In an effort to build a community of environmentally conscious citizens we’ve created Community Leeks as a platform for people to share thoughts, stories, recipes and resources. Today we bring you an additional entry for this extra special day. Our fourth piece captures the essence of life as a first generation Canadian just after World War II. A former teacher, talented seamstress, baker and art/drama enthusiast, Mary Ellen Viau – a woman who can always make something from nothing – shares with us the invaluable work ethic, gratitude and unassuming nature of her parents and their generation; a philosophy that is even more sacred in today’s consumerist society.
February Warmed With Love
By Mary Ellen Viau
We tend to think that the three Rs are the brainchild of a very recent more enlightened generation, and that blue and green bins are the solution to what ails our consumeristic society. But growing up as part of a big family, I certainly was no stranger to the concept of reducing waste by making use of reclaimed materials. Both my parents, European immigrants who had lived through the war years in occupied Holland, were creatively dedicated to repurposing used materials. If a thing looked like it still had some life in it, even if that was a different kind of life from the one it started out as, then you just didn’t throw it out. Rather than discarding and buying new, my parents kept and used what was still usable; they were the antithesis of today’s consumer society.
In February after the busy gardening and harvest months were behind her, my mother spent many hours at her sewing machine – in those days still manually operated with a foot throttle. One February stands out as especially wonderful. I was maybe six or seven but I still remember quite distinctly that winter coat – a soft powder blue Inuit style coat with a big, cozy hood. My mother had embroidered colourful designs on the bottom just above the faux fur trim. I loved that coat, and I think it was the warmest one I have ever owned. Yet not one part of it was new. The blue woolen cloth, the buttons, trim and lining were all materials that had once been parts of other garments. With skill, purpose and love my mother reworked those secondhand materials to produce a beautiful “new” coat for me. I don’t think she was necessarily thinking about saving the planet, but wasting anything that was still useful didn’t make sense to her.
This was just one of the innumerable sewing projects she completed using remnants or materials that had been reclaimed and recycled. It was in fact that same February she produced almost a hundred homemade valentines for us to take to our classmates on February 14. With the help of her sewing machine, homemade glue (flour mixed with water), bits of colourful fabric, lace, plastic table coverings, and card stock from empty cereal boxes she went to work. We helped too by cutting out hearts and adding the uncertain and at times slightly smeared requests of “Be My Valentine” with her fountain pen. What an afternoon of recycling and love!
Recently, although my parents are now both gone, I was again inspired by their unwavering commitment to respecting the environment. After my mother’s passing their house was emptied of its contents, freshly painted, and listed with real estate – all traces of my parents gone. Or so I thought. One afternoon alone in the silence of that empty house I saw something I hadn’t noticed before – a door that led to the storage area in their basement. I recognized it as one that had come from the century home my husband and I had purchased and renovated years ago. We too had tried to reuse many of the elements in the house but some things were set aside – this particular door was one of those things. Someone else might have seen it as destined for landfill but my father claimed it. Here complete with its original hardware was its new purpose. A perfect fit. I pulled the door closed and heard the clear, soft click of mechanism (over a hundred and twenty-five years old) function without complaint. Good for you Dad – it still works! Thanks for the love and the lesson!
About the Author
Mary Ellen is the mother of three boys, loving wife of over 40 years and now the grandmother of three darling girls. She stayed at home raising her boys in their childhood; mastering the art of homemade clothes, gifts and food. She then obtained her teaching degree at McGill University and taught at a private elementary school before moving to Ontario. There, she taught Art History and Drama, while also getting involved in the Upper Canada Playhouse helping in the crafting costumes and sets. When Mary Ellen is not conducting her theatre program, caring for her cats or spending time with her beloved grandchildren, you can find her travelling Europe, frequently going back to her native land in Holland. She continues to share with her family the legacy and traditions her parents left behind.