The Queen of Barter (a slight digression from my normal birth topics.)

The
Queen of Barter
I don’t remember when it began. All of a sudden I
realized I had things other people wanted (or I could tell them they wanted)
and I wanted things I was too poor to buy. I didn’t want a lot: gas for the car
so I could look for a job, Christmas presents for my family. A Christmas tree.
I didn’t have $40 for a tree, damn it! But I could sew. I could paint. I could
cook. I could clean. I could flip pancakes at 4 a.m. if I needed to.

I wasn’t bad at begging. I was helping resettle Hmong
and Cambodian refugees after the Vietnam war through a non-profit my husband
and I started in 1980. Each month I would speak at a different church about our
work and happily bring home enough for rent from the collection plate that day
for the storefront we lived in and worked out of with our then 1-year-old, Avi.
The day after Thanksgiving I arrived at every major grocery chain within a 20-mile
radius and begged unsold turkeys. I came home with over 30 of them. One call to
my newly resettled Hmong friends and the turkeys were gone within an hour. “Turkey”
was added to their growing vocabulary.

Clothes, broken vacuum cleaners, doggie shampoo,
hundred-pound bags of rice, a local restaurant even donated bulk frozen meat
and fish weekly for us to give away. One woman grabbed all the clothes she
could carry week after week until we realized she was holding garage sales in
her apartment building thanks to our clothes shelf. I knew those bikinis
wouldn’t fit her.
By then we had a whole schedule of free English
classes, a food and clothing pantry and walk-in assistance with bills, letters,
finding doctors, whatever came through the door.

On the nights David stayed to study at the university
I would often take Avi with me after a long day of working in our center, walk
the 2 blocks down to the Dorothy Day soup kitchen and homeless shelter and grab
supper there. The street people knew me and I felt perfectly safe going there
in the evenings. Besides I was too tired to cook. Every night of the week a
different local church brought in a meal and served it, though I never saw the
church people sit down to eat with the guests but stand safely behind the food buffet
for protection. I always joined a table of ladies who would try to get the baby
on my lap to laugh. He would always comply.

At one point we realized that if anything ever
happened to us, we didn’t have anything like a will with any wishes concerning
our baby. David’s elderly parents assumed they would get custody when we
brought up the subject which we didn’t think was the best plan. I called up a
friend I had worked with several years back whose wife was an attorney. She
agreed to draw up a will for us in exchange for my making her a tweed suit. She
loved it and we had one less worry.

I came to our marriage quite savvy about being
frugal. I had been trained by the experts in frugality: The Monastic Order of
the Carmelite Nuns of the Ancient Observance and Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity of Calcutta sisters
before that. I had dreamed of being a nun all my teen years (when I wasn’t
going to rock concerts and smoking weed) and even before that, though I was
brought up in a Jewish family. My parents never knew what they had done to have
ended up with me. That is another whole book, though.

The Carmelites prided themselves on not having
changed anything in over 400 years, boasting a pure, undiluted life of poverty,
chastity and obedience in order to die to self. That meant that the superiors
had over 400 years to think up every possible way to live out those vows. We
were instructed in the novitiate on how to make a tube of toothpaste last
beyond any expiration date printed on it by carefully cutting the tube open and
rationing what stuff was left there. We were issued two habits, a wool summer
one and a slightly heavier wool winter one. They were each washed once a year
on the day we switched seasons.

I knew I couldn’t ask for Q-tips after the ones I first
brought ran out so I figured I could meticulously peel off the top layer of
used fibers after each use and in that way reuse it again and again, making it
practically immortal. One carefully cut off all canned food labels and laid
them in a neat pile in a drawer in the kitchen on your assigned cooking day.
They would be used for writing notes to Reverend Mother during times of the
Great Silence when all were forbidden to speak. We were each issued an emery
board which was to be used to sharpen your 2 allotted safety pins, which were used
to pin your work apron to the habit. Each nun was issued two light bulbs, one a
7-watt bulb and the other 20-watts. As they were handed to you, you were to
understand that the 7-watt bulb was to be screwed into the socket in your cell
for times of prayer, washing and dressing. It was to be removed and the higher
watt bulb inserted for designated reading times. I decided to go a step further
and read only by standing at the window in my cell, thus saving the bulb
indefinitely. It is a miracle I didn’t go blind. Sanitary napkins were unheard
of. We used old clean rags, washing them out by hand and hanging them under the
bed springs to dry. I didn’t have a problem with that. I had stopped getting my
‘monthly’ shortly after joining. I lost too much weight too fast and I had
stopped menstruating completely, my periods only resuming a whole year after
returning to the world.

