ACCIDENTAL MINIMALIST

NANA HAD A TINY HOUSE WHEN TINY HOUSES WERE NOT A THING

It was a tiny house in spirit and square-footage if not in style or name, an old-fashioned shotgun house with a few additions. Nana’s house didn’t have a loft, but it had a sunny built-on bedroom with windows on three sides, a beautiful hand-made quilt on the bed, and the foot-pedal sewing machine where she stitched patches together to make more quilts

I remember a flushing toilet and claw-foot bathtub with hot and cold running water in what had once been an alcove, but Mama had memories of Nana’s original “composting” toilet, an old-fashioned outhouse, and of water heated in a kettle on the kitchen stove to pour into a big round galvanized tub moved temporarily into the warm kitchen for a bath. There was no room for a lavatory in the updated bathroom. We brushed our teeth and washed our hands and faces at the kitchen sink made of concrete and with the plainest of faucets, like a sink you might find in a workshop.

The sink had a crude shelf underneath. Nana had fashioned a red checked curtain to hide the supplies on that shelf. A Formica table, four mismatched chairs, a narrow four-burner stove and oven, a very shallow cupboard, and an icebox completed the kitchen furnishings. The icebox was a porcelain-lined wooden box with handles on the top and bottom sections, and a large draining pan underneath. A big block of ice, delivered regularly from the Ice Man’s truck, prompted by a sign in the window showing how many pounds the householder wanted, was loaded into the top compartment. It cooled a few perishable things that could then be placed into the bottom section. As the ice melted, the water drained into the pan, which had to be emptied regularly. I was a teenager when Nana got a small electric refrigerator, a castoff from her daughter, Aunt Dorothy.

Three or four print dresses with matching belts hung in the tiny closet between the living room and the kitchen, and her pretty nightgown and robe were handy on a nail just inside the closet door. The dresses were always clean and pressed, and she complemented her outfits with small gold hoops in her pierced ears and a strand of faux pearls for a really special occasion. Her sturdy grandma dress-up shoes were clean and polished, and the slippers and old gardening shoes she wore around the house were comfortable and serviceable.



A summer gathering on Nana’s porch. Nana is in the background at left.


The whole house was as cheerful and welcoming as Nana herself. A gas heater in the living room kept it warm and cozy in cold weather. Open doors and windows and a couple of electric fans made the Texas heat tolerable. Outside, there was a tree to climb, Nana’s carefully-tended flowers to enjoy, plenty of dirt and battered discarded kitchen utensils to make mud pies, and a porch with metal chairs where neighbors were invited to share watermelon and cantaloupe or to just sit and visit.

When my cousins and I slept over, the youngest was privileged to share Nana’s double bed in her cozy bedroom. The rest of us were comfortably tucked into a roll-away bed pulled magically out of her TV cabinet, or the fold-down living-room couch, or improvised pallets on the floor, padded with extra blankets. In warm weather, the older cousins were allowed to take our pallets out to the porch.

We thought of Nana as kind of poor, living as she did with the help of her daughters, a little spare change from baby-sitting or ironing, and a monthly Social Security check for eighty-five dollars, but she always had what she needed plus something to share—a patchwork quilt, a hand-embroidered dishtowel, a jar of homemade plum preserves. She never complained, and she never talked about things she wanted to buy.

My other grandmother lived in a big house with an air conditioner and beautiful furniture, rugs, and curtains. There were fireplaces in the living room, dining room, and all the bedrooms. The big front porch had a porch swing, and her grand kitchen contained a deep-freeze and all the latest appliances, but Nana’s house was where I wanted to be. My other grandmother was deeply unhappy, a hypochondriac who spent most of her days in bed. Her house, though elegant and spacious, was dark and uninviting. I don’t remember ever seeing a fire in any of the fireplaces, even at Christmas or on the coldest days of the year.

Minimalism was not a word used to describe anyone’s lifestyle. We saw the world in terms of prosperity or poverty. Advertisements on billboards and TV assured us that happiness was just over the horizon after our next purchase, but I couldn’t help wondering why my Nana, who had so little, was the happiest person in my family.

ACCIDENTAL MINIMALIST

I had not yet heard of Minimalism when I learned that the habit of gratitude is the secret of wealth. I am blessed by good things–material and spiritual–only if I am conscious that they are good things. This is a fundamental principle of the Minimalist movement. A need is something needed to survive. Everything else is a want. I can enjoy a luxury if I acknowledge that it is not necessary for survival, that I don’t need it. I am poor when I don’t recognize the difference between a need and a want.

