The first time Mabel Fenn babysat for us, we returned to a dark house; a single light appeared as we pulled up. It was 1961, out beyond the suburbs. Mabel and her husband Seely, our nearest neighbors but a quarter-mile down a wooded road, were in their 70s. We, young, couldn’t afford a TV yet.
“Were you sitting in the dark?” I asked.
I didn’t want to ask if she’d been asleep, but contrived to ask why she hadn’t left a light on.
“Warn’t readin’. Didn’t want to waste electricity.”
A large woman, a true New England Yankee, she babysat our kids for several years. Until we got a TV set, we always came back to a dark house.
Frugality was in the Fenns’ bones. Their farmhouse hadn’t changed much since a grandparent had been born there. Power had come a decade earlier, I would learn, but they’d hooked up only three years ago. A television tempted them, but the clincher was that they could freeze the food they grew and raised. She’d always canned. That needed wood for the stove, boiling water, and jars that were getting expensive. Freezing would be more economical.
Their daughter helped pick out a freezer, and gave them an electric stove so Mabel wouldn’t have to fire up the wood stove and roast the whole kitchen in July.
And also so that Seely—a small, wiry man—wouldn’t have to cut so much cordwood. They had several acres of rear woodland, as we did, that had been harvested clean a century ago when firewood went for a good price in New York City. The land had then been farmed for a while –the remains of stone walls pockmarked the woods – but now was thick with second-growth oak, maple and pine. Seely worked alone out there, felling with an axe, somehow managing a two-man saw to make stove-size logs brought home in his wheelbarrow.
One September day, Mabel appeared with a peck of russet pears for us. We resisted the gift; she insisted. We offered to buy them; she wouldn’t think of selling to neighbors. She finally explained the problem: She already had thirty quarts of pears in the basement, and a dozen packets more in the freezer. They probably wouldn’t live to eat all that, but if we wouldn’t take these pears she’d have to preserve them. “Couldn’t let ‘em go to waste.”
We took them.
We had a garden, too; we harvested and froze its bounty—using several electric gadgets. I cut wood for the fireplace that warmed our living room—with a chain saw.
Although we couldn’t match the Fenns’ frugality, we at least began being careful to turn out unused lights.
We moved back into city a few years later. The Fenns died not long after. That was decades ago. We still burnish their memories in little ways – like assiduously turning out lights that serve no purpose.
Waste not, want not, Mabel Fenn used to say.