The Missionaries of Charity were a lot more fun,
though they even outdid the Carmelites in striving to live a life of poverty.
After each meal the sisters would line up and each wash their plates, returning
them to the dish cupboard. The thing was however, that soap was only used on
Sundays. The nuns would go outside after each meal carrying their plates and
scrub them with sand from the ground in the vacant lot behind the convent.

I have since read that Buddhist monks and nuns save
some water in their cups toward the end of each meal. They also save a piece of
kimchee or lettuce and use those to wipe and rinse the plate or bowl. Then the
water is drunk and the kimchee or lettuce eaten. No waste. No need to wash up
either, saving valuable water.

Well, I am sure that it is evident by now that I
didn’t last in either convent. I met David, an ex-novice Trappist monk,
actually I was introduced to him by Reverend Mother Immaculata, and that was
the end of that vocation. For both of us.

By the time we had four children David was teaching
and we were living in a 3-story log cabin palace. Friends had decided to move
to Europe and happily gave us the cabin and the 70 acres it was on for a
pittance. It didn’t have electricity or running water but that was part of the
adventure. Our free-range children loved it, grazing in the raspberry patch
before breakfast, holding make-believe weddings, throwing acorns in leu of
rice. We had an onion-domed chapel and four hermitages or poustinia on the property besides. It had been run as a retreat
which we hoped to continue. We had an average of 600 people a year trudge up
our ¼ mile, washed-out road to the top of our mountain and the main house where
we lived.

I was homeschooling between making up food baskets
for the guests, baking bread, and caring for the kids. David kept the wood box
filled and hauled in 50 gallons of water a day for cooking, cleaning, bathing
and washing clothes—all before leaving to teach for the day. At night, after
the kids were in bed, he would grade papers by kerosene lantern late into the
night.

I was adamant that I stay home while the children
were little. Out in the boonies there was not much need to barter. We were
pretty well set. Then I got it in my head that I had to have a piano. Music had to be part of a well-rounded
curriculum. I started bringing home local newspapers and scoured the for-sale
ads. Finally I found it: black walnut upright piano. $400.

I called and the man described it. It was perfect. I
said, “It is exactly what I am looking for. But I don’t have any money. (pause)
I barter.”
The line was silent. Then he said, “Groovy. What do
you do?”
“Well,” I began. “I make quilts. I make sourdough
bread, shoo fly pie….”
He let out a long sigh. “I’ve always wanted a
butterfly quilt. Just a great big butterfly.”
“Really?” I said. Would it be that simple?
“Oh yeah. That would be groovy.”
“OK. You’ve got it,” I said.

Three weeks later I called him up and later that
afternoon he came up our mountain with his truck. Our road had recently been
graded, otherwise I don’t think this would have worked. 
He and David wrestled the piano to the door of the
log cabin. They tried every angle, but it was not going to fit through the
door. Then piano man had an idea. He disassembled the entire thing and brought
it into our living room, piece by piece. The children lined up on the couch to
watch, mousey quiet the whole time. This was the most excitement they’d ever
seen in their little lives.

When all the parts were strewn across the cabin’s
main floor the piano man commenced putting it all back together. Then he tuned
it. And then, to the delight of the children he played several pieces. Then he
stayed for supper, happily cradling his new quilt as he left later that night.

A few weeks later I had a call from an old friend.
She wanted to come and make a retreat but she couldn’t leave a donation. I
offered that she come and make her retreat and then in exchange, watch the kids
one evening so David and I could have a long-overdue date in town. Rural
Wisconsin didn’t offer much, but a nice quite dinner was very nice. We ended up
doing the date-night-for-a-retreat-night once a month after that. I’d look
forward to it all month.

