Recycling is a way of life here in New England, and it goes beyond separating out your paper and plastic. We pick up used CDs and DVDs at the flea market, buy dishes and furniture from secondhand shops and antique stores, and scour the giveaway table at the transfer station for anything else that might come in handy.
Yankee thrift can get a trifle odd, however, when you’re dealing with non-New Englanders who do not necessarily take this concept of reuse to the extremes that we do—a discovery Mom and I made while visiting family in upstate New York.
During the coffee hour following the service at my grandfather’s church, the pastor mentioned to my mother that there were several floral arrangements left over from a funeral held earlier that weekend. The gentleman who had passed away had been quite well known in the community, and there had been a plethora of flowers to decorate the altar and the church hall.
Even after the church had distributed flowers to the local nursing homes and group homes, there were still half a dozen arrangements remaining. Due to an upcoming holiday, there wouldn’t be anyone at the church to take care of the flowers, so they would most likely perish in the interim. Since the family did not want the remaining arrangements, the pastor asked if Mom would please take them.
Pleased at the prospect of having fresh flowers at my grandfather’s apartment—though somewhat apprehensive as to how we would accommodate all of the arrangements—Mom acquiesced to the pastor’s request.
Lest you start to think this is a bit creepy, permit me to offer a description of the flowers in question. In my experience, which is fairly considerable in this matter, funeral flowers typically look like, well, funeral flowers. They have an expansive look about them, with lots of ferns and a bow of some kind and maybe a plastic sign that says something like “With Deepest Sympathies.”
These flowers looked nothing like that. They were gorgeous, fragrant arrangements such as you might see as a centerpiece at a fancy dinner party or on the bedside table of a woman whose husband initially forgot her birthday. Taking them home and giving them new life was a no-brainer.
I should also mention that my family is far from squeamish when it comes to funerals. Though we love and miss those who have died and we grieve their passing, we also know that they have gone home to be with the Lord. Having this perspective enables us to treat funerals as celebrations of life rather than as sad and solemn occasions.
So really, in our book, it made perfect sense to bring one of these floral arrangements to the family party for our cousin’s 18th birthday. After all, we were only taking them from one celebration of life to another.
The flowers, I should clarify, were a supplementary gift, not a substitute one. Because our cousin loves flowers and is an avid gardener, we wanted to share our bounty with her. Even though she is not a New Englander, we were confident she would appreciate the opportunity to participate in the rescue and recycling of an otherwise doomed floral arrangement.
In retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have told her so readily how we acquired the flowers, but we wanted to explain why we had brought such a lush (and expensive-looking) arrangement when others had brought wildflower bouquets. Besides, that’s part of the Yankee thrift experience—there’s no such thing as a good find without a good story.
And once our cousin had heard the entire story—how the flowers would have perished without our intervention and were now instead on her family’s dining room table, awaiting her loving care—her poorly camouflaged expression of shock faded and she was able to enjoy the flowers’ beauty.
After the party, Mom admitted to me that, now that she thought about it, bringing a floral arrangement that had been used in a funeral service to a teenager’s birthday party was a little odd. I reassured her that it was the thought that counted.
The intense New England proclivity towards recycling may not always translate well outside of the region, but its heart is in the right place. If there’s still some use—or in the case of the flowers, some life—left in something, why throw it away? Making it available to others as a gift or a giveaway or at a reduced price reduces clutter in our landfills and strain on our wallets.
In order for those who are benefiting from this recycling process to fully enjoy their repurposed items, however, it may sometimes be best to spare them a detailed account of the items’ backstory.
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published July 3, 2014.