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Kicking It with a brown paper bag


Last updated 8/12/2021 at 2:52pm

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal

Special to The Village News

Here is my limerick to the humble brown paper grocery bag. For most of my life, it was the standard carrying device for food purchased at a grocery store. It even evolved to include a useful handle.

There once was a tote, I recall,

That carried our stuff big and small,

Just a humble brown bag

Without a price tag,

Thus, making them free to us all.

For decades, in spite of its unassuming appearance, this simple democratic paper bag graced home kitchens without a nod to one’s bank account.

In our house, the grocery store paper bag was coveted. It was a multi-purpose resource. Each bag was carefully refolded to its original flatness then slipped between the fridge and the cupboard to wait for future use.

After all, my generation was diligently trained by our preceding generations. We didn’t know it was called recycling back then.

My parent’s parents learned their frugal habits by surviving the “Great Depression;” they then passed down the wisdom of conserving resources to their offspring, which later came in handy during the rationing of everything from sugar to gasoline during WWII.

With my generation continuing to lean toward the thrifty side, more as a knee jerk reaction imposed by our parent’s frugal habits, versus a desire to brace against global warming, this innate thriftiness explains the very reason our kids don’t want our gobs of castoffs.

Actually, we didn’t have anything in our house that couldn’t be used again and again. I do not recall having to take out the garbage much because we didn’t have any. Food scraps went to the pigs, vegetable scraps to the chicken yard, we used hand embroidered cup towels which went into the wash in lieu of paper towels, bottles were glass, washed and reused. The only product I recall that came in a tin can was daddy’s beer. Otherwise, there wasn’t really anything left to be considered trash.

In our house, the prized paper bag was a worthy household tool used and reused until its final job was as a fire starter.

As kids, we used paper bags for coloring birthday cards, making Halloween masks, lunch bags, for overnight sleepovers to carry our pajamas; when carefully measured, cut, and folded they became book covers; they were also used as book bags, and even gift wrap.

Our parents used paper bags for the under-sink-trash-can liner, a pet food mat on the back step, they used bags to transport hot food to church potlucks, to wrap boxes for shipping and tied with string, to carry greasy tractor parts to town for repair, and to take daddy’s daily lunch to the field.

I betcha I must have used a paper bag every day of my life until Safeway switched to plastic bags in 1982 just before the planet became clogged with waste.

I miss the smell of new brown paper bags. Their texture. Their cleanliness. I miss seeing the neat stack at the end of the check-out counter. I miss hearing the crack as the clerk split open a new bag before placing the cans on the bottom.

Call me nostalgic, but really must I remind those who mock my sentimentality for something as lowly and unassuming as a paper bag? It behooves me to add, paper bags do not require safety warnings.

Believe me, no child ever suffocated from sticking a head inside one. We always had enough breath to say “trick or treat.”

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be reached at [email protected]


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