A couple of months later Hannah was born. At home.
Before my midwife made it up the hill. I was hanging onto the wood stove at 4
a.m. when she arrived (Hannah, not the midwife.)

David was home for two weeks to take care of the kids
and the house. I had stocked the kitchen with easy-to-make meal ingredient, but
all David managed to make was scrambled eggs and canned soup. After three days
I’d had enough of his cooking.

I called a woman in town I had met once or twice. Pat
and Mike ran a tiny greasy spoon café in Colfax. Mike was not well and I’d
heard Pat had cancer but they kept the café open. I explained my predicament
and suggested a barter: If she could box up a dinner for 2 weeks for four
little people and two adults every night that David could pick up after
school—it could be anything at all, we weren’t fussy–then in six weeks when I
was up to it, I would come in every Saturday and Sunday at 4 a.m. during
hunting season and flip pancakes for her, bake cookies, muffins, pies, whatever
they needed until my bill was paid up. She didn’t hesitate. “Sure, we can do
that.”

The next afternoon David arrived home with a
cardboard box and laid it on the table. The kids hopped up onto the benches
excited to see what Papa had brought. He lifted out foil-wrapped cheeseburgers,
malts in covered to-go cups, a large green salad and French fries. It tasted
heavenly. For two more weeks Pat outdid herself: soup suppers with crusty
French bread, pies, chef salads, broasted chickens.

When I finally felt strong enough, I called her and
told her to stop the boxes and tally up my tab. The next Saturday I nursed the
baby around 4 a.m. and drove the eight miles into town. David would sleep in
with the kids until I returned three hours later. Pat showed me how to make
platter-size pancakes with sunny-side-up eggs imbedded in the top pancake of
the stack. I learned how to make steak and eggs, pumpkin muffins and giant
M&M cookies. When hunting season ended Pat had me come in and empty and
paint her pantry behind the stoves. After 4 weekends she announced that I had
paid up in full. I was crushed. I loved my new job. I didn’t want it to end.
***
We had jobs, we had work, and we were living in
upstate New York over twenty years later when we got a call from the Midwest
that our oldest child needed rescuing. Every parent’s worst nightmare. We left
everything and moved back to Wisconsin in twenty-four hours.

A dear friend who ran a retreat center gave us two
rustic cabins to live in on her property. No phone, no way for anyone to find
us. It was a radical intervention but it worked. We quickly realized we weren’t
eligible for any help or programs in Wisconsin until we had been residents for
60 days. After 60 days we could begin applying
for services which could take months
to clunk through the system.
Ok. Back to survival mode. We would do what we had to
do. Our meager savings quickly ran out but not before we heard about the food
programs in the area that recycled outdated and government surplus food. By Thanksgiving
that year we had been gifted with five turkeys. You bet I used every last bit
of all that good meat. I could write a turkey cookbook. (Hmmm…I wonder if
anyone ever has.) The cabins didn’t have an oven. There were hot plates, a
crock pot and a toaster/grill thing. We made it work.

I rummaged through my box of sewing paraphernalia and
started cutting out tiny squares from all the cloth I had saved. I added a
calico skirt I seldom wore to the mix. I was able to sew five quilted Christmas
stockings out of all the scraps.

I hit the local boutiques and sold all of them the
first weekend we went out. As soon as I got back to the car and nodded a YES!
the tribe would cheer. Next stop was the gas station. Each stocking went for
$45.

It took us three months to find work. Our next eldest
daughter was an LPN and offered to register with the board in Wisconsin and
find work. She got a job first. Our golden goose.

With the leftover money after buying gas we could go
to thrift stores and gather kitchen items like pots and pans and buy dish soap
and shampoo. I could also find discounted cloth remnants to make more stockings
out of. Those kept selling quite well up until Christmas.

On Christmas Eve I took my last two stockings out
after supper and drove to our local tree farm. I whipped out the stockings and
gave the young guy my (now) canned spiel:
“These are my last two hand-quilted stockings and I would love to trade one for
that little Balsam over there.”

