A Centenarian’s Teachings on Conservation

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Courtesy / Kelly Family

A collage of Kathryne Kelly throughout the years through a formal portrait, spending time with her granddaughter, Kassie, and painting wildlife.

As the namesake of my grandmother, Kathryne Kelly, I find myself becoming more and more like her. I desire to emulate her artistic and creative abilities, her fierce independence, but most of all, the way she values the world around her. 

For many years, she had a small bouquet of Gerbera daisies situated in a wooden block on her living room coffee table. The “flowers” were made of thinly cut beer cans painted coral. I was told she even ironed tissue paper to reuse and imagined her on Christmas morning, bows and wrapping paper strewn across the living room floor, as she ironed tissue paper in the laundry room.

I brought home ripped denim jeans to make into cutoffs one summer. As a master seamstress, my grandmother silently observed as I carefully measured and cut the fabric. I walked to the trash can to dispose of the excess denim but was stopped by a disapproving “Ah-ah-ah,” my grandmother gently said, “Save it.”

This Sunday, the admirable conservationist will join the ranks of the approximately three thousand Texan centