Monday, April 18, 2011

You can take the girl out of Manhattan, but you can't take Manhattan out of the girl.

After years of going to the post office that's located in the Ace Hardware store by my house, I've developed a lovely friendship with my post office lady, Wanda.

I'm not sure how or why we broke the customer/post office gal wall. Maybe it's Wanda's warmth, her openness, her willingness to turn a customer into a friend. Maybe she reminds me of my mom just a little bit. It's comforting to be around Wanda.

As I've mentioned in previous entries, I'm prepping for the Cents and Sensibility project my family and I are starting in June (you can get up to speed on the concept by clicking on this helpful link:

I wanted to talk with someone who had already read the map when it comes to living in troubled times. I thought maybe I could understand where we're heading if I got a better understanding of where we've been.

Although you'd never guess it, Wanda's old enough to have lived through many of the difficulties we're going through now.

Economic crisis.
Home foreclosures.
High unemployment.
Bank failures.

I knew a lot about Wanda's present-day life, but I had no idea what the topography of her past looked like. So we sat down last week for a bit of a chat.

Wanda spent the first part of her life in Manhattan, Montana. Unlike its big-city counterpart, Manhattan, Montana is a small town surrounded by bucolic farm fields.  She lived with her parents and sister, and she could walk to visit both sets of her grandparents.

Her dad worked at the local Trident cement plant. Her mom was a cook and waitress at a Manhattan restaurant.

They were poor, but Wanda didn't realize it. She has very fond memories of her childhood; roller skating around Manhattan, climbing trees. She churned cream into butter with her grandmother when she lived on their farm. She made home made ice cream with her cousins. "Our source of creativity was our minds," Wanda said.

Her clan was self-sustaining. Wanda's dad would hunt in the winter and fish in the summer, and they'd feast on what he caught. Her family had a huge garden. They canned whatever yield they didn't consume.

She remembers spending time with her grandmother, cutting flour sacks into dishcloths. There was no phone, no television. When they needed to go somewhere, they walked.

Wanda recalled the Dutch settlement that lived on the fringe of Manhattan. She said the Dutch kept mostly to themselves, and they were hard-working farmers.

I had no idea that groups of Dutch farmers came to Montana in the early 1900s! But the New York Times made note, back in 1913.

There was also a Japanese contingent in Manhattan. Wanda noticed their absence one day, and she asked her grandmother where they went. Wanda didn't get a good answer, and in hindsight, she assumes it's because her grandmother didn't want to have to explain that they'd been interred in Missoula.

Present day life during wartime and an economic downturn bears little resemblance to the landscape of the past.

I asked Wanda what she's brought from her past into her present. She was quick to mention that knowing how to be frugal, how to appreciate life with less, has been instrumental.

Fast forward a decade or two. Wanda's in her mid-20s. After five years of an unhappy marriage, she and her two little boys left. They moved away. She started over, with nothing. "I couldn't have done it if I hadn't already learned how to make do with what I have. It makes you creative. It makes you stronger."

Wanda's map has lead her on some circuitous paths over the years, but she's found a place to land in Colorado that's much less hard-scrabble than where she started in Montana. She still considers herself frugal, but she doesn't consider living modestly a hardship.

I want to remind myself of Wanda's early years in Manhattan when we start the Cents and Sensibility project. Because it's my firm belief that living with less can be a fulfilling, creative, joyous endeavor.

Wanda proves it's possible every day.


  1. my dear mary,
    thank you for telling stories.
    not because it will make you rich, but because it is important to share them with us.

  2. Thanks, Mary. Manhattan looks like it's about the same size as Martin - my little home town in South Dakota. Hard work, life at the effect of the weather and market prices, with people as the primary focus of everything because there's nothing else much going on.
    Tell Wanda hi - hope to meet her one day. We're small town kids.

  3. What a great story... What a great idea to talk to her. Thanks for writing it.