He laughed. “My wife just had a baby boy yesterday
and told me we should have a stocking for him! How much are they?” I told him
$45. He pulled out his wallet and gave me five dollars.
“That tree is $40 and here is the difference. Wow! This
is beautiful. Thank you SO much!” One more happy customer. 
I dragged the tree home and we decorated it with
paper chains and popcorn and cranberry strings. And ate turkey for supper.
Again.

On
weekends I would go to the farmers’ markets and barter. During the week I’d
take the girls to the closest rivers and we would collect stones. I would paint
them while the girls played 

board
games or cards or cut out tiny squares of cloth for the quilted dolly blankets
we were now mass producing. Hunting season was now open and we didn’t dare go
on walks anymore. We would haul home as many rocks as we could carry.



Even in the
winter the farmers markets were bustling. Homegrown meat, soaps, maple syrup,
artisan bread, winter squash, honey. I traded with each vendor when they didn’t
have regular customers. I approached one table. A farmer couple were selling
organic chickens, bacon and eggs. I showed them the stockings I had left and
the newest item: river rocks painted with bugs, animals, nesting dolls
—whatever
I’d dreamed up the night before.


The farmer lady didn’t say anything. She grabbed a burlap
bag and started stuffing it with organic chickens and several dozen cartons of
eggs, picked out a rock bunny and handed me the bag. I offered to give her more
rocks; I knew the bag I was holding cost way over $50 at least. She smiled and
told me to come by her table again next weekend.

I got a similar response from many of the others.
Within an hour our trunk was full. Squash, bread, eggs, organic butter, bacon,
more squash, far more than I’d hoped for. Score!

The next week a policeman went first to our car,
still running in neutral at the edge of the market and wrote David a ticket for
parking illegally. David pointed out that they were still in the car and that
it was still running. He was served the $35 ticket anyway. Then he went after
me, telling me I was bothering the customers and if I didn’t stop he’d arrest
me. I told him I had not spoken to one shopper, only the vendors. Then he told
me barter is illegal since the state can’t tax it. He said I would either need
a vendor license, which I knew cost $300 for the season, or a similar peddler’s
license. Shit! Shit, shit, shit!

The next business day I took the $35 ticket to the
local government offices to contest it. I was interviewed at several points and
finally brought before an assistant magistrate. I stood before his desk,
indignant. He was a tall, dark man, Arab I guessed by the Muslim decorations on
the walls of his office. He read the complaint and then asked my version of it.
I explained that the car was not parked, but still running and that there was
no way I had the money for a ticket. I explained that we were looking for work
and only bartered to get gas money and food. I had come prepared, though, and
took a painted rock out of my parka pocket. It was a matryoshka nesting doll holding a baby nesting doll, one of my best.
I told him we collected the rocks along the Mississippi and painted them to
barter. He took the rock and turned it over a few times. Then he smiled and
said, “You’re good. You are very good!” He ripped up the ticket. I told him to
keep the rock. “No,” he said. “You can sell it.”

Well, our kids survived and so did we—barely, but we
were healing. You never think your family will find such drama. Our prayers
were answered, and we made it through that year. We moved into an apartment with
the girls in the city and soon after both found work. I still painted rocks and
started taking orders from local boutiques, some rather high-end ones, too. I
got a job as a free-lance proofreader for a publishing company. Rachel kept
working as a nurse, a job she loved, and the others went back to school. We
could afford to go out to eat on rare occasions now, and buy decent clothes,
though I insisted they be on sale or second hand. We weren’t rich yet. I still
cringe when I think back to what we almost lost. The girls look back and
remember the fun adventure they had living in the cabins in the woods at
Christmas and the rest of that year.

Fast forward another 10 years. Our kids were all
doing really well. They were spread across the U.S. and one was in the U.K. 
David was working and I had resurrected my former
midwifery credentials and rather than sit the state boards all over again I
transferred all of them and became a certified doula. It was my dream job. I
worked in the homeless and refugee communities in the Twin Cities. I was the
only one on the birth team that didn’t have to leave at shift change and could
also visit them at home afterwards. The only trouble was that the state health
board decided that all insurance companies should be paying our fees so while
they battled over who should pay us, we weren’t being paid. In the end we
weren’t paid in over 2 years.

