Mom’s ‘Old School’ Ways Proved Handy After Wilma

Sometimes we rely so much on the ‘mod cons’ that when they are not available we bellyache like a small teething child. This story was so good I had to let you share it’s beauty. Enjoy!!

Janice Sharman

Mom’s `Old School’ Ways Proved Handy After Wilma

My 70-year-old mother still washes her lingerie by hand, making the loud “squish-squish” noise that leaves the clothes impeccably clean. She knows how to turn a bag of flour and other assorted ingredients into a hearty meal within minutes and cook on a coal pot in the back yard if she has to.

Mom, a retired nurse who’s lived in the United States more than 40 years, learned such techniques growing up in the small Caribbean island of Nevis in an era when everything didn’t come easy.

So when Hurricane Wilma struck, my mother didn’t panic. She just ate what was still cool in the powerless refrigerator and lit a candle at night, never complaining.

“We shouldn’t be so dependent on these things anyway,” she said from her Plantation home. “When I was in the islands, I used to study by a wick lamp. We were accustomed to cold showers down there because we didn’t have heaters. That’s how we had to live.”

Now that hurricanes have knocked the hot air out of our inflated 21st-century lives, it may be time to admit that my mother’s “old school” mentality isn’t so outdated after all. People who can survive without electricity, hot water and the ever-ready cell phone might actually have a thing or two to teach the rest of us.

The storm turned some lives upside down, no doubt. And many people had legitimate reasons to gripe — among them the hundreds left homeless. But for the rest of us, the whining after the storm was all about inconvenience.

Cecil and Joyce Williams, my parents’ Jamaican neighbors, didn’t join the pity party. They resorted to the way they used to do things “back home,” setting up three stones in the yard for a wood fire. That’s how they cooked chicken, rice and other staples for at least two weeks after the storm.

“The food cooked on that kind of fire is even better than the food cooked on the stove because it gets the smoke,” Cecil Williams said proudly. “We used to do it this way during the days when we lived in the country.”

My husband’s Guyanese mother, who is visiting from Albany, N.Y., also has such memories. Her mother was a city girl who married a farmer on the Berbice River in Guyana, South America. Nana, as we call my mother-in-law, grew up bathing in the river and drinking water from lakes. Her family cooked with wood and didn’t have a fridge, so they just left the food outside.

“But Nana, didn’t the food spoil?” I asked. She chuckled.

“In the time of ignorance, God winks,” she said. “The food lasted until the next day. It’s funny how now if something stays out a few hours, I throw it away.”

Nana knows how to survive. She bakes her own bread, squeezes fresh orange juice and always plans ahead. She wasn’t here for Wilma. But if she had been, she wouldn’t have been standing in line for water and other necessities. The cupboard would have been stocked. I guarantee it.

“The storm wouldn’t have bothered me one bit,” she confirmed.

So what’s a technology-dependent, convenience-loving, American-born woman like me supposed to do with all of this crucial information?

I’m not sure. I’ve tried to pick up my mother’s ways, but going back in time is not always easy. Once, during a trip to Nevis, Mom and her sister tried to teach me to scrub the clothes hard enough to make the “squish-squish” sound.

“You have to hold the clothes like so, and do this,” they told me, as they grabbed pieces of fabric in a basin and rubbed them together. They didn’t say exactly what “do this” meant. For them, the technique came so naturally that they couldn’t explain it.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t make the sound, and eventually gave up. Yet the skill would have come in handy after Wilma, when I faced a laundry bag stuffed with dirty clothes for days.

But I’m determined to learn from my elders before it’s too late. They won’t always be around, and neither will the technology. Now’s the time to watch, listen and learn from those who really know how to survive.

Pity the lights had to go out for that illumination.

Alva James-Johnson, who reports on South Florida’s Caribbean community, is filling in today for columnist Michael Mayo. She can be reached at 954-356-4523.

Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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