'Making do' was something they did all their lives

Susan Manzke
Susan’s parents, Isabelle and Chuck, outside their trailer after moving out of Chicago.

I’ve been thinking about my parents. This April would have been the 100th anniversary of their births, born 10 days apart in 1923. Their lives were challenging as money was tight during the Great Depression. Every day they had to make do.

Dad told me how he had a terrible cold one winter. His mother’s remedy was to rub his chest with Vicks. When he felt better, his mother stopped him from going outside to play in the snow with his friends. “You are sick,” she said. He told her he would be fine and pointed to his nose. He had a glob of Vicks on the tip of his nose. Nothing would happen to him, after all, he was using her cure-all.

When shoe soles wore thin, Dad’s family used cardboard inside the shoe to cover the holes.

Making do was something that Dad did all his life. I remember when the sole of one of his gardening shoes came loose, Dad called it his musical shoe because it flapped noisily when he walked.

Eventually, the shoe was almost unusable, but Dad wasn’t finished with it. Dad brought out the duct tape and wrapped it around the shoe. The problem was solved, for a while at least.

Everyone who grew up in the Depression had ways to make things last. Mom would reuse tea bags two or three times, far past the time they gave off any flavor. One relative hung used tea bags in her kitchen window. After they dried the tea bags were ready to use again. The string of hanging tea bags was a mainstay in her kitchen, almost a decoration. One good thing about those tea bags was that she never shared them with her friends.

Food was something that could be stretched for the family, especially when it came to soup. If an unexpected visitor arrived, more water was added to the soup pot, and everyone ate.

Cheap cuts of meat were also on the menu. One special food was oxtail soup. Sometimes those bones could be bought for pennies a pound. Even when I was a child, I loved Dad’s oxtail soup. The best part was sucking the meat off the bones.

Throughout history, people learned to make food they learned to love by using every part of an animal. Headcheese was something Bob’s mom would make. Too bad for my late husband, that was never something I would make for him.

Susan started her country life at age three.

When I was a child, money was tight, too. My parents couldn’t just go to the store to buy new boots for my sister and me. Mom slipped our feet into Wonder Bread plastic bags to keep our feet dry in our old boots and sent us out to play. The bags worked unless the bags also sprung a leak.

Socks came in handy in the winter and not just to cover our feet. If gloves became too holey, socks were drafted to take their place. The trouble was that there were no thumbs in the socks. That didn’t stop us from romping in the snow with our sock gloves. We learned to make do, too.

My friend, Joyce, shared a saying she heard from a co-worker, “I have been doing so much with so little for so long that now I can do anything with nothing.” I think that sums up how people feel when coping with empty wallets.

My late husband Bob was the king of make-do. He would take two broken pieces of farm machinery, weld, and bolt parts of each together, and then take the ‘new’ machine out to the field again and put it to work—Bob was quite the engineer of the old and rusted.

I hope if you ever must make do, you dare to give it a try. It might end up being the best thing you have ever done. And then at the end of a hard day, maybe you’ll be treated to a hearty bowl of oxtail soup, but hopefully not a reused tea bag.

Susan Manzke, Sunnybook Farm, N8646 Miller Rd, Seymour, WI 54165;;;