It was buried in the back of my recipe box, yellowed with age and slightly tattered. But there it was--my old tuna casserole recipe, a reminder of our early married days.
Back then, I'd learned how to stretch a meatloaf ten ways and yes, how to create casseroles that stretched our tight budget just as ingeniously.
I took that tuna casserole recipe and put it on the kitchen counter. In both real and symbolic ways, it was time....
My husband and I had come of age with Depression-era parents who had counted every penny forever after. We learned thrift in our respective households--mine in the city, his on a farm in the country.
The lessons took, and at the beginning of our marriage that background stood us in very good stead.
My husband, a newly-minted lawyer, made even less money than I did as a first-year middle school English teacher.
We lived so frugally that even a movie--ninety-nine cents at that time--was a splendid indulgence.
Our major investment was our tiny Cape Cod house, one that cost $12,000 in 1960, and required a $400 down payment that we struggled to put together.
I swapped clothes with my sister so that my students wouldn't see me in the same outfits so often. My husband continued to wear suits that had a suspicious sheen--the symptom of their advanced age.
And life was wonderful.
We both look back on those years as some of our best. Life was deliciously simple. We had no financial advisers because we had such skimpy incomes.
We had one car that managed to get us where we both needed to go, if we both stuck to a strict itinerary.
Vacations? A day trip to the New Jersey seashore with lunch packed in a shoe box and sand in our shoes for weeks afterwards.
My husband's bachelor apartment sofa, originally purchased at the Salvation Army for $28, was the centerpiece of our living room for those first couple of years.
Our parties were with couples in similar circumstances. Spaghetti and meatballs--nobody called it "pasta" back then--was often on the menu and the wine that went with it was cheap.
And when it was just the two of us, tuna casserole was a mainstay of our weekly diet. Its mix of noodles, tuna, canned mushroom soup, and peas became a celebration when I sprinkled on potato chips as a topping.
The years passed, and Providence smiled more kindly on us. We needed a bigger house when three daughters filled the little Cape Cod to bursting.
Our next house seemed a palace--the girls even had their own bathroom.
Life got more complicated, and a bit less fun, as we joined the legions of America's consummate consumers. We had things...more things than we needed.
On the day we got a second TV, I remember feeling something akin to guilt. When we got a third, I didn't tell my thrifty parents. The omission was deliberate.
The years flew by, and suddenly, our daughters were gone, off to college campuses and then to lives of their own. America was in its golden years, and so were we.
There were vacations, nicer cars, and dinner parties where shrimp dishes and exotic Asian foods instead of spaghetti and meatballs, were on the menu.
I had the luxury of being a freelance writer--one without any salary or benefits, of course, but ideal for my restless nature.
We thought it would go on and on. We thought our retirement was as safe and secure as the giant, presumably rock-solid companies in which we had invested.
The wake-up call came during several sobering conferences with our financial advisor--yes, we now had one of those.
The national economy was in a free-fall. Wall Street was having a nervous breakdown. Our savings were depleted.
We had blinked, and a whole generation had slipped away. We found ourselves reliving some aspects of our parents' lives.
While we've been more fortunate--we're blessed with some degree of economic security as retirees--but our outlook is fixed on caution.
When you drive to a store that once was there, and suddenly it's not, that's scary.
When contemporaries who shared Camelot with us are wondering whether their pensions are safe, and whether they can keep their homes, optimism is a scarce commodity.
We may have lost some of our hard-won savings, but we've gained something in the bargain. Perspective.
Friends and neighbors are talking to each other more and with more openness. We're all in this together, or, as somebody called, we're experiencing "creative commiseration or mild depression era syndrome."
We're remembering that living small, not large, can be rewarding.
We recently invited some friends over to play charades and sing old songs with us. It was glorious. We proudly served spaghetti and meatballs.
And I can't wait to make my old tuna casserole.
I suspect that it will taste just as wonderful as it used to.
Have a great day!