Living Small

Living Small

My son and I traipsed around our property and several adjacent woodlots before settling on our "recession tree." This Christmas the pickings were slim. A man just up the road was selling the fuller-figured, domesticated variety for $25, and he probably would have given us the neighborhood discount. But I lost my day job early in the fall.

The six-foot red cedar projects a certain Dickensian charm. You can see right through it and out the sliding-glass door. Its threadbare boughs splay at satiric angles, and heavier ornaments bend the anorexic limbs like fantastic bait set for a trapper's snare. The underlying fundamentals of this gaunt specimen are not sound. It sits loosely in the plastic tree stand, and it waited, craftily, until we had festooned it with all the trimmings before it toppled over, sending decorations skittering across the living room floor.

It was hard to stay angry for long. My son and I swept up the brightly colored shards, righted our scraggily bargain, redecorated and attached a guy wire. We stepped back, took its measure and burst out laughing.

It's been a long time since a $25 purchase inspired the slightest hesitation or doubt. I come from chintzy stock on both sides, but being a patriotic American I have learned to spend like a sailor on leave. It hasn't been this way for so long in our country, much less in many places around the world. A generation or two back, we Americans, even the relatively fortunate, didn't live in the fashion to which many of us have grown accustomed.

I remember as a boy being astounded when we visited my father's mother in the house he grew up in: How did all eight of them fit in that bandbox? There weren't even three bedrooms. In the mid-1960s, Grandma Holahan's house looked like a mini-museum, exhibiting the paraphernalia of less prosperous times: a coal stove, antique electrical outlets, a clothes washer with a hand wringer and a radio that looked as though it could still pick up a 1927 Yankees game.

This humble Cape Cod hadn't had a makeover, extreme or otherwise, since Woodrow Wilson was keeping the world safe for democracy. Our homes have more than doubled in size since the 1950s, even as our families have become smaller. My wife, son and I inhabit a house that is nearly three times the square footage of the one my grandmother lived in for more than 60 years.

Our other grandmother insisted that we turn out the lights if we weren't using them and pay for any long-distance phone calls, among myriad economies that my brothers, cousins and I found baffling. When we convinced her to spring for bowling money, she would give us each a quarter, enough for one game at the duckpin lanes. If we wanted to keep rolling, we had to walk back to her house and lobby her anew.

So when frugality came roaring back into style this year, my reservoir of DNA was already primed. As oil spiked in July, I started augmenting my wood pile. A friend had some fallen trees he wasn't using, so a neighbor and I went at them like two hobos who'd found the side door of a pie factory ajar. I'm already stockpiling for next winter and have taken up drying my laundry by the radiant heat of the stove. I've switched to writing my freelance articles from home, and several days a week I don't use the car. I will spare you an accounting of the budget cuts that bear on personal hygiene. Suffice it to report that into November I sometimes freshened up in the little river that bounds our land.

We don't throw away as much food as we used to, and, curiously, I don't seem to be eating as much, either. I've been thinking about the spring garden already: asparagus spears peak through in April, and you can pick Brussels sprouts right into December.

I haven't gone Grizzly Adams in toto. We dine out, go to the movies and have friends over for dinner. My wife still has her day job, and I have some savings built up. But the world seems different the past few months. We may have voted for change, but change was coming one way or another. I see it in the recession tree teetering proudly in my living room. I wonder what next year will bring.