Our green mothers

WASHINGTON — The party had reached that point in the evening when the guys were doing their guy thing, and a few women ended up on sitting on the couches, forgotten like single socks at the Laundromat.

Three of us — a Czech American writer, a Korean American lawyer and a Libyan American doctor — groped for common topics of conversation. I can't remember how we got there, but we seized upon the weird things our mothers do.

We are all children of immigrants, born to parents from vastly disparate parts of the globe. And yet all of our mothers, with their thick accents, ugly shoes and constant clucking at the state of our lives, are irritatingly fashionable for the exact same reason: They are, by today's standards, considered "green."

"Bags of bags. Oh my God — everywhere, tucked in the closets, the drawers. Plastic bags filled with plastic bags. She could never throw a bag away," said Basma Faris, the doctor.

My mother, who's 63, does bags of bags. When I was growing up, she also crocheted sacks from string and brought them to grocery stores. I nearly died each time she asked for a discount for bringing her own bag.

These crocheted bags and many other hip versions of recyclable sacks are now for sale all over the place.

"And how about the refrigerator?" demanded Won Rha, the lawyer. "I go over to her house now and open it and say, 'OK, here's the butter.' Only it's never butter. Nothing is in the container that it's supposed to be in. She reuses everything. Yogurt cups, butter containers, jam jars."

This is the case at my mother's home, too. It takes about 15 minutes to organize a snack in her kitchen. I open mayonnaise jars to find the sugar, peanut butter jars for the coffee and the cottage cheese container for the leftover dumplings, natch.

When Rha had her first child and her mother moved in to help her during the first few weeks, Mom took over the kitchen. She served home-cooked meals on the Styrofoam trays that meat slabs are sold on.

"I'm like, 'Mom, we have plates. You can use those plates,' " Rha said.

My mom, who arrived in America in 1968 after years of postwar Eastern European economic deprivation, also loves the meat trays. She distributes her delicate, meticulously decorated Czech Christmas cookies on the very trays where pork butt once bled.

For all of us, these retreads were a staple in our school lunches. No Wonder Woman lunchboxes for us. We carried our midday meals in various reusable bags from around the house and stored our food in the plastic containers everyone else threw away, so it looked as though we were constantly eating volumes of sour cream for lunch.

Now we go to our friends' houses, and they're all doing it, too, the recycling thing. These are the people who grew up with stacks of beautiful Tupperware containers in their American-born mothers' avocado green fridges.

One of my new acquaintances said she was incredulous when professionals at a recent dinner party in New York proudly served their pinot noir in recycled jam jars.

When I went through my Crate and Barrel nesting phase after my husband and I bought our first home, I sneered at the cacophony of my mother's kitchen and loved my matching containers, stacked high in my arctic white fridge like a picture from a catalog.

"Why do you need to buy containers for $19.99 when you get perfectly good ones for free with all your food? Why don't you just burn your money, too?" my mother asked. "It's good for the environment to use all these things again. What about our poor Mother Earth?"

"It's called cheap, Mom," I snapped back.

A few months later, once we were talking again, she was with us on the Mall for a picnic. I lost track of her while chasing my sons, and once I found her, she was standing in front of a video camera and a boom mic, being interviewed by two journalists.

Oh, no.

I raced over to save her dignity (and mine).

"I am living green for years. I use all my containers over and over. I wash all plastic bags. The bags you don't use for dog poop, you use for your lunch," she told the student journalists doing a documentary on green living.

I began to pull my mom away, thanking them for their time and apologizing for her.

"No way. Your mom is sooooo wise," the one wearing really low-cut jeans said. "She is totally green. It's so cool."

Cool? Yeah — I bet this woman would have gotten the Shaun Cassidy lunchbox and would have snickered at my gizzard tub.

So now I endure a nationwide movement to legislate what my mother has been doing her whole life. Even I've begun to see the wisdom in her thrift. But please, let's leave it at that for now. I don't want to see any laws mandating sensible shoes.

Petula Dvorak can be reached at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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