Back to survival mode, though it wasn’t as dire as
before. We could only buy the barest groceries and items. We didn’t go out much.
Around that time I offered to baby sit my grandson and tried to help my
daughter out where I could. My grandson and I actually had a grand time after I
picked him up from school each day. We walked all over the city: museums,
parks, anything that was free. We rode the trains and buses and discovered all
sorts of fun places that didn’t cost anything. We could go to the Mall of
America on the train and walk around for hours.

One day we were bumming around the University of
Minnesota and found an art show in progress. There were tables full of gorgeous
pottery pieces. One large platter caught my eye. It was absolutely beautiful. I
scribbled a note and put it under the piece. I asked that, should it ever be
for sale to call me, and wrote my number down.

About a week later I got a call. The potter turned
out to be the art professor. I went back and met him at the university. Very
hippie-arty type. No wedding ring. I needed to size him up if I was going to
pitch my barter card. He was very nice. He suggested $50 for the platter. I
told him I thought it was very lovely and I would like to barter. He didn’t
need a quilt. He didn’t need a new jacket. Out of the blue I said, “I bake a
mean shoo-fly pie.” He really brightened up then. I could tell no one was at
home cooking for him. “Would you like me to make you some pies, maybe one a
week for you to bake at home?” He loved it. I delivered the first pie–a huge
Dutch apple pie with crumb topping the next afternoon with a card with baking
instructions. A few days after that I made an old-fashioned 2-crust berry pie.
He was still happy with the arrangement. The following week I arrived at the
pottery studio with a large chicken pot pie also made from scratch. He said it
more than paid for my clay platter. He even gave me some red clay to take home
for my grandson.

By November that year I still wasn’t being paid
though I took referrals for clients. When I got home from a birth I was often
wired from all the coffee and adrenalin. That year I decided to teach myself
how to make Ukrainian eggs as an outlet in the evenings when I didn’t want to
sleep but wasn’t up to TV. It was an affordable hobby. It would have to be. A
dozen eggs cost under $2.50 and the dyes only a dollar a package. I could make
the bees wax last if I was careful. The tools were $7 each but I hoped they
would soon pay for themselves. 

I broke as many eggs as I decorated that first year but slowly got the hang of it. Then I discovered etched eggs. I was smitten. Brown eggs are drilled and blown out. We only get organic eggs because we don’t want to waste them and we would be eating a lot of eggs. I drew designs and pictures free-hand with the tool, warming the wax chips in the copper cup at the end of the kiske by waving it over a burning candleThen the egg is dipped in an acid solution until the background corrodes to a pure white, which took about 20 seconds.


By the summer I had over 200 decorated eggs and hit
the outdoor art shows. Again, I knew I couldn’t just stroll around with an open
basket and hawk eggs for $20 a piece, but I was after the vendors. I needed
Christmas presents for the coming holiday and the birthdays until then. I was
hoping to decorate our apartment walls with a bit more than calendars from the
local gas station. I lucked out at the Hennepin-Uptown art show which featured
hundreds of artists in booths over a mile of sidewalks. I traded for Egyptian
pottery, Israeli batiks, a French oil painting, handcrafted bowls and mugs, and
lots of other stunning works of art. I started selling the eggs at church craft
sales after that, also bartering with other sellers for all sorts of things for
the house and for gifts. 

When my book came
out, I realized it contained even more bartering power. I brought 6 copies with
me to the Renaissance Festival last year. My grandson had his heart set on a
wooden sword. I went up to the sword maker who was dressed in proper Medieval
attire. My
spiel changed slightly,
though. Now I could cite the Middle Ages’ custom of barter to the shop keepers
who couldn’t contest it and happily traded books for all sorts of handcrafted
goods.


I still make all my Christmas presents, usually
starting in June. The family knows and expects we will be giving only homemade
again this year. It has even rubbed off on some of them. Whomever hasn’t been
gifted with one yet will receive an etched egg. I still make Christmas
stockings though only for the latest arrivals in the family. 


To conclude: Barter is still alive and well, in spite
of any laws to the contrary.

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