Posted 8/18/21

WOODWORKING BY DAVE WOOD You never can tell Every month when we get our Visa card bill, I fight off fainting when the balance pops up, usually exceeding the reparations levied by the allies on the …

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You never can tell

Every month when we get our Visa card bill, I fight off fainting when the balance pops up, usually exceeding the reparations levied by the allies on the fallen German state in 1919, the burden of which led to World War II.

If only, I think, we could duplicate the thriftiness of our families' earlier generations. That thriftiness is legion in both Ruth's and my progenitors. Both sides were so afraid of debt that my father, for instance, never bought anything after the 1929 crash until he could pay cash for it. That included 10-year-old cars and even our house, a very modest abode indeed.

When my Grandmother Wood died, I was put in charge of examining her kitchen supplies, over which she supervised with a gimlet eye.

Several artifacts that still stick in my mind were the multitudes of string balls she had scrupulously saved after shopping for years at Sam Galstad's butcher shop, where they wrapped her purchases with pink paper, secured by a string. Each string Grandma tied to the end of the ball she was currently amassing. There were several balls of short strands carefully tied together with square knots. In the kitchen drawers where cheap cutlery reposed, there were knives that she had been using since her marriage to Grandpa in 1907. Using and sharpening, cutting and using and sharpening again until what was left of the blades resembled petrified tinfoil.

My stepmother was cut from the same Scandinavian mold. When she died, I cleaned out the kitchen. She had saved every iteration of Tupperware storage containers known to man. Apparently that wasn't enough, for perched in a cupboard next to several Tupperware popsicle molds were stacks of neatly piled Redi-Whip cartons, washed and reserved to store dabs of potato salad and five sardines from her last King Oscar splurge. Or a blob of quivering lime Jell-O with miniature marshmallows.

Back to Grandma and Grandpa. In the cupboard sat a pound of black pepper—a 1907 wedding present from neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. John Sygulla. Before she passed, Grandma told me that giving pepper was a typical Polish wedding present. The Wood family never ate the stuff, not even on eggs, but they, by God, didn't throw it away because “you never can tell….”

One evening my father reminisced about making wood to sell to the neighbors during the Depression.

“What wood?” I asked.

“Oh, when father sold the farm in 1928, he kept 40 acres of woodland so he would never have to buy wood for the cookstove and furnace. ”Because you never can tell…”

Great Grandpa was a prosperous merchant and farmer. When he moved off the farmstead, he built a barn behind his town house, so he could keep a cow to provide milk for his family which had stopped growing 40 years before. He also bought several acres on the edge of town to pasture his bovine. It fell to my 12-year-old father to lead the cow to pasture which is now Numbers 1 and 2 fairways of the present Whitehall golf club. The milk from the milking shorthorn began to pile up. And so, then it became dad's job to pour the excess milk into syrup pails to sell to the townies who hadn't the foresight to bring their own cow to town. Or have their own site for a golf course!

“Ten cents a pail,” dad recalled ruefully.

After my grandpa died, my father worried that grandma might have an accident with the old Beaver Dam woodburning cookstove. So he bought her a brand new electric stove. Grandma sniffed and said, “Put the old stove in the summer kitchen. You never can tell about these new stoves. One thing for sure, I can't bake lefse on the surface of this new stove.” Out the behemoth of cast iron went to the summer kitchen, where it stood until Grandma joined her husband Up There. But you never can tell.

I remember all these legends with pleasure and a good deal of shame. And then I polish up my Visa card to go out on a spending spree, because you never know when the world will end. You never can tell.

Dave Wood is a semi-retired journalist who grew up in Whitehall, Wis. He currently lives in River Falls, with his wife Ruth Pirsig Wood.