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Wisdom of the Ancestors

I’ve already given away much for my early life experience and relationship with ecology in my “Save” post when I penned “ I live in the Alton/Godfrey region of the St. Louis Metro East which is an epicenter of ecological diversity and geographic wonders. I was born and raised smack dab in the middle of the confluences of the Three Great Rivers, the Mississippi, the Illinois and Missouri and grew up a creek walking, geode hunting, camping, fishing, hiking, repelling, Mississippi River Rat. I’ve studied and been fascinated with the flora and fauna of my world from my first memories: spring ephemerals in the forests in my neighborhood and my beloved Pere Marquette State Park, mussels and crawdads in the river and streams….”

On day two of our Consumer Fast I am reflecting on what shaped my values and patterns around consumerism and how I apply them to my life. There is another dimension of me that begins with a less often told history: I grew up in a very Catholic, working class family, no college grads until my Mom, a very brilliant woman, took advantage of the local community college in her late 40’s, to realize an education she could only dream about when she was coming of age. My father was a product of the Alton Catholic Children's Home from about the age of 5 until he began working at St. James Trade School in Springfield, and then off to the Korean War. He earned his GED probably about the same time mom was getting her AAS. My Parents were wonderful providers and my brothers and I grew up in a loving if not frugal home.

Then, there was my Nana T, from whom my mom was bestowed her brilliance and much of who I am was gleaned. Virginia Francis Eckhard was born in 1912. Virginia’s home life was hard; It was no secret that her father was the town drunk and seldom held down a steady job, on top of that challenge the Stock Market Crash of 1929 tamped out any hope of an education past the 8th grade for young Virginia, who was, at the time, the top of her class at St Mary’s School. She had 4 sisters, one of whom was born with Cerebral Palsy, and 2 brothers, one of whom was blind. The entire family of 9 survived mostly on her father’s Spanish American War pension and the meager wages the older children could eke out doing menial jobs.

Her hard scrabble coming up filed a sharp edge on my grandmother. And although her fortune changed when she met and married my grandfather Jack Tonsor, a saint of a man, she carried her baggage throughout her life, and it was a heavy load!

Her background is important in understanding how she shaped and inspired the person I have become. I spent so many formative moments in her kitchen and in my grandfather's workshop and garden. From early childhood to adolescence I learned that every scrap of paper, string, bag, box, eggs shell and coffee ground had a purpose.

There was little to no “trash” in the Tonsor home. My brothers, I have three, and I joked about Nana T’s habit of using a Pringles can lid to cover and preserve the carbonation of her half drunk can of PBR, never waste a drop! The sleeves of her flannel shirts and the hems of her nightgown grew shorter with time as she mended the fray. Bacon grease in the can, eggshells and coffee grounds in the garden. All used jars went to Georgia, who lived in the country and canned her garden. Egg cartons returned to the egg lady to be refilled and purchased again. Used clothing and household items to another friend who had a small second hand shop. The little bit of rubbish that may have accumulated would be incinerated out back is the small burning barrel.

Virginia Tonsor took pride in her well stocked root cellar, a source of security she no doubt lacked growing up. Nana T was also the original “Aldi Nerd”, an early adopter. She shopped Aldi before it was cool, she was there for the 39 cent English Muffins packs and 15 cent Ruby Reds. Do you remember the stigma of the early years, before the Irish butter, steel cut oats, organic coffee and Aisle of Shame? Does it linger still?

The thing was by the time I entered the world my grandmother and grandfather had built financial security, owned a home and two cars, but they never abandoned their frugal ways. I aspire to be just as intentional as they were about the purchases I make and the consumer footprint I tread. It's all about our shared resources being as crucial now as they were during the Great Depression, compounded by the urgency of our planet on fire. Participation in the week-long consumer fast is a wonderful tool to help magnify and practice focused intentionality. It’s not too late to join in with no judgment or shame, just opportunity for enlightenment or perhaps to honor the Nana T in your life.

Virginia Woulfe-Beile is the Three Rivers Project Co Coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Piasa Palisades Group in Alton Illinois and a founding member of the Confluence Climate Collaborative. She lives in Godfrey, Illinois where she enjoys being the Family Matriarch (read Queen).

We invite you to join us in honoring those who inspired your personal Earth-loving journey and celebrating the steps we can take together in our Spring into Healing Event on April 24th.

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