Petula Dvorak: Mom Was a Trendsetter on Recycling, if Not Shoes

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, August 28, 2009

The party had reached that point in the evening when the guys were doing their guy thing, and a few women ended up on sitting on the couches, forgotten like single socks at the Laundromat.

Three of us -- a Czech American writer, a Korean American lawyer and a Libyan American doctor -- groped for common topics of conversation. I can't remember how we got there, but we seized upon the weird things our mothers do.

We are all children of immigrants, born to parents from vastly disparate parts of the globe. And yet all of our mothers, with their thick accents, ugly shoes and constant clucking at the state of our lives, are irritatingly fashionable for the exact same reason: They are, by today's standards, considered "green."

"Bags of bags. Oh my God -- everywhere, tucked in the closets, the drawers. Plastic bags filled with plastic bags. She could never throw a bag away," said Basma Faris, the doctor.

My mother, who's 63, does bags of bags. When I was growing up, she also crocheted sacks from string and brought them to grocery stores. I nearly died each time she asked for a discount for bringing her own bag.

These crocheted bags and many other hip versions of recyclable sacks are now for sale all over the place, including such grocery stores as Giant and Whole Foods Market, which offer a discount if you bring your own bag.

Come January, in an effort to encourage District residents to switch to reusable bags, the city will begin taxing anyone who uses a store's plastic bags. Maybe our mothers got to Mayor Fenty.

"And how about the refrigerator?" demanded Won Rha, the lawyer. "I go over to her house now and open it and say, 'Okay, here's the butter.' Only it's never butter. Nothing is in the container that it's supposed to be in. She reuses everything. Yogurt cups, butter containers, jam jars."

This is the case at my mother's home, too. It takes about 15 minutes to organize a snack in her kitchen. I open mayonnaise jars to find the sugar, peanut butter jars for the coffee and the cottage cheese container for the leftover dumplings, natch.

When Rha had her first child and her mother moved in to help her during the first few weeks, Mom took over the kitchen. She served home-cooked meals on the Styrofoam trays that meat slabs are sold on.

"I'm like, 'Mom, we have plates. You can use those plates,' " Rha said.

My mom, who arrived in America in 1968 after years of postwar Eastern European economic deprivation, also loves the meat trays. She distributes her delicate, meticulously decorated Czech Christmas cookies on the very trays where pork butt once bled.

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