Thursday, 13 October 2011

When Foraging becomes too Thrifty

Three cliffs bay on the Gower

I am visiting Oldmasock who is a tad demented.  She has been out foraging.. nicking a couple of heads off a neighbour's 'interesting' coloured hydrangea for her dried flower arrangement in the hall.  Later, when I take her out shopping, she spots a poster outside the wine merchant's advertising 'Free tasting'. By the time I realise she is no longer standing next to me she is already sampling her second glass. "And my daughter will have a glass of the red" she announces to the startled young man serving her as I enter the shop. Too late to disown her completely I turn to him with big sad-dog eyes and say "I was adopted" by way of explanation.  I knock back the proffered wine in one.

It makes me smile when people talk about foraging for food as if this was some new, exciting discovery.  A rediscovery perhaps - but  for me  a glorious childhood was filled with frequent trips out onto the beautiful Gower Peninsula, an area burgeoning with free fish and food.  I have previously written of our fishing trips, returning home with a booty of lobsters, crabs, prawns, mackerel, sole, bass, whitebait and more.  No autumn day out complete without stopping to pick blackberries for jam, hazel nuts to nibble, rosehips for syrup, nettles for soup.  My parents knew where the tastiest wild mushrooms grew on Oxwich head, the puffballs in the pinewoods near the sandy stretches of Llanmadoc, the wild damson tree my brother and I climbed to pick the tastiest plums from the top branches.  Samphire, sorrel, sloes, all made their way into our baskets for baking and bottling.

But there was another side to this coin - OldMaSock's obsession with thrift. No new tube of toothpaste could be opened until the last one squeezed, rolled, cut open to scrape the last tiny morsel of paste onto your brush.  No Heinz tomato sauce finished until the last splot tipped out and the bottle flushed with a small amount of milk leaving a thin, pinkish, liquid with floating globules of red clotted sauce to pool under the fish and chips.  OldMaSock's favourite lunch out a Carvery in the days when you could return time and time again to the buffet to slice off pieces of turkey, ham or beef. Until the restaurants realised there were too many OldMaSocks around carving off turkey legs and sneaking them into their handbags for a later meal, the trophy turkey invariably tainted with the taste of the plastic bag it was sneaked out in.

And "Waste not Want Not"! A fine maxim if not carried too far where every single thing on the plate must be eaten.  How many lumps of meat fat did I swallow whole to avoid chewing on the repulsive stuff. How many scraps of unwanted food ended up in the hankie on my lap, to be scrunched up and then flushed down the toilet when no-one was looking.  I once told my astonished 6th form friends at Grammar School that I was still being force fed food... they didn't believe me until I produced from my pocket a tissue wrapped piece of congealed bacon fat not yet disposed of from that days breakfast.

I could write a book of tales of OldmaSock's obsession with saving food - and maybe one day I will. What started as thrifty foraging has gradually become worse over the years and is now a genuine OCD.  Despite being quite well off OldmaSock is a miser refusing to spend money on herself or her needs.  I always take meals on visits as her fridge is full of food scraps of indeterminate age which she refuses to part with.  Luckily OldmaSock is still very active and goes to three different church lunch clubs during the week which ensures she is well fed.  Each church club a different denomination - she changes her beliefs to fit the day - I have to hope she doesn't join the Jehovah's just for the lunches.

Whilst I am there we make a trip to Marks and Spencers so I can stock her freezer up with nice meals she can microwave to death (as she does all her meals, jumping up from the table several times throughout the meal to reheat the food).  "Are there any free tastings here?" she asks an unwary assistant. I try to persuade her to buy some new clothes or let me buy them for her but she is horrified at the idea and won't have it.

Later my brother phones as requested with a list of tasks for me to take care of to ensure things run as smoothly as possible for our mother.  The phone is on the hall and after a short time OldmaSock starts hovering around fretting. "You don't need to worry" I tell her, exasperated "BroSock is paying for the phone call!"  She disappears but a chasm of anxiety is opening up inside me.  I so hate it when she does this, a reminder of all those times she interrupted my chats to friends after two minutes. Or when I left home and she called me, setting an alarm clock next to her phone so that she could cut me off after the allocated five minutes.  In the days before mobile phones I once rang her from a phone box on Hove seafront, the wind and rain howling round the booth as I poured out some sorry tale of boyfriend woe and misery.. just as I reached the climax of my angst the alarm went and she cut me off... my five minutes were up!

Now thirty years on you would think I'd be over it but I'm not and I never will be.  As BroSock is telling me how to turn her heating to its winter setting I know she is hovering behind the lounge door, the doorhandle moving occasionally as she decides between the knowledge she will upset me and the need to stop the dreadful waste of money on the phone call.  Finally she bursts onto the hall jumping up and down like an agitated monkey, jabbing at her watch in a frenzy and motioning me to put the phone down. "For God's sake you're not paying for the call" I snap.  "You've been on for fifteen minutes" she retorts pettishly.  "Yes fifteen minutes of discussing how best we can help you - I don't know how you can be so incredibly rude!" my voice is raised.  "My house - my phone!" she snaps like a spoiled child. The ball of rage explodes in my head and I slam the phone down in mid-sentence. It's all I can do not to jump in my car and drive straight back to Brighton.  I want to throttle her but manage to walk away until I have calmed down. When I do speak to her it is merely to gently say to the spoiled child "That really was very naughty of you - I am quite cross."   The matter is dropped and I say no more - she won't remember the incident anyway as her short-term memory is shot to pieces and she is old and vulnerable now and there is no point being angry with her.  

In some ways OldmaSock was an original Eco-champion, foraging off the land, recycling wherever possible, growing the food for her family. Much to be admired.  But what started as a post-war cost consciousness and need to be thrifty has gradually over the years become an overwhelming necessity to economise.  

Beware you thrifty foragers less you end up with the madness of OldmaSock!


VP said...

This is so close to my reality it hurts. I wish was brave enough to write about it like you, but I can't for now.

Three Cliffs Bay is my favourite :)

Jane said...

Sad. So sad. But the only thing to do is laugh, I guess. I miss my parents dreadfully, but — oh yes — I am so thankful that I don't have to deal with this kind of thing. Both were champion foragers, food hoarders and dumpster divers.

Alex M said...

I found this really moving. The image of that ketchup is going to take some shifting - yuck!

EWG said...

This brought back memories of my grandmother - always beautifully dressed- because her clothes were so ancient they were made before people realised they could just sell any old thing. I started writing some of her old hoarding habits but just couldnt put it out in the public domain, your blog nails it though.
Ursula x

Plant Mad Nige said...

Well, now you've gone and done it. You've actually made me cry!

I was listening to one of Strauss's Four Last Songs, as I clicked on your post, so was emotionally vulnerable anyway. And it's only a couple of weeks since my brother and I finally persuaded our ailing mother to move into a retirement home.

We've SO been there. The phone calls, which she refuses to believe are inexpensive these days, the antedeluvian scraps in the fridge, not to mention bread so old it's gone past the green and furry. And the 1940s meanness, once essential; now become obsessive and self-destructive - all there in our mother, too.

Foraging is great. We also always knew - know - where the best wild damsons are, where to find the best mushrooms, where to drag for rock prawns and so on.

A sublime piece of writing. Thank you.

GardeningGolfer said...

Hhmm! Done the tooth paste thing! Personally I prefer to rinse out the ketchup container with water into a tomato based stew. It needs to be washed for recycling so no point in wasting it!

Arabella Sock said...

Thank you so much for your comments.
I was hesitant to post this blog as I have no wish for it to look like sneering at OldMaSock and her values. In many ways I have been envious of her and my father, they travelled extensively and did what they wanted to do throughout life. They had no particular desire for the material things that dominate the lives of so many of us now including myself. OldMaSock's slogan has always been "I'm alright, Jack" and she has always ensured that she has been alright and feels that she has had the best of lives. It is easy for me to criticise - she got the life she wanted and few of us can say the same.

Alison Levey said...

