Rinsing out baggies (and other ways Mom was ahead of her time)

Plastic bags drying

When I was growing up, I always feared that when my friends came over, they would notice what was hung out to dry on the clothesline in our backyard.

It wasn’t just that my mom, who was almost a full generation older than many of my friends’ mothers, wore the world’s most inelegant underclothes (think yellowed long-line bras, hideous girdles with dangling garters, and opaque tan support stockings) or that, in the interest of thrift, we continued to use our sheets and towels until they were faded and ratty.

No, the real embarrassment of our backyard clothesline came from my mom’s practice of washing out plastic bags and hanging them up to dry.

Bread bags, sandwich bags, cereal bags—there was no such thing as a “single-use plastic bag” in my mother’s vocabulary. That remarkable invention, Ziploc bags, first appeared in 1968, and it’s quite possible that when my mom died in 2004, she was still using and reusing the first box she ever bought.

“Rinsing out baggies” became code for all of her penny-pinching habits—she also saved and reused twist ties, bread bag tabs, envelopes, coffee cans, peanut butter jars, and yogurt containers.

In later years, living alone, she turned off lights and appliances whenever she wasn’t using them, and even regularly traipsed down to the basement to shut off the circuit breaker for her electric water heater. (“I’ve found I only need to turn it on about every second or third day,” she said of the water heater. “The second shower is kind of lukewarm, but I don’t mind.”)

And she used a serrated knife to slice new rolls of paper towels across the middle before putting them on the dispenser because she had figured out, long before the “select-a-size” marketing people did, that half a sheet is almost always all you need.

As mortifyingly embarrassing as all of these practices were when I was an adolescent, not only did they eventually become a source of pride for her adult kids (our mom was an environmentalist before it was cool!), but now we do many of the same things in our own homes. (Steve’s peanut butter jar collection is legendary.) Well, maybe not the water heater circuit breaker thing, but I bet at least one of us environmentally conscious cheapskates has experimented with a timer. (I suspect you, Greg.)

It turns out that Mom was onto something.

Residents in the town next to mine are currently considering a proposal to ban single-use carry-out plastic bags in town businesses. It’s a hot-button issue that has a lot of people talking, and arguing.

Vector illustration of a no plastic bags symbol. Could be used for stores no longer offering plastic bags or to illustrate the concept of eliminating plastic bags.

To promoters of the ban, it’s one small thing we can do to help save the environment from a fraction of the upwards of one trillion plastic bags that are currently used each year, of which the vast majority (about 99.5%) are not recycled.

To opponents, it seems like a big step to give up the convenient handled plastic bags we’ve all gotten used to using to carry our groceries home in, and remember to bring reusable cloth bags to the store with us instead. In addition, some retailers object vociferously to being told how to run their businesses.

And some people just can’t imagine how they’d dispose of used cat litter without plastic grocery bags. With three cats, I admit that thought crossed my mind, too.

Thinking about the proposed ban, and participating in a few discussions about it, has gotten me reflecting about single-use plastic bags in general, not just carry-out grocery bags, and how pervasive they are in our lives.

We start each morning with the daily paper, which, even though it is delivered to a relatively weatherproof box, lately comes encased in a long, skinny plastic bag. I top my breakfast yogurt with blueberries and raspberries from plastic bags in my freezer, and Tony opens another plastic bag to take out bread for toast. Cereal comes in boxes lined with plastic bags.

As it turns out, all of these plastic bags, which I used to toss in the trash, make perfectly serviceable receptacles for used cat litter. What a revelation!

Plastic bags in treesPlastic bags take centuries to decompose in landfills, and as they do, they slowly release toxic chemicals into the soil.

In fact, they never completely degrade, but instead wind up as microplastics, bits of plastic that range in size from microscopic to less than five millimeters long (about the size of a grain of rice), cause a host of environmental problems and, ultimately, end up in the food chain. Microplastics have been found not only in seafood, but in sea salt, beer, bottled water, and tap water.

Worldwide, we use over one million plastic bags per minute—most for only a single, temporary use, like bringing home groceries, carrying out the trash, or holding frozen peas.

