Budgets and Beauty


I’ve been using cash for groceries the last few months, so as to help me stay within our already more than reasonable budget and so that I do not spend $20 extra each week on roquefort or special tea or some kind of new herbal supplement that might solve all my problems. It’s back to basics for us, by gum. Beans and eggs and bread and potatoes and onions. And it’s oh so difficult staying in budget but good in that way that hard-but-valuable things like marriage and sweeping the floors and folding laundry are good. (And ok, so maybe marriage is just a small bit different than sweeping floors, but there is a certain discipline and necessity and dailiness to both and maybe either one can be a joy or misery just depending on how much grace you are able to see it with. Also, by using the word “dailiness” I do not wish to convey the impression that I sweep our floors every day.  I’m using that word in a very broad, generous, metaphorical sense.)

Anyway, I went to Aldi for the first time a couple of days ago. It felt strange being in a new grocery store, and the overall atmosphere was eerie and disconcerting, but oh my word a head of cauliflower cost only $2.29 and they even had almond milk and cashews.  And I bought 6 roses for $3.99.  I’m not sure if that’s even a good price for roses, but I bought them because in the midst of staying on a strict budget it can be easy to lose the joy. But the beauty of staying on a strict budget is that the little things, like $4 worth of flowers or a cup of Celestial Seasonings tea or the morning coffee, become treasures. It made me think of this passage from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:


Francie, Neely, and mama had a very fine meal. Each had a thick slice of the “tongue,” two pieces of sweet-smelling rye bread spread with unsalted butter, a sugar bun apiece and a mug of strong strong hot coffee with a teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk on the side.

There was a special Nolan idea about the coffee. It was their one great luxury. Mama made a big potful each morning and reheated it for dinner and supper and it got stronger as the day wore on. It was an awful lot of water and very little coffee but mama put a lump of chicory in it which made it taste strong and bitter. Each one was allowed three cups a day with milk. Other times you could help yourself to a cup of black coffee anytime you felt like it. Sometimes when you had nothing at all and it was raining and you were alone in the flat, it was wonderful to know that you could have something even though it was only a cup of black and bitter coffee.

Neeley and Francie loved coffee but seldom drank it. Today, as usual, Neeley let his coffee stand black and ate his condensed milk spread on bread. He sipped a little of the black coffee for the sake of formality. Mama poured out Francie’s coffee and put the milk in it even though she knew that the child wouldn’t drink it.

Francie loved the smell of coffee and the way it was hot. As she ate her bread and meat, she kept one hand curved about the cup enjoying its warmth. From time to time, she’d smell the bitter sweetness of it. That was better than drinking it. At the end of the meal, it went down the sink. — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith


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