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Silver Threads: A generation that grew up green

When I was 13 — in 1948 — my mother sometimes used to tell me to hang out my baby brother’s diapers on lines behind our house, and brat that I was, I would weep softly during the entire grueling process. I wanted to call the authorities on her.

My own children were born in 1959 and ’61,  and disposable diapers were still a thing of the future. When I quit work for the first delivery, my husband and I bought a new clothes dryer to put alongside the washing machine in the shed behind our half of a shotgun double, but I remember line-drying the diapers most of the time anyway. The dryer was for rainy weather, and maturity had finally brought me around to Mother’s way of thinking: Fresh air and sunshine were best for the cloth that covered tiny pink bottoms.

When we traveled two hours away to spend a weekend with my parents, it was with a large pot containing six or eight glass bottles that had to be sterilized by boiling before being filled with formula. Not too long after my children were toddlers, they came up with a plastic pouch that fit inside a plastic bottle and could be thrown away after use.  I envied my younger sisters — by this time mothers themselves — this awesome new convenience.

But it gradually got easier for me, too. Soon our oldest was drinking from a bottle that only had to be washed well, and his diet, in addition to fruit and cereal, consisted of milk delivered every day or two by the man who drove the dairy’s truck through our neighborhood.

I got to thinking about the milkman and the empties he picked up and the clotheslines behind houses the other day when an e-pen-pal forwarded the tale of an old woman who got a lecture at the grocery store check-out when she commented that her generation hadn’t known anything about being “green.”

The young woman behind the counter said, “Yes,  and that’s our problem today. Your generation didn’t care enough to save our environment for future generations.”

Let’s hope she helps her customers be “green” by not putting their purchases in a dozen plastic bags when, with more careful sorting right there at check-out, six or seven would do. You know the problem.

But that’s not the point, which is that 50 years ago the old woman’s generation — and mine — didn’t even come close to having the disposables that we do today.

Remember when you took soft-drink and beer bottles back to the store, which in turn routed them back to the distributor and the bottling plant for re-use?

Remember when a bottle of ink was an item on every back-to-school shopping list, and you had no plastic pens to throw away?

Remember when you drank from a public fountain when you were thirsty instead of buying a bottle of water at the movie concession counter?

Remember when folks carried handkerchiefs in their pockets, not tissues?

Remember when you wiped up kitchen messes and spills with dish towels, not paper towels?

Heck, everybody was “green” 50 years ago because there weren’t that many ways not to be.  We older folks kind of paid our dues, early on, without even knowing it. And if they ever do ban disposable diapers, well then we won’t be the ones who’ll have to wash and hang the old-fashioned kind out, will we?

Bettye Anding is a former editor of The Times Picayune Living section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at


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