I have been poor most of my life because I was always thinking about what I “needed,” and I thought I “needed” more. My mother thought that more would be better. My friends were convinced that more would be better. A landslide of publicity made me certain that more would be better. No matter what I had, there was always more that I needed. It took me a long time to realize that more, like tomorrow, is forever out of reach.

I have never been hungry or thirsty for lack of food and clean water. I have never been dirty or uncomfortable for lack of indoor plumbing. I have never been exposed to cold, heat, rain, sleet, wind, hail, or snow for lack of adequate shelter. My clothes have never been a source of shame. My father had a job. My family had a car. My mother didn’t have to work. I finished high school without a struggle and graduated from an upscale university. I enjoyed love, family, friends, and respect.

I was never hungry or thirsty, but I wanted steak instead of hamburger. I wanted to go to fine restaurants and dine in houses where people dressed for dinner. I never lived in a house that was unsafe or uncomfortable, but I wanted to live in an elegantly furnished mansion with crystal chandeliers, bedrooms and bathrooms for everyone, and an elegant gadget-filled kitchen of industrial proportions. I wanted a swimming pool with cabanas, a green rolling lawn, a furnished patio, a barbecue, and stables for a few horses. I wanted central heat and cooling, lots of fireplaces, and a tornado shelter. And my own jukebox. My family had a reliable Ford, but I wanted a Cadillac for the family and a little T-Bird just for me.

I was never dirty and unkempt, but I wanted a weekly appointment at an upscale salon to have my hair styled and my hands cared for, and get facials, massages, and body wraps. No one laughed at my clothes, but I wanted to dress in the latest trendsetter fashion–a stunning wardrobe from Neiman-Marcus with underwear in colors to match every outfit. I wanted gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds, mink. I wanted Lancome for my face and Chanel for my body.

My father had a job, but I wanted him to have a more prestigious position with a higher paycheck–or maybe be a millionaire oil man like his father, who died young, leaving his fortune in the hands of my grandmother, who sold the business and spent the money on hypochondria and pill addiction.

My mother didn’t have to work, but I wanted her to go to luncheons at the Women’s Forum so that I could be presented as a Junior Forum Debutante in a long white formal and elbow-length gloves. I wanted her to show up at PTA meetings in beautifully tailored suits with scarves and other matching accessories. I graduated from Baylor, but I wanted to go to Columbia or Vassar or Sarah Lawrence and have my photograph in the local newspaper when I came home at Christmas.

I wanted money to do whatever I wanted and never have to think about money. It took me a long time to learn that no one can do whatever she wants and never have to think about money. A few people sell their souls to spouses or lovers who allow them to live in a bubble. Everyone else has to think about money, and the more money they have, the more they have to think about it.

Insidious Invisibility

I love newspapers. One of the most joyful sounds of my late childhood was the thump of The Wichita Falls Times, artfully folded into a kind of double boomerang that eased its flight from the hand of the boy on the bicycle to our front porch. I would retrieve the folded newspaper, unfold it, and plop myself down on the living room floor to peruse the headlines, read Dear Abby, Dr. Crane, letters to the editor, a few comic strips and cartoons, and, on Thursdays, the high school news roundup, “Teen Times.”

My family was too busy for the morning newspaper, The Wichita Falls Record News, but on Sundays, the two newspapers were combined into an extravaganza for all subscribers to either or both papers: The Sunday Times-Record News. It was rolled, not folded, because it was so thick, and it hit the porch with a thud rather than a thump. On rainy Sundays, it came encased in plastic.

After church on Sunday mornings, my family members would divide the paper into sections and then exchange them as we finished. I always wanted first shot at the full-color comics or the society pages. I was enthralled by the photographs of beautiful brides in full wedding dress and the artfully retouched portraits of brides-to-be with their engagement announcements. I would watch for news and photographs of the Junior Forum Debutante Ball in May and the more elite Cotillion Debutante White Tie Ball in December.

Before 1964, black people were required by law to live in designated sections of town. In Wichita Falls, that area was east of the railroad tracks, Flood Street and beyond. Mexicans lived there too, by custom rather than law, clustered on the side closer to the tracks. A few of them lived in the “white” part of town, like Dr. Martinez from Mexico City and his pale and elegant wife and daughters, whom the town people called “Spanish” to distinguish them from darker and less prestigious “Mexicans.”

