When my sister and I were growing up, we were never allowed to throw anything away. Outgrown clothing and shoes were regifted to family friends in need. We were middle class poor, which was different than poor-poor. Our parents could afford Catholic school, but Mom went years without buying herself a new dress, and dinner toward the end of the month meant Spam fried in shoyu and rice sprinkled with furikake, a savory-sweet mixture of dried seaweed, bonito flakes, and sesame seeds, for a little pizazz. (We didn’t mind this at all as Spam is a delicacy in Hawaii, but more on that later.)
We brought bags of carefully laundered jeans and puffy-sleeved blouses to a couple from church, who happily received them. They were even happy to get my old saddle shoes which I’d cleaned and polished until the scuffs hardly showed. The family lived in a tiny basement apartment that was long and narrow like a tunnel, with ancient robin’s egg blue paint that chipped and curled in the corners. There were two bedrooms for seven people. The five children slept all in one room, on mattresses on the floor which they’d pushed together to make one big bed. I imagined them curled up at night, puppy-like, and I felt a little nip of envy. I never thought it was sad or strange that they bought their clothes at the parish gift shop or that the little ones squealed over the roller skates that no longer fit me. We were sharing what we had. That’s what you did. In return, they gave us great blocks of orange government cheese, which I loved to eat with saltines.
When you’ve got parents who were born during the Great Depression and came of age during World War II, you learn a thing or two about making do with what you have, avoiding waste, and doing what’s necessary for the greater good – incidentally also values passed from generation to generation in Asian cultures. As children, we found it was difficult to appreciate this when say, the cheese has gone green and fuzzy on one end, but you can’t dispose of it while your dad is looking because he’ll just make you put it back.
“Eh, no throw that out. You cut off this part and then look – still good.”
It was a running joke that my father’s last words, after eating a bite of questionable tuna casserole, would be, “Still…good…”
I thought about how paradoxically intertwined these concepts of frugality and generosity from my parents’ generation were as I gazed at the emptied shelves at my local market the other day. I wondered what they’d think of all this. As I watched, a woman snatched the last can of baked beans out from under the reaching hand of a scruffy-looking gentleman who had no basket, just a fifth of Scotch tucked under his other arm like a football. She turned to hand it to her husband who was wheeling a heaping cart down the aisle toward us. Social distancing be damned. Before I realized what I was doing, I’d whisked the can from her grasp and handed it back to the bewildered man. “He had it first,” I said, smiling with all my teeth.
I grew up on stories of how my father saw the Japanese planes flying overhead that fateful December day in 1941, and how my grandfather came to get my mom and her brothers from children’s mass, right in the middle of the homily. We’d put on records of Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day and the Glen Miller Orchestra while my folks reminisced about the old days. They told us how coffee and sugar were rationed. Hawaiians, who love us some salty, fatty foods, developed a taste for Spam, since fresh meat was hard to come by. My great-aunts made deceptively strong pineapple swift liquor in their bathtubs, which was then consumed in great quantities at parties that took place inside homes where the windows were covered with blackout paper. You couldn’t even smoke a cigarette outside, my father said, because one tiny light could be seen for miles.
What stayed with me was the way their eyes lit up when they talked about those days. These were people who lived through scarcity and deprivation. They endured the uncertainty of attack from above by an enemy they never saw up close, but rather than devolving into a grab-what-you-can free-for-all of apocalyptic chaos, they drew closer together. They found purpose in sacrifice. And they thrived.
I understood that my father’s reluctance to discard any possibly-edible food came from eating school meals under the watchful eye of a soldier stationed near the lunch line in the cafeteria. He was there to make sure there was no funny business. A banner over the entrance read, “Take all you want. Eat all you take.” You didn’t waste. You didn’t hoard. But you would be fed.
These days, the very air feels as though it might be full of danger. And once again, it’s our job to endure, not just for our safety, but for the good of all. We can do it if we remember that we thrive together, and that one tiny light can be seen for miles.