applesauce on all tough and charred parts)  Sometimes Mom prepared our meals, but mostly it was me or we ate out … so we ate out a lot!  She said it was cheaper to buy a restaurant meal than hire employees to do in two hours what she could do in one.

Lesson 1 of the Frugal Life – Do the most important thing first.

Mom was determined to preserve the business for Paul. This meant she put up with the housekeeping skills of a lackadaisical 15-year old. There was stuff to do in the print shop that was more important than home making. When I would sometimes (not real often) vacuum and dust or serve burned meat and hard-baked potatoes – she simply smiled and said thank you.  We got by.

In my adult life there have been many times when what was in front of me was hard and new and what I most wanted was to go home and make cookies. But nope, that’s not rule one. When the chips are down, take care of assets and income. Earning even minimum part time wages, in many instances, will get one further than most of the savings strategies of we who are frugal types. Obviously there are lots of qualifiers to this – my mom gave up homemaking wizardry when her youngest - that would be me - was already 15. None of us were ill or handicapped. My mom was making her decision on behalf of her son.

mom in the late 60's

Lesson 2 – Read a lot.

I read all the time;  bought and borrowed non-fiction and novels. I had a student subscription to Time magazine; I read that sucker cover-to-cover every week. Reading “took me away” which is where I often needed to be. Time magazine showed me how politics affect with humans’ destinies; I began to understand I wasn’t the only unlucky girl on earth.  Reading showed me different ways to be human and different ways humans solve problems. I intuited that some people are victims of circumstances; but with hard work and luck, one might be able to get past difficult times. Reading gave me the world and I never gave it back.

Lesson 3 – A person can make a lot of what she needs or wants.

Did you see my Clown Sewing post? Yup, I didn’t love to sew and still don’t, but there was so little cash flow those years. If I wanted new clothes I needed to sew them. Some things turned out fine, some turned out Stand-up Comedy Ready. 

Probably the most valuable skill I learned was that patience can be learned and it will allow a person to do an adequate job. I still summon this skill for lots of things I do. Research, pay attention, go slow, keep at it.

Lesson 4 – Baking

Now we’re talking. I DO like to bake. My mom baked cinnamon chocolate chip coffee cakes for our family every Saturday morning of my childhood. Rough, huh?

The year Paul was in Vietnam Mom had too much to do to bake.  One afternoon, as I sprawled on the floor, my legs hooked up on the sofa (ah, to be a flexible teenager again), my dog next to me, incredibly busy not doing my homework – I suddenly and powerfully wanted mom’s coffee cake.

It would be nonsensical to ask her; she would just feel sad about all that was lost. So I got off my butt and the floor, went to the kitchen, rummaged for the red and white-checked Betty Crocker cookbook - and found the dough recipe.

(After the dough has risen once, you roll it out, spread a sheen of melted butter, sprinkle way too much cinnamon, sugar, and then blitz it with chocolate chips. Roll it up, let it rise again, bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes.)

It worked. Tasted awesome and the kitchen smelled like home. My mother loved it and I soon became quite popular at church youth group. In my 20’s I would learn to make whole grain bread. I still bake most of our bread most of the time; sometimes I even sell it to others! Baking bread is the cheapest and most extravagant thing I know how to do; I learned the skill during that awful year.

Lesson 5 – When depressed or upset, try “outside”. We lived in the country. I had a dog. The world was beautiful. I had to walk a half mile home from the bus every afternoon. Then I discovered that if I couldn’t stand the school bus ride, I could walk the five miles from school back home in an hour and a half. That summer I dug and planted a garden into the backyard. Very little grew, but I was outside attempting things the people in my books attempted. I got used to the way I felt less crazy outside. Feeling centered when the world wasn’t, this was a strong thing to slowly learn.

Lesson 6 – I started writing. One can be awkward, grieving, lonesome, angry and sometimes just plain stupid – but life goes on. If one can write about what’s happening some of the anxiety dissolves. I wrote letters to my brother and I wrote random diary entries just for myself. It wasn’t that I wrote every day, but I turned to words on paper when there was too much to say and no one to say it to.

Lesson 7 – Security is not the same as cash flow. My parents owned (with a mortgage) 30 acres of land plus the shop outfitted with printing equipment. They owned our house, two cars, and there was no doubt we kids would go to college unless we could come up with a sensible alternative. What we didn’t have after dad died and Paul shipped out - was cash flow. I have been in this situation many times in my life and yup, it’s frustrating. One has to pull up their socks and deal with it but it is NOT poverty. We had tangible and intangible assets and resources. Still do.


Paul returned from Vietnam in 1970. He and mom, and eventually Paul’s wife Janice, ran Danielson Colorprint all their adult lives.

As for me? Let’s see. This morning I got up and wrote for a couple hours. Then I went for a long walk. I baked bread - one loaf to sell, one to give, one to eat. Tonight I will probably finish the library novel I’ve been reading for weeks.

Fifty years later; these skills still work.  


I haven't thought of it in years and now my mouth is watering thinking about it. It was a real treat! Paul's mom's chocolate chip bread. Oh yum! Thanks for the delicious memory.
Mary Beth's picture

Thanks! If you ever come here I will make that coffee cake for you... I still know how.

I would love that! I feel a road trip coming on. :)

My heart aches for that young girl and her losses. Life certainly has a way of shaping us. Love hearing about your growing up years -some things I knew - some things not

Thanks for the inspiring words. Really made me think about my own situation.

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