This reminds me so much of my increasingly difficult relationship with my mother, her quaint old fashioned views have become quite difficult for me to deal with now and it's hard because it's not that I don't care it's just difficult to deal with. Both sad and scary as I wonder what my relationship with my children will become. Thank you for this touching and thoughtful post.

Rhonda said...

I so get this. I was lucky with my mother only doing the foraging part; I'll always treasure our blackberry picking and to this day, I cannot leave free fruit unharvested.
However my father is in the thrift category and it is truly maddening sometimes.
Hang in there and keep up the beautiful writing.

MarkD said...

Brilliant as ever...thank you for telling. The olds eh....and if we're lucky we get to be one

anjacouto said...

Must be something in the lovely Gower air - know only too well the challenges of coping with this sort of impossibility. One can smile afterwards, but at the time it is hard not to let the frustration spill out like a waterfall (I've had more than my share of cloudbursts lately as you can probably tell). I love that you are writing about it though - please keep doing so. These memories are prescious, even though they are so sad.

Simon said...

Lovely piece.

I had a rather flippant (& possibly insensitive) thought, but would you care to swap Sock Snr for a parent who is alike in many respects (memory loss etc) but who, once thrifty like many of their generation, is now absurdly & inappropriately generous.

Around MOT time garages love her, furniture salesmen rely on her for their foreign holidays, friends love to dine out with her (she pays) - in short something of an easy touch; thrift having been replaced by lonely gullibility.

Despite this & the heartache it can cause we still love our parents, although at times this may feel more through duty than emotion.

BTW I didn't sense "sneering" just a sympathetic honesty.

Anonymous said...

With you there luv. Sadly my last visit to my mum was also riven with the thrift of human kindness as she complains endlessly about the disturbance & inconvenience of the friends and McMillan Nurses visiting dying 45yr old neighbour. And I had to use the 35yr old towel that's been ironed to death so it's like cardboard. same again next month sharing helps, don't worry

Lia Leendertz said...

Not sneering at all. Very affectionate and honest: sometimes people drive us crazy but your love and admiration of her comes through all the more for it not being a rose-tinted retelling. Lovely x

elaine said...

Rather than make me sad I thought it had just the right touch of humour - see sounds like a game 'old bird' to me.

Anne Wareham said...

When my Dad died we had to empty the attic of endless ancient tins of food, bags of sugar, toilet rolls - you name it. The spare room had already been cleared of the same..

All hoarded against the Apocalypse.

A powerful reflection of very different lives.

My deepest sympathy for what you're coping with so compassionately.

Helen/patientgardener said...

Whilst my parents drive me mad at least I dont have this to contend with. However, I do envy the education you had as a child learning to find mushrooms, etc. I never had that we had a processed food upbringing and I feel a huge gap in my knowledge.
It sounds like on the surface you deal with it very well but dont let it get to you too much inside

Arabella Sock said...

Rhonda.. there must be something incredibly special about blackberry picking I remember such happy afternoons of family activity.

EWG - OldmaSock only hoards food and old horrible clothes. Other than that she has pretty much cleared out the house of stuff she didn't want which unfortunately included quite a few of my things left there. I did get my own back by telling her that the various toys in good condition she had chucked could have been sold for a fortune on Cash in the Attic!!

Plantmadnige - yes, the green furry bread in OldmaSock's fridge had to be disposed of too.

Simian - we should lock your Ma and mine in a room together with £500 and let them fight it out for who gives and who saves! My money's on OldmaSock she is incredibly strong willed. Luckily she has never had anything of great value to be ripped off over although she has sold everything she can including my Dad's camera equipment which I told her I wanted as a keepsake.

Anonymous - I took all the towels and stuff to the laundrette as her machine is broken and she won't cope with a new one. Two totally threadbare tea towels and a hand towel were left in the laundrette bin!

Lou said...

Gosh, we're just starting on that journey with one parent and this was written perfectly. An image in a mirror - it has made the situation clearer.

I look at trees that I haven't quite managed to empty of fruit to magically transform into jam or somesuch.... can't quite convince myself that the birds/creatures need food too!! Must get a grip!