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The coronavirus makes oddballs of us all

A grandmother’s frugal habits have begun to make sense.

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff;Adobe

Yikes. I think I’m becoming my grandmother.

When she turned 100 back in 2001, her grandchildren held a birthday celebration that included some good-natured teasing. Those were the days of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and part of our program was a list: “The top 10 things we’ve learned from Nammie.”

As someone who had lived through World War I, as a teenager, and the Great Depression and World War II as a mother, she had acquired a few quirks and quiddities. And not, we thought, too few to mention.

Belt-tightening times had made her frugal. She wasn’t cheese-sparing, exactly, but servings of things that had been in short supply in her formative years tended toward the tiny. Take orange juice. She had a collection of breakfast glasses that an Old West bartender wouldn’t have used for whiskey for fear of getting a thumping from a thirsty cattleman. Which gave birth to one of our jokes:

“Always have a thimbleful of orange juice with your Corn Flakes.”


But my favorite was this: “You can never have too many old bread bags,” an allusion to one of her hoarding habits. When a loaf was gone, she’d wash the bag, hang it to dry on the kitchen rack, then fold it into a neat rectangle and add it to the long rows of others in a kitchen drawer.

Why did she keep them, we’d ask as kids.

"You never know when you’ll need one,” she’d reply.

How many were there? Let’s put it this way: If she had been Snow White packing lunches for the Seven Dwarfs to carry along to the mine, her bread-bag stash would have provided safe, disposable lunch transport for the duration of their diamond-culling careers. Even if Doc and Dopey had insisted on having their carrot snacks packed separately.


She was food frugal, too. Should a meal end with a leaf or two of lettuce submerged like a sleepy-eyed alligator in the homemade vinaigrette, she would store that away in the refrigerator (or icebox, as she sometimes called it), for those middle-of-the-night moments when one wakes from a deep sleep with a sudden urge to chomp down on a vinegar-soaked vegetable morsel.

Nammie died 15 years ago, at 104, setting a family record that doesn’t always bring a look of complete joy to my wife’s face when I extrapolate from my grandmother to myself. She attributed her longevity to the peace of mind that came with having hundreds of bread bags ready for any emergency that might arise.

No, I’m kidding. Nammie didn’t really claim a life-lengthening secret, though she would note that she liked to have a handful of cashews every afternoon. (It sometimes went unmentioned that she liked to chase those cashews down with a tall whiskey sour.)

Anyway, I was thinking about her the other day as I washed some Ziploc bags and spread them over coffee mugs to dry. Mind you, we still have some Saran Wrap left to stretch over the top of the little bowls containing the remnants of last night’s salad. Still, you never know when you’ll need a good Ziploc, particularly if it’s got that color-coding that signals when it’s sealed up tight.

Nammie was also careful with paper products, particularly tissues. If one had seen only light service, she was known to tuck it inside her bra if she thought no one was looking.


I never have to worry about doing that, thank the lord.

And yet, I expect someday a table of young people at a wedding will look my way and whisper to one another: “See that old bird? He just tore his napkin in two and put half of it in his pocket. I mean, hello, is there a shortage or something?”

Let’s hope there won’t be. But when it comes to napkin scraps, you never know when you’ll need one.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.