Memory from Childhood
by Maylan Dunn-Kenney
I was a child at my grandparents’ table. The table was groaning with food that came mostly from out the back door – a big plate of fried chicken I remember for sure. There were lots of vegetables, and I’m pretty sure there were homemade pickles. The table was crowded with family, I think. There might have been a neighbor or two. At each place was a tall sweaty glass of iced tea, and the grown-ups were passing around a single bottle of coca-cola. It was one of those heavy green glass bottles that had to be returned to the store. Most of the grown-ups put a little swig of coke in their iced tea, a little treat.
This memory has floated up several times since I’ve been home. The themes of our discussion are there. There is the abundance that comes with living directly – how I think of subsistence living. Instead of focusing on the “mediator” of currency, my grandparents took care of themselves and others directly for the most part: growing food crops, raising animals, gleaning, crafting, preserving. They also traded directly (bartered), took temporary jobs, and gave and received gifts. The market is present as well in this memory – the bottle of coke, an advertised commodity with branding that can only be bought with money. And, it was in its place. How was it put in place? It was SUPERFLUOUS, a treat. If it hadn’t been available and offered, no one would have missed it. It was SHARED, everyone taking a ritual portion, making it more about the sharing than the thing itself. It was PRUDENT – the bottle went back to be used again and again and the only waste was the bottle cap. Sometimes my grandfather also removed the disc of cork from inside the cap to use on a project, and hammered flat the metal cap for a patch or a spacer if he was repairing something around the farm.
How interesting to think of this story in today’s context. Government subsidies make corn syrup a cheap commodity, sold dear in a huge variety of soft drinks. A person’s favorite drink is part of his or her identity. Some people consume enough each day to become obese, leaving a trail of plastic bottles.
The market has become much more dominant in everyday life – shaping our lives more than friends or family. The market, in its new dominating role, has made us dependent – unable to provide even the most basic needs without money. The products of the market have buried us in superfluity and waste.
The problem is not the market itself. The problem is the place we have given the market in our lives. My grandfather couldn’t have imagined it. If he were here today, he wouldn’t be able to understand why people had agreed to it.
How did we get into this mess in so short a time?
Maylan Dunn-Kenney lives on the flat plains of DeKalb, Illinois with her husband. She teaches at Northern Illinois University, tends a vegetable garden, and is an active member of the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship.