Tin Can Patches and Salty Toothpaste


“Making do” with what we have can be challenging, fun, and rewarding.

Several years ago my Aunt Norma borrowed a bread mixer from her daughter, Irene. Apologetically, Irene said she hoped her mother would be able to use it, because the gear on the bottom kept slipping out. Aunt Norma cut the end from a plastic cup to form a gasket and pushed it in against the slipping gear. The mixer worked for her and has worked for Irene ever since.

Our mothers and grandmothers were often creative in their frugality—mostly because they had to be. But though technological advances have given us an easier life-style, self-sufficiency has not gone out of style. Many of us are still short of income in a consumption-conscious, money-oriented world, and “making do” is as important today as it was a generation ago.

Not long ago, my neighbor thought I was crazy when she caught me attempting to balance an almost-empty ketchup bottle, upside down, on top of an open full one. When I told her I was trying to drain out the last bit of ketchup she said, “Forget it. Just throw it away.”

Aunt Norma would have cringed. She never threw anything away, not even bath water. When her oldest son was ill with polio, she had to haul water into the house for him to soak in twice a day. Later she used the bath water in a multitude of ways: mopping the floor, scrubbing the porch, and watering the plants.

I admit that I cannot stand to see anything go to waste. It is an attitude that meshes comfortably with a bottom-line question in my life: How much does it cost? In coping with life in a modern, complicated world, I find I naturally fall into the footsteps of my ancestors.

I owe my obsession with getting the last drop of ketchup out of the bottle to my mother. Mother’s heritage and the realities of farm life in northern Utah helped determine her provident nature. Her girlhood home had four rooms. The kitchen and living room were decorated with wallpaper, but the family could never see their way clear to buy paint for the bedrooms. To brighten up those rooms, her mother would stir up a zinc concoction called calcimine and wash the walls to a snowy white.

The board walls of an old shed behind the house would get holes in them or splinter as the wood aged. Instead of tearing off each board as it cracked and replacing it with a new one, Grandpa would nail tin can lids over the holes. If the hole was too big for a lid, he’d remove the lids, split the can, pound it flat, and fasten it over the opening.

A person passing through my neighborhood on garbage collection day, where three or four cans line each driveway, would be convinced that Americans are impassioned with throwing things away. We live in a disposable world. But my progenitors knew better. Even today, when Mother gets down to the bottom of the hand lotion container, she cuts the bottom off to get the last bit out. She has a tidy assortment of paper sacks, worn-out clothing, odd-size jar lids, and anything else that might be useful at a later time. When I need a cardboard box of any size, where do I go? Mother’s.

My grandmother Sarah was a button collector. One day, I opened a drawer of an old chest that had been tucked away since she died. There I found the most wonderful assortment of buttons—from uniforms, shirts, babies’ dresses, blouses, pants, and the like, many with the thread still through the button eye, waiting to be used again.

I still have Grandma Sarah’s buttons, mingled with buttons my mother and I have collected. When a button is missing, I can usually find a similar one in my three-generation collection.

President Ezra Taft Benson has reminded us that as Latter-day Saints we have a heritage of thrift. We would increase peace and security in our lives by making do with what we have and can afford. “Peace and contentment come into our hearts when we live within our means,” he counseled. (Ensign, June 1987, p. 5.)

Our family has lived by that principle for generations. Grandma Sarah’s garden provided her family with food all year round. She made sure Mother spent plenty of time learning horticultural skills, and Mother in turn taught me. There was a time when I argued that it was cheaper to go to the store and buy peaches in a can than to grow and pick and bottle them. But Mother ignored my argument, saying that it was as important to learn how to work and provide for ourselves as it was to save money.

In Mother’s garden, nothing went to waste. If our family couldn’t use all the harvest, Mother would invite neighbors to come and pick the rest. If they didn’t show up, Mother would pick it and take it to them. I follow her example as I grow, harvest, and share. I also save the seeds from an extra-good variety of pumpkin or squash and use them the next year.

One fall, the geraniums in my garden were especially beautiful. I couldn’t bear to see them killed by the frost, leaving me no choice but to purchase new plants in the spring, so I conspired with a friend to save them. I dug up the plants and potted them, and she watered and watched over them in her unused, daylit basement until spring, when we divided up the plants. That summer and in the years since, we have both had yards filled with geraniums from my original plants.

There is satisfaction in “making do.” It is a personal challenge to make my home as comfortable and beautiful as I can without buying new furniture, draperies, and accessories every few years. I’ve learned that the value of something is in how much happiness it brings us, not in how much it costs. Our sofa has been recovered three times—once before my husband’s mother gave it to us when we were first married, and twice since then. The sofa has survived two generations of children bouncing on it. And with the scraps left over from furniture reupholstering, I’ve begun to piece and quilt a wall hanging for our living room.

If we run out of toothpaste, my children and I make the same baking-soda-and-salt dentifrice Mother used to make when I was a child. The soda cleaned our teeth and the salt helped heal any sores in our mouths. The hand-me-down recipe reminds my children of the reality of the day-to-day life their grandparents led, and it also saves me a trip to the store for just toothpaste.

I clip coupons. Grandma Sarah would have loved coupons. The chance to save a few pennies is irresistible to a confirmed penny-pincher. The first thing my son asks when we get to the grocery store is, “Can I hold the coupons this time?” Some clerks chuckle when he hands over the scrunched coupons he has been clutching, and some roll their eyes, but no matter. He is learning how to get more for his money in an expensive world.

It is a mistaken modern assumption that our quality of life is directly related to how much we can buy and how much we pay for it. The quality of life is not dictated by how little or how much we have to spend. Living providently is often a matter of desire more than it is of money.

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard D. Hull

Brenda Taylor Peterson, a homemaker and writer, teaches Sunday School in the Kennewick Seventh Ward, Kennewick Washington Stake.