03/16/2011 04:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Uncycling Junkie to Recycling Addict, All in One Short Decade

I was raised by parents who were both scared (and scarred) by the Great Depression. My father was the only son of an Ohio farmer who died when he was 17, leaving my dad as the man of the house and man of the farm. My mother was the youngest of a family of eight kids and her father died when she was a baby, leaving my grandma a widow, to raise and feed, if you can imagine, eight children from the age of 18 years to 18 months, (without Costco!) and amidst the Depression. Both of my parents grew up poor although I never heard them describe it that way.

My parents' childhood activities, to my teenage kids, sound prehistoric. I might as well mention dinosaurs when I talk about how my Dad baled hay, milked cows and tended the hen house and how he spent the 3 hours before and after school, not playing soccer or Xbox, but doing farm chores. As I read that back to myself, it sounds prehistoric to me! My dad really did walk 3 miles to school, as annoying as that was to hear all throughout my own childhood. My mother still talks of homeless people she called hobos, who'd come to their backdoor with their hat in hand and ask for something to eat. Grandma Wilson would leave a sandwich or whatever she could skim from the already limited kitchen supplies for them to eat on the back porch swing. The JC Penney catalog was "recycled" -- in the outhouse -- in ways I'm sure Mr. Penney never intended and I still remember Grandma eating the core of the apple (!) and preferring the heel of the bread loaf, although I now suspect that she'd eaten the heel, the wing, the burnt piece, for so many decades that it was a reflexive choice. My mother was way ahead of her time when it came to not wasting ANYthing.

She was the world's best recycler before the word "recycle" had ever been invented. Along with my four siblings, I remember that Mom could never throw out an aluminum pie tin (the cupboards avalanched them if you opened a door too fast). She rinsed out baggies for re-use and even folded up gently used tinfoil if it appeared to have some life left. Leftovers were progressively re-served at each meal and stored in smaller and smaller containers even if there were only two bites left.

To this day in a restaurant, Mom will ask the waiter for a doggie bag and often has to point to the small bites of left-over food to prove to the waiter there's actually something on the plate worth taking home; "Here! Wrap up this one bite, here!" Cake batter bowls were barely worth licking after my mother scraped it bare.

Waste was a sin in my parent's book and this was a permanent part of their psyche as unchangeable as their skin color.

Throughout my 20's and 30's, I made a point of what I now recognize as "uncycling", simply because I'd had enough of my parents' conservative lifestyle. What for them was a survival mode now appeared to my generation as cheapskate. I never took so much as a sweet-n-low packet from a restaurant (unlike Mom, God bless her) not to mention that doggie bags embarrassed me too much to ask for one.

No tinfoil, bag or baggie survived more than one use in my kitchen and I was proud of it. My not needing to scrimp and save felt better to me and seemed a symbol of my financial stability. The world offered me more, often more than I needed and I greedily (or so it seems now) took it, used it, pitched it.

Fast forward ten years. Our eyes have been opened- Thank you Mr. Gore-and we now know that there are not only Earth-friendly reasons to re-use and use less, but also the recent economic climate has given us more down-to-Earth reasons to spend less and save more. Recycling, either with or without a Depression, is vital.

And isn't it a testament to our (my) human capacity to mentally adapt that we (I) can change our (my) perspective 360 degrees on the subject of recycling. That someone like me can change my thinking in ways I'd never imagined possible -- to think like my MOM! -- that's radical! It is encouraging for all humankind.

I chuckle to myself to think that my twenty-year-old self would be mortified that I now have a corner beside my dryer (same spot as Mom)that is stuffed with more plastic bags than I can use in a decade. I rinse out the bottom of the Tide detergent bottle to get one more load.
I scold my kids to take shorter showers. I ask for doggie bags. And I eat the heel. I channel my mother on a regular basis as I refold, re-use and refill. I have to say this: Mom, you were right, even if you weren't doing it to save the planet. I guess that's what we call wisdom.