There were two high schools in Wichita Falls then, but if you ask any white citizen over 65 how many there were, he or she will invariably answer, “One.” Wichita Falls High School was not the white high school. It was the high school. Booker T. Washington High School had excellent facilities, although even now I can’t say where they are located–somewhere, I assume, way beyond Flood Street. I have never seen them. Booker T had a championship football team, an outstanding marching band, and a choir that was recognized statewide and occasionally came to sing in the elegant churches of the white people.

This is where my love of The Wichita Falls Times connects with the myth of one high school in Wichita Falls. You see, the newspaper was, for me, a mirror of my world. I knew that there was Flood Street and beyond. I knew that kids who lived there went to Booker T. Washington High School. I even ventured a few times to their home football games to watch the jazzy marching band. There were black people in town working in the few jobs open to them. I went on mission expeditions to teach Vacation Bible School in the Projects. Some white people even trekked across muddy Flood Street to benefit from the excellent work and lower prices of the “colored” dentist at his elegant home with a built-on clinic.

I didn’t hate black people. I thought racism was evil and spoke against it on occasion. I didn’t hate or dislike black people, but I didn’t see black people. The mirror of my world, The Wichita Falls Times, didn’t report Booker T.’s sports news. Their many band and choir awards got no recognition or photographs in “Teen Times.” There were no photographs of black students doing anything at all. Black brides and debutantes were never featured on the society pages. Black churches were not included in Saturday’s “guide to worship services.” Even black crimes were usually reported only in the police notes at the back of the news. Black people were not allowed to patronize the same local restaurants where I ate or the stores where I shopped. When I traveled by bus, they had their sections in the station and on the bus, and they used the toilets and drinking fountains marked “colored.”

No, Wichita Falls, Texas, had no problem with black people. We simply ignored them to the point of near non-existence. There were no black faces reflected in our mirror on the world.

Testimonies, Miracles, and Green Pastures

Reportable miracles are the material of “testimonies,” a staple of old-fashioned Southern Baptist culture, but they seem incoherent in the narrative of a life that doesn’t report steady progress heavenward. Twice-divorced, vain, intermittently unchurched, often confused, I have fewer answers to the really big questions than I did when I was nineteen.

Sometimes guest speakers came to my church–missionaries who lived and worked in other countries. They showed slides of themselves in exotic settings among dark-skinned people and told many wonderful stories of living by faith. They spoke of miracles: instant healing in response to a prayer; an exact amount of money that arrived soon after a prayer for that amount; an urge to go to a specific place where they found someone waiting to hear what they had to say. I wanted to be like them, but the people I prayed for died anyway, I had to work for the money that I needed, and what I thought were divine appointments sometimes ended awkwardly.

I’ve experienced a few reportable miracles: doors opened to a university that seemed out of my reach; a life partner with faith greater than mine; material goods to supply specific material needs; an unexpected intervention from a person of power to solve a problem, but these reportable miracles recede against the backdrop of larger miracles: an invisible hand and a still, small voice of a shepherd much larger than I who has guided me, not skipping joyfully from sunny hilltop to sunny hilltop, but trudging through valleys of shadows of death and evil; the incredible journey of the earth around the sun every twenty-four hours; the exquisitely-formed human beings who grew inside me and who have survived to middle age and produced their own exquisitely-formed beings; sunlight and shade; water and food; trees and flowers; work and provision; family, friends, pets, and love.

I am not blessed because I have special spoiled-child status with the Almighty, but because I have been willed into existence and consciousness by a power that I cannot possibly understand. I am blessed when I stop insisting on comprehension and start to accept and experience the wonder and the terror of the Universe and its Creator. My wishes to be a missionary or a pastor’s wife or the leader of some great ministry have not been granted. My life is not a running report of dramatic miracles and unmitigated progress toward heaven.

I sleep. I get up. I drink coffee. I eat. Most days, I read a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament, and, more often than not, far from being instantly inspired and filled with wisdom, I find myself wondering what THAT was about. I worry about car accidents and climate change and epidemics and the economy and politics. I wonder if my life makes any difference. I wonder if I should do more and, if so, what I should do. But sometimes I think of a lamb, trembling as she walks through the shadows, trusting in a shepherd whose ways she cannot know, comforted by rod and staff and food and green pastures.

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