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Living on Eggshells: Lessons From The Depression

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My grandmother made the best lemon meringue pie you ever had. And when she cracked her eggs, she'd always dip her finger in the shells to get out every last drop of white. She was a child of The Depression, her mother died giving birth to her ninth child and my grandmother -- the eldest of the nine -- had to take her mother's place at sixteen. Whatever food my great-grandfather could buy on his country mailman's wages had to be stretched to feed a house full of hungry, squalling mouths.

We're all picking up our own versions of the eggshell ritual these days. Maybe you circle past the valet until you find a spot on the street, maybe you just don't go out to eat much anymore, or maybe you go to a matinee instead of Macy's on Sunday afternoons. Even if you're doing fine, you've probably started making your coffee at home, and you've finally found the courage to say, "tap" when the waiter asks, "sparkling or flat?"

True, we will always be the creators of the Hail Mary pass, and this is still the Republic of Risk and Reward. But when did we begin to cripple ourselves with the idea that "rich" is a stage of life as inevitable as adolescence or old age, and with the attitude that no amount of debt or deception can keep us from getting our due? When were we consumed by our own consumption? We've always heard that rich and happy aren't the same thing, but its been a while since we've been forced to prove it.

The last lemon meringue pie my grandmother made was in the cramped kitchen of her assisted living apartment. When she got into that scraping out the eggshells business, I gave her a typically impatient 20-year-old's glance and offered her an extra egg. "No, this is the best part!" she said. But she also said the best part of a chicken is the bony back and the best part of being old was getting to work till she was 75.

I'm beginning to see that using every drop of egg white because every drop counts makes the best pie; eating the bony back so your kids can have the rest makes that the best piece; and being proud of your job makes working till 75 better than a cushy retirement. I may not ever be so frugal with eggs, and I wouldn't dare eat a chicken back, but I do hope she's right about that last thing.

We're all in this together, and the choices we'll have to make won't end at tap water and street parking. But in every new choice is a chance to make sure that it won't be the scope of our problems that our grandchildren remember us by, but the wisdom of our solutions.

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