The Folks Save Money
Although stalwart, brave and true, my father was a frugal man
My brothers and sisters and I lived our childhood as though we had been shipwrecked on a desert island and had to survive dependent only on what we found or manufactured ourselves. This, despite the reality that we lived in a completely normal plat in a smallish town and my parents both earned above average incomes.
My father’s frugality eventually infected my mother and grew into a full blown folie a deux. Their fondest daydream was that they would be able to imprint their own ideals of thrift and industry into us in order to offset the corruption that a modern consumer society was making on our young but still malleable minds. To this end, my folks decided that from our earliest days we needed to be cognizant of the fact that in this world there is no free lunch. And so they created the Donnelly Family Meeting.
Saturday morning was the appointed day for the weekly accounting and reconciling of the fiscal health of our larger than median size family unit. (I had three brothers and two sisters and was the fourth child, smack in the middle of the unbroken Boy-Girl-Boy-Girl-Boy-Girl symmetry of our birth order.) Despite good intentions, more often than not these family treasury meetings resulted in some sort of pecuniary misadventure.
For example, there was the time that in order to economize on warm winter clothing, my father bought my mother a knitting machine and we all ended up looking like a large matching set of human tea cosies. When my siblings and I mounted a successful protest against this assault to our collective dignity, she turned to knitting curtains, bedspreads, pot holders,and tablecloths- basically anything based on a square or a rectangle. Late into the night we would hear the sound of her shuttle being thrown back and forth as she made yet another sofa cover or afghan.
“It’s Raggedy Ann and Andy’s house!” said one of my first grade friends on the occasion of my inaugural sleepover party. My mother had scored a coup on an abandoned shipment of two shades of yarn and the current motif of her interior design scheme was heavily dependent on bright red and white stripes. Please note that my classmate’s comment was made in approval since these were the days before Mean Girls and cynicism permeated the elementary schools.
My parents investigated buying a larger house with acreage and acquiring a herd of alpacas in order to bring down the cost of the skeins for my mother’s projects. Since her yarn was the end product from the wool of industrially farmed animals, likely spun by prison slave labor and sold by a warehouse store at a loss (volume!), they reluctantly concluded that any savings were unlikely.
Where was I going with this? Oh, right — my father’s call to action for us to throw off the shackles of the blood-sucking, budget-destroying monopoly known as The Happyville Electric Company *
(*Ironic pseudonym due to constraints placed on our family’s Freedom of Speech by the mediated settlement)
This was not a new thought, this had been his goal since the day the first bill made its appearance right after moving into the house. After calling the utility to complain, the customer service rep explained to my father that the bill was completely correct, and that our little town and its electric co-op had somehow made themselves responsible for building a new nuclear power plant two states over that we would not even benefit from.
My father became maniacal about reducing our electrical use. He bought batteries in bulk, as in a dump truck backing up and spilling it’s payload of AAs and AAA s and Cs and Ds all over our driveway. He would stand outdoors by the electric meter alternately moaning and cursing as its usage numbers flew by in an unseeable blur.
The unstoppable juggernaut of the electric company and its parasitic hold over the family finances was a constant and ongoing issue in the Saturday economic summits. A new wrinkle had been added to our confabs — we were all to make an individual commitment to some concrete reduction in our extravagant, selfish, gluttonous lifestyle.
This immediately triggered a competition among the sibs to set the most ludicrous goal possible without triggering the irony meter of the adults and cluing them in that yes, we were kidding. Over time this became more and more difficult, much like an improv troupe with imperfect skills at maintaining straight faces when confronted by the antics of a fellow cast member.
The pressure was on- how exactly would each of us lower the electrical bill? My sister Candace was first up and scored an early point with her promise to convert to a propane curling iron.
“Do they make those?” asked my mother. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Oh yes. When we had that week-long outage in the last hurricane there was one girl in school whose hair still looked great and it turned out that was her secret.”
Next, my brother Drew pledged to only study by candlelight and my mother observed that “ A flashlight would be safer.”
Then my brother Douglas stood up and said “As God is my witness, I vow to conquer cold fusion”.
He was as fervent as Paul Muni playing the title role in The Story of Louis Pasteur. Perhaps a little too fervent. My father looked at him with narrowed, contemplative eyes, gauging his sincerity. Then abruptly, mind made up, he said, “You’re right Douglas. We need to examine this on a grander scale.”
A word to the wise — this is how your smart- assery can take off in unforeseen directions. The meeting was adjourned and in less than a week my father was talking to solar panel installers, wind turbine enthusiasts and a complete and total lunatic he found on Craigslist who wanted to set up stationary bikes in the basement.
The bikes would be manned by humans (as in me and my brothers and sisters) and the turning wheels would be connected to copper wiring connected to water filled tubes with propellers which would create a vortex/hurricane effect which would create something something something which would power our entire house.
“Now, for most people this would not work, because there would be too many man hours on the bicycles, but you my friends, with six children — perfect!” was Professor Tinfoil’s assessment of the potential in his summary to my parents.
We weren’t sure that we would be able to disabuse our mad neighborhood genius of our being his perfect guinea pigs except that Douglas (really, he is the smartest among us) convinced him that we all suffered from a congenital balance issue that caused us to fall off of every bicycle we had ever been placed on, stationary or not. He told Professor Marvel to consider crowdfunding, Shark Tank, and advertising in Catholic newspapers as avenues to consider pursuing to popularize his invention.
I am pleased to report that The Great Electric Reassessment was one of the few times when the folks’ plan to save money worked out. They found that their house was well suited for solar panels and after a knock-down drag out fight with the Homeowners Association, succeeded in having them installed and actually earned income from the surplus output generated.
As one of his set pieces in his later years, my father would lead guests to the side of the house and point to the electric meter and say “Look at that. See how it’s spinning ?”
They would stare in confusion at the static meter and say, “I don’t see anything.”
And my father would answer “Exactly. That’s my point.” And then he would launch into the glory of his solar panel system until they fell unconscious at his feet or my mother came out to rescue them, whichever happened first.
©Valerie Kittell, All Rights Reserved
About the Creator
I live in a seaside New England village and am trying to become the writer I always wanted to be. I focus on writing short stories and personal essays and I hope you enjoy my efforts. Likes and tips are very encouraging.
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