Thursday, January 28, 2016

Back To Austerity

Watching British Historic Realty TV is my new hobby.  Programming such as Coal House, Turn Back Time: The Family, Back In Time for Dinner, Wartime Kitchen and Garden, and the Farm Series' with Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn, and Alex Langlands are some of my favorites.  What intrigues me most about these shows isn't just the rose-colored romantic history, but the glimpse into the austerity of the working class and wartimes throughout history.

Austerity is a word the British use quite frequently to describe the war years and post war rationing years.  In context, I had a general idea of what austerity meant, but decided to look it up in Webster's Dictionary for a more intimate understanding of the word.

  •  a simple and plain quality : an austere quality
  • : a situation in which there is not much money and it is spent only on things that are necessary
  • austerities : things that are done to live in a simple and plain way

Watching these programs, I felt a familiarity and kinship with the people as they put to practice the lives set before them, while at the same time I am struck by just how good I have it!  Compared to the average-presented American, we have much less than most.  But compared to history, I think we'll survive just fine.

I grew up what the current lexicon calls "working poor," which is typically a family that works, but earns below the national average, but typically earns too much for public assistance.  It still amazes me that those who are subsidized still manage to have luxuries I only dream about.  I don't begrudge them or judge them, but I do feel a little twinge.  But, my own sensibilities (or guilt complex) keeps me from indulgence.  As my cousin's wife once told me, "it's what you choose to make your priorities."

Growing up, I knew money was always an issue.  One of the things I heard so often was, "we can't afford it."  I remember sitting at my friend's house while she and her mother poured through JC Penney catalogs picking out her new wardrobe for the school year.  I knew I wasn't even getting new underwear and could only hope for hand me downs from my stylish cousin.  Other girls took dance lessons, music lessons, 4-H, horseback riding, clubs....and I stayed home.  Even driving to such events was economically prohibitive, never mind the fees and expenses.

It didn't really sink in just how wide the gap was until I asked on facebook what perfumes the girls wore in high school.  I remember my discount drugstore bottle of Exclamation that was a Christmas present.  The other girls from high school listed brands like Estee Lauder and Chanel.  I think now, "wow, but at least I had perfume!"

So, I was used to austerity, anyway, and rather proud of that.  But, I still didn't want to live it to such a degree.  I had no problem having to budget, or having to save up for something, but I wanted to live comfortably enough so as to be able to pay the bills, have emergency back-up, and enough money for one little vacation a year.

For a while, we managed.  But life threw us curve balls we never expected.  Without getting too personal, the bulk was serious medical stuff.  Everything turned upside down.  Plans we made fell to the wayside.

And we find ourselves facing 21st century austerity.....which still includes TV and internet and Wii, ironically.

Despite the modern "luxuries," I feel the pinch and worry our foremothers in those austere years must have felt.  Like the coal miner's wife, the heavy burden of wondering if injury or illness would befall the family and ruin them hangs over my head, too.

I also feel familiarity.  We live small by American standards, especially for having 4 children.  So, I relate to those tiny flats and cottages presented in the programs.   After watching Coal House, I looked around my own little cottage and realized just how BIG it seemed!

While we do have enough beds for each child individually, and even one toddler sized bed remaining, two of my boys choose to sleep in the same bed.  It's a common old fashioned practice that warms my heart (and their bodies) and makes the rounds of kissing them good night a bit easier and more precious.

The other familiarity is the food!  We eat similarly...simply, homemade, inexpensively.  I laugh a little when the families in the programs turn their noses up at the boiled potatoes and slice of organ meat on their plate, because one of our favorite meals is heart strips in a gravy with boiled or mashed potatoes and a side of veg.

Sometimes staying warm (or cool in the summer) can be a challenge.

Often the kids play outside because the house is so small.

Sometimes cooking on my tiny range can be a challenge.

There was even a time I washed clothes by hand because my machine broke.

Do we really need all these electric lights?

Do my kids really need those snacks (especially when dinners get picked at)?

We rarely buy retail anything.  We love hand me downs and freebie finds.  We have no problem fixing or repairing what we can and making do.

And yet, I watch these programs and realize firstly that we are not so very austere, and secondly, that perhaps we could afford to become even more austere.  Perhaps we can take a few more pages out of the home life history books and actually live BETTER than trying to reach an ever wavering American Standard.

So, when I worry that we had to stop sending our oldest to piano lessons to help sustain the budget, I can remember that a large portion of our music history comes from the self-taught.

When I worry that my kids might become bored without the latest app or toy, I realize that necessity is the mother of invention.  Less really can be more.  Imagination is put to the test when there is so little.  And I remember when my oldest was a little guy and we had few toys, how much happier he was to play, how imaginative he was, and how grateful he was for anything new.

They'll be ok.  They'll survive.  They'll thrive!

And I am not saying all of this to glean atta boys or sympathies.  It is more like thinking out loud and being encouraged and challenged that a bit more austerity may be quite the benefit to my family, not only financially, but relationally, and imaginatively.

I look forward to the experiment.

1 comment:

Kiki Nakita said...


I love watching those shows too. Have you watched the 1900 House, The 1940 House, and there was another one where a family lived in a Regency style home?