Mend and Make Do


I recently visited my parents in southern Germany and while helping my mom fold laundry I came across a relict, a fabric fossil so to speak: a set of light blue sheets with a floral pattern. I remember this set so vividly because it was the first set of non-white sheets ever bought in our family. A minor revolution.

That must have been in the early 70s.

The sheets look slightly faded but other than that they are perfect.

A look into my mom’s linen closet revealed: towels and washcloths that - I swear - my grandma Zita bought and passed on to my mom. Mind you, the woman died, way too young, in 1978.

The cup I used as a small child, the one with the Hansel and Gretel printed on it, is also still in the cupboard. The saucer is long gone but the cup still gets used, mostly to hold small amounts of leftovers: two small potatoes, a couple of spoonfuls of diced, steamed carrots, a bit of sauce that will form the basis of tomorrows pasta sauce.

Occasionally, I come across a rag that I recognize from decades past, a towel or pillow cover that finally gave out and even my mom considered past the point of repair. Never would the idea of throwing this out cross her mind, though, this will serve out the remainder of its useful life as a cleaning rag (washed and rewashed, not single use).

That got me thinking about all the sheets I have been through over the last decade and a half (since I moved into my current house). All the deep sheets that have holes after a few years, the duvet covers that are so thin that they look like cleaning rags before too long or the cheap broken plastic zippers that give out after a few uses (I am a duvet cover kind of gal, this whole flat sheet and blanket business is not for me) leaving the duvet to work itself out of the cover over night leaving me covered only with a thin piece of fabric at 2 am when I am awake enough to feel cold but not awake enough to fix the problem.

It also got me thinking about all the towels that looked so fluffy on the store shelf but don’t really dry, the faded fabric after a few washes, the decorative borders made from synthetic that shrink during washing making the towel look like it’s wearing a corsage in a weird place.

In short, it made me think about all the cheap crap, designed to be used a few times and then thrown out while my mom’s early 1970s floral pattern sheets still look, if not great, then at least very respectable.

Mend and Make Do

I am a Gen Xer - just barely - surrounded by Baby Boomers. But then, I really am not, growing up in Germany I am part of the “Grandchild Generation”: a grandchild to two grandfathers who died in WW II or shortly thereafter due to the consequences of the war and two grandmothers who had to bring up their three children each alone. I am the daughter to a father who as a teenager stole a head of cabbage so his mom had something to cook for his younger sister’s birthday and a mother who became the de facto mom to her 3 month old sister when she was 11, because her mom, grandma Zita, had to work in the fields.

They had nothing. They learned to mend and make do.

Darning socks an endangered skill. Source:

Darning socks an endangered skill. Source:

And that’s how I grew up: mend and make do. Fix the hole in the socks, let out the seams, turn off the lights, don’t waste water and never, never, ever throw away food.

As a teenager I hated it, the obsessive frugality, the constant reminder of how bad the times had been and how lucky I was. The yearly routine of collecting berries and nuts to make jam and cake, the death stare when I forgot to turn off the light in my room or the heating system was turned up too high (that is above 65 degrees). The idea that the blouse of an auntie, if we just cut off the sleeves and maybe take it in a bit, would look just lovely on me.

I hated it!

You get the idea.

I have come around now.

Mend and make do is exactly the attitude we need now - for the noble purpose of saving the planet.

Fast fashion, exorbitant food waste, rooms full of cheap plastic toys, a set of dinnerware for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring and outdoors plus one for the rest of the time, the latest gadget - used once and then stashed in the garage - the huge truck because twice a year one needs to haul some yard waste around - we need to stop!

People have more stuff than they know, more stuff than they can handle, and definitely more stuff than they need and they are still buying more - and throwing that perfectly good set of dinnerware out, because it looks so 2012!

We Need to Relearn How to Value and Conserve Possessions We Have

Recycling and passing things on is better than throwing them in the landfill. But not by much: what we really need to do is to stop buying stuff. We need to relearn to value the things we have, value imperfection, take pride in fixing things, derive happiness not from buying useless stuff - that we forget we have in just a few days anyway - derive happiness from experiences and mindfulness.

We need to relearn how to own things for a long period of time, realize that a priced possession should be something old that is still good, not the brand spanking new thing that will be old and boring the day after tomorrow. We need to stop wasting in the name of convenience and stop buying because we deserve it - whatever that means.

We can’t - and hopefully never have to - go back to post WWII Germany and save that small piece of stale bread because there might not be bread tomorrow, but we can relearn some of those values and behaviors.

Not the latest design? Does it really matter? Will your friends think less of you? Will the tea taste worse?

Not the latest design? Does it really matter? Will your friends think less of you? Will the tea taste worse?

I can’t tell you what you can and should do. Only you can figure that out for yourself. Maybe it is not buying new clothing for some time and wearing what you have. Maybe it’s buying second hand and making it special with a FabMo find, maybe it’s being mindful about how much food you buy - and throw away, maybe it’s deciding that the set of dinnerware is still perfectly okay and can last another decade or that you don’t need new sheets in this season’s must-have color. Maybe it is occasionally riding a bike or walking, maybe it is not taking that weekend plane trip but instead hiking the State Park close by. Maybe it’s not buying the latest gadget when in your heart of hearts you know that you really don’t need it and probably won’t use it much. Maybe it’s not using an extra plastic bag for every apple, onion and tomato you buy at the grocery store, maybe it is taking the bus once in a while.

The reality is, we can’t keep doing what we do. It is not sustainable. It cannot go on and somebody will have to pay the price. It might not be you or me, but it will definitely be our kids, and grandkids. And one thing is sure, they are not responsible and they do not deserve it.

I admit, I have a competitive advantage when it comes to “mend and make do”, it was drilled into me from the time I was old enough to want things.

I had abandoned this philosophy for some time but I am relearning it now and believe me, when I say, there is more joy and satisfaction in living a mindful and sustainable life than in splurging and wasting.

Take it from a Mend and Make Do veteran.