It’s one of those writing prompts you find on the Internet: “What Single Word Describes You?” I am playing around with “honorable,” “intelligent,” and “caring,”—some word guaranteed to swell my chest with pride—when my son, David, wanders past my desk. So I ask him.
“Practicality,” he states immediately and firmly. “Practical, that’s what you are.”
If you look up “practicality” on Thesaurus.com, you find three synonyms: “common sense,” “horse sense” and “gumption.” And with that, I’m off.
My mother was 11 in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. In case you’ve forgotten your history lessons, I’ll give you some reminders of that time when Herbert Hoover was president and one in four Americans was out of work:
- “Hoovervilles” (housing built with crates, cardboard and metal scraps)
- “Hoover blankets” (old newspaper)
- “Hoover leather” (cardboard used to line shoes when soles wore through)
- “Hoover wagons” (cars with horses hitched to them because the owners, mostly farmers who had horses, could not afford gasoline)
My mother did not become homeless since her father was a doctor and, as she put it to me, “People get even sicker when they have no jobs and no homes.” Getting paid for doctoring was often difficult, but the family managed somehow. So the stories my mother told me about that time were about smaller privations.
“I remember a school year when I had no new shoes. I didn’t play much because my feet hurt in shoes that had fit me a year before. When Mother found out, she made a slit all across the top of each shoe—they were saddle shoes—just below where the brown and white parts of the shoe came together. She pulled the two parts of the shoe apart about an inch and put Scotch tape on them, which she got from the butcher in town. It didn’t make the soles longer, but I could push my foot into the shoe so that the white part would stick out in front further than the sole and my toes had more room.
I went to school happily after that. That is, until one of my classmates I didn’t like anyway came to school in shiny new patent leather Mary Janes. I went home and complained to Father, who said he also had a complaint. He had made house calls to that girl’s home several times that year and been told there was no money to pay him.
The next time Father had an emergency call from someone in Miss Mary Jane’s family, he came home with a huge basket of ripe peaches in his arms, dripping juice, and with a wagon full of very ripe fruit outside. The Mary Janes had no money, but they were farmers and they did have peaches. Everybody in our house had to drop whatever they were doing right away and break out the canning equipment. That year, we ate a whole lot of sweet canned peaches.”
It wasn’t deprivation that my mother remembered from those early years; it was pride. Her mother took initiative. Her father was resourceful.
The Great Depression wore on and on and was then followed immediately by World War II. I was a so-called “war baby,” born in 1943 two years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor when my father was on a few days’ leave from the European front and caught a flight home. My mother in Florida was on the “home front.”
My first diaper pins were given to my mother by a neighbor woman whose own child had just been potty trained. She and my mother and all the other mothers in America lent, traded or recycled not only diaper pins but also shoes; pots and pans; meat, butter, coffee and sugar and recipes without much meat, butter, coffee or sugar; buttons to sew on shirts and zippers for skirts, bobby pins and nylon stockings, … you name it, if it was available at all, it was rationed or in very short supply. The slogan from that time was “Use it up–Wear it out–Make it do.”
Rationing ended in 1946, when I was 3. By then, my mother had become so accustomed to making do that she continued for the rest of her life to save buttons and zippers and pieces of good cloth from old clothes. When I was six, she made me a sundress I still remember. It had a big red heart surrounded by pink lace. The heart covered my small chest, with the bottom point sewed onto the skirt. From the two top arcs of the heart, straps went over my shoulders, criss-crossed at my back, and fastened to the skirt at the waist in the back. The red heart top and skirt were a reincarnated old bathrobe (“use it up”). The pink lace was from a fancy apron that had become too tattered to wear (“wear it out”). The buttons used to fasten the straps to the heart had been on a shirt belonging to my father. (“make it do”). My mother had taken that old slogan to heart.
That was gumption!
I have to laugh when I see “horse sense” as the second main synonym for practicality.
When I was 6 years old, I was given a book on horses. Each chapter had a large picture of a beautiful horse and a page or two of interesting facts. I remember a graceful white Arabian with arched neck and tail; a team of black Percherons in harness, muscles rippling; high-stepping Lipizzaner stallions; a tall Tennessee Walker, very flashy; a Mustang galloping across the plains; and an American Quarter Horse called Traveler. I read the book until the pages wore out. I could quote it by heart.
I wanted a horse.
Every Saturday morning, I got my allowance—five cents times my age was an appropriate amount in in the 1940s. I watched each week as my friends and my brother spent their money on candy, chewing gum and cheap toys. By Monday, they had nothing. Meanwhile, my money almost always went straight into my piggy bank.
The first year, I saved 5 cents times 6 years old times 52 weeks, for a total of 15 dollars and 60 cents. By the end of the second year, I had added $18.20 and had $33.80 in total. And so forth, for four more years. In the final two years, relatives who asked me what I wanted for my birthday or for Christmas realized I was serious when I said, “money for my horse,” and that’s what they gave me.
By the time I was 11, I had learned a great deal about long-term goals, long-range planning and persistence. I had one hundred and forty-seven dollars and twelve cents, and I went shopping.
What I found was an extraordinary creature, a Tennessee Walker mare 17 hands tall with a shiny brown coat and a gleam in her eye. Wahini Lio was her name. I was told it means “Big Girl” in Hawaiian, though I don’t know why someone in Georgia would give a horse a Hawaiian name. When the man who owned her found out how long I had saved for her, he reduced her price from $160 to exactly $147.12 and threw in a bridle as well. I was in heaven.
Wahini and I explored miles and miles of Georgia countryside together. She was so big that without a saddle the only way I could mount her was to put her next to a fence, climb up and swing a leg over her from a precarious perch on top of a fence post. If we were about to go home after a long hot day on the road, she would practice her manners until I was ensconced on her back and then head home to the water trough. However, if we were only taking a break in the shade and the grass was wet and tasty, she might wait until the moment I was off balance and then step delicately aside, reaching her sinuous neck out toward a succulent blade of green — as though she didn’t even notice my predicament. When I brought it to her attention, usually at the top of my lungs, I swear she would grin at me.
Wahini and I had the time of our lives. I had her for just one year, until my father got transferred again to another military base. But a year is a long time when it is filled with memories that, 70 years later, still make me smile.
I remember my Wahini in full stride on a dirt road way away from everywhere, pounding the earth, freeing my soul. At such times, we became one creature with no other thought except speed.
I remember my Wahini in a storm, soaking and shivering. I had tried for an hour to get her to enter the little stable in the pecan orchard where she was corralled. No matter how much I cajoled, yelled or carried on, however, she planted her hooves firmly in the mud and refused to get even close to that scary thing over there. I gave up finally after I started shivering inside my raincoat. I trudged home and spent a miserable night in my warm dry bed. The next morning, I got up early and hauled a bucket of warm mash up to the corral. I found my girl in the stable with her head poking out at me looking completely self-satisfied. She had taken her time, overcome her fear and gotten warm and dry when she was good and ready.
One of my fondest memories of Wahini Lio is of a visit by the farrier. To shoe a horse, you begin by standing just behind one of its hind legs, facing away from the horse. Then you lift that hind leg, bending it at the hock, and you crouch and place the foot and hoof, upside down, just above your knees. You hold the foot in place by pressing your knees together.
So there is he is, the farrier, crouching awkwardly, examining a hoof—and my Wahini gets that gleam in her eye. Before my mother or I can say a word, she nonchalantly lifts her other foot off the ground. This leaves the farrier holding close to 400 pounds of a horse’s entire back end between his knees. I do my thing; I yell at her. She grins and holds her position. The farrier panics, and he yells. My mother runs for a nearby bucket of pecans, shoves a handful under her nose and yells, “You put your foot down, you get pecans.”
Wahini puts her foot down. The farrier groans in relief. My mother and I feed pecans to this silly horse until the shoeing is done.
How’s that for horse sense?
Grown up, common sense prevails.
Common sense tells you that a two-mile walk in 12-degree weather saves 18 cents bus fare. That adds up to 90 cents each week, which is the price of a pound of hamburger (49 cents) and a loaf of bread (39 cents). Besides, it’s interesting resting afterward in an apartment that’s getting warmer now that the heater is turned on. The baby kicks to tell you he liked the exercise and stayed nice and warm in the womb. Your hands tingle as feeling comes back. It’s kinda fun.
Common sense tells you, when you’ve lost your job and have three kids to feed, that the pretty bowl that sat on the kitchen counter until this morning is pretty unimportant. With the money you got for selling it to the neighbor, you can do dinners for a week. Monday, you can fix your cottage-cheese based mac n’ cheese, which will give everybody leftovers on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday, you can fry up a pound of burger and add brown rice, millet, onions, celery and a can of mushroom soup. That’ll do everybody for two more days. The rest of the week, brown rice and black beans with hot dogs cut up and mixed in will have to do. Sometimes, you’d like to scream at the kid who complains about not having his hot dog in a bun and goes around snarling about steak. But no screaming. You may feel used up sometimes, worn out, but the kids shouldn’t know that life can be this make-do. Life should be fun for a kid.
Common sense tells you the third time you try to move a household with three children that the fewer things you have, the fewer things you have to move. The thirteenth time you move, moving has become a science, not one wasted action, not one thing moved that isn’t needed. By the twenty-third time, well, you can no longer lift a dresser by yourself, but it has been kinda fun evaluating, discarding, packaging and getting it all just right in a new place.
Common sense tells you after the divorce that if you just stay calm, you can regain the money, the house, the furniture and everything else you had to give him to get rid of him. Move once again. Keep your self-respect. Keep on working. Keep on keeping on, as the saying goes. It’ll take 10 years, but it’s only a decade. And if it’s not fun, at least it’s the right thing to do, and you can be proud of yourself for doing it.
Eventually, common sense tells you that fun itself can be dispensed with. So you dispense with it. You are that tired. At this point, fun seems frivolous, stupid, unnecessary. The only things you want are the things you need, and you’re proud of this.
This is common sense carried to an uncommon extreme.
It occurs to me that practicality as I’ve described it in this piece is concerned almost solely with money and things. This is probably OK; I think that when my son identified me as the practical one in my family, he meant that:
- I don’t like to spend money on things I don’t need.
- I don’t care much about things.
But these are two negative statements. Let’s see what happens if I turn them around and make them more positive:
- I like spending money on things I need.
- I care more about people, ideas and feelings than I do about things.
Hey, that makes practicality sound positive.
Now let’s see what happens if I turn positive practicality around, make it negative? Oh dear! Thesaurus.com lists some awful antonyms: ignorance, inability, ineptness, stupidity, foolishness, unreasonableness and insanity.
OK, practical it is.
My chest swells. Can you see it?