Mom might have rinsed out baggies because she was a cheapskate, but she was also doing her part, long before the creation of the EPA, and years before we first celebrated Earth Day, to help save the planet.

Plastic bags reduce-reuse-recycle-logo

My mom was a superhero


Today, February 13th, would have been my mom’s 99th birthday.

I think my siblings and I were all a bit stunned by her death, almost 15 years ago, at the age of 84. While that may sound like a pretty average life expectancy, our mom was never what anyone would call average, and I think if you had asked any one of us, we’d all have said that we expected her to live well into her nineties. Or maybe forever.RWW_returning_from_honeymoon_1942

My mom, who was married for just 16 years before she became a widow for nearly 46, was the quintessential strong, independent, capable woman. Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, and a young housewife in the 1940s and early ’50s, she may not have thought she was preparing herself to work full-time while singlehandedly running a household and raising five children, but when she was thrust into that situation, she took to it with both vigor and grace.

Family_1959Barely a week after my father’s sudden death in June of 1958, she loaded my four siblings into the family station wagon and drove to Maine to spend the summer, because that was what they had planned, what she had promised them, and anyway, as she once told me, “I couldn’t think of what else to do.”

On North Pond in Woodstock, she took on the role of general contractor, supervising the completion of the family camp they had been in the process of building over the previous three summers. (My brothers, ages 14, 12, and 11, and my sister, age eight, were the laborers.)

But wait, there’s more: as I wrote in an essay several years ago, “By mid-summer, my mother began to suspect something, and by summer’s end she knew: she was pregnant.”


It is to my mom’s great credit that I never felt, even once, that she believed that her life would have been better/easier/less stressful if I hadn’t been born. Not when I brought home stray cats, and, sometimes, turtles, mice, frogs, and snakes. Not when I accidentally let 18 chestnuts go down the drain of the bathroom sink. Not when I slouched around sullenly, wearing overalls and letting my hair hang in my face, for about six years of my adolescence. Not even when I ruined her perfect record by becoming the only one of her five kids to drop out of college—twice.

Even before the circumstances of her life turned her into a superhero, my mom was unusual for a woman of her generation. She had graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class, and had completed a four-year degree from the University of Maine before she met my father in 1941. She had moved to Hartford, Connecticut on her own after college and worked for a year or so at the Aetna Life Insurance Company.

My arrival early in 1959 delayed her ability to go back to work, but once I was old enough to be in school, she landed Mither_school_librarya job as a school librarian and began taking graduate level courses in the evening. She worked her way up to a position as head of the library department for the 17 elementary schools in the small city of Milford, Connecticut, where she had moved the family after my father’s death.


Around home, my mom did all the things most of my friends’ mothers did: she knit, sewed, quilted, gardened, Ruth_Wight_in_old_canoecanned, baked, and kept house. She also did most of the things my friends’ fathers did: she mowed the lawn, hung the storm windows, sealed the driveway, raked leaves, shoveled snow, and occasionally dabbled in plumbing, carpentry, and automotive repair.

She felt a strong commitment to the concept of community service. She was active in her church, volunteered for Welcome Wagon, March of Dimes, and the American Heart Association, and served on the boards of several nonprofits.

She continued to do all of these things throughout my life, and I grew so accustomed to having a mother who could do anything and everything that I’m afraid I never fully grasped what a wonder she really was, at least until after she was gone.

Mither & Alice in FranceUp until just a couple of years before she died, she was volunteering at the library, traveling (she turned 81 while on a tour of Australia and New Zealand), babysitting (over her more than 20 years of retirement in Bethel, she was known as Gramma Wight to dozens of local children, in addition to her own “real” grandchildren), and taking on projects nearly as ambitiously as she always had.

Now that I’m nearing 60, I have a far greater appreciation for the energy she had, especially when I choose to stay home instead of attending a meeting or community event, when I gripe about having to go to work, or when I sit down in the evening and tell myself I’m too tired to pick up my knitting.

It’s taken me a while to realize it, but my mom really was a superhero.

Mither_reading_at_campScan_20150213 (2)