As I get older (I’m now in my sixth decade, children), I see Mom coming out in me more and more, in ways that I mocked at one time. The issue of used paper napkins, for one thing. It’s important for you to first know that my mother never bought paper towels. That’s right. For much of her adult life NO PAPER TOWEL ever purchased. Instead, she saved used paper napkins in a tan plastic bucket under the sink, and used those instead of paper towel for the quick mop-up of a small spill. I didn’t give this much thought when young because it was just what went on at our house, but as an adult I sneered at my mother’s penny-pinching ways. In her case, the napkin reuse was 1) because the napkins were still perfectly good for a second use, and also 2) saved money. Not that we needed to save money, since my father was quite successful professionally and financially, and my mother could have bought paper towel by the carload. Mom’s philosophy came from the Great Depression–You Never Know When It Might Strike Again–and Dad’s was from the Great Depression–Hurray! We’re OK! Buy Paper Towels! Oddly, Mom was the one with a stable family income as a child, and Dad was poor in Brooklyn. Explain, in 300 words or less.
Once I was grown and with a family of my own, I began to observe my mother’s habits, compare them with most people, and found some of hers were rather odd, including the no-paper-towel rule. This lead to me noticing that her paper napkin was always the cleanest and therefore had the most potential for mopping up–she shone in the Clean Napkin Club. I’m sure this helped Mom feel like the good person she wanted to be (and still is–not that she believes it). Once I watched Mom, after a large family dinner, sorting through the paper napkins–keep, throw out (she did have standards), keep, throw out, etc.–but hers was definitely the least used and most pristine. I said to Mom, “You try not to use your napkin so it’s the cleanest at the table, don’t you.” Mom began to laugh and at the same time stuck her tongue out at me, a sure sign that I had hit a bulls-eye. This story became part of the Weird Mom lore that we siblings enjoyed telling, to roars of laughter. Another such story was that Mom would bring a towel to the beach but drip-dried rather than use the towel after a dip so she didn’t get the towel wet–that way she didn’t have to go the trouble of drying it. See? [thanks to Local Sister for the towel story]
I, therefore, wanting to be like most people, and to convince myself that I was sane (I’m not), broke the family mold; I bought and used paper towel with abandon, though I still heard a tiny bell ringing that I was, after all, not following one of Mom’s habits. Hers were perfect, mine were not, but they were MINE, darn it! I stayed in paper-towel rebellion for years. Things change, however, and that change played into all my worst anxieties. It was Going Green, in which I earnestly believe. As a first step toward Greenery, I bought reusable grocery bags (do you leave yours in the car when you shop? Me too). Next I bought some cloth napkins to use at dinner. So far, so good. Then my attention turned sharply to paper towel. Did I need to use so many? With how many had I already loaded the landfill? [Vreet! Vreet! (violins of horror)] I looked at the paper napkins we still use [vreet! vreet!] in their basket on the kitchen table. Ding! I’d feel LESS guilty using them if I saved them afterward, under the sink (sadly, no tan bucket), and my guilty insides said “phe-e-e-w-w-w.” After all, this was “reuse,” part of the Green Creed. I not only saved, but used these old, still-useful napkins, sometimes more than once! Damp napkins WILL dry out, you know. Then they are ready to pick up more coffee spills. Genius.
Recently, I had to revisit my approach to Being Green in the used-napkin department. Our kitchen faucet was acting up, and needed repair. We needed a plumber, and this meant he (or she!) would need to get under the kitchen sink and this also meant we needed to clean out under the kitchen sink or face enormous humiliation and worry that the plumber would go home and tell his family about the horror of our under-sink area. My husband and I pulled out: towels for cleaning dog piddle in the carpet (Tipper’s been dead for four years), old bottles of almost-gone dog shampoo, empty cartons of sink scrub, old ant traps, and yes, old napkins ready to save a paper towel. Not a couple. Not 20. No, a veritable Mt. Everest of old napkins that had been buried with other detritus under the sink during the past five years or so. I was clearly a nutty old lady, much like–yes–my mother. If my children had been there, I’m sure they would have been able to add this foolishness to their Weird Mom stories–not that there are any! I gathered up the mound of paper napkins and threw them away. In the trash. Without stressing. They are, after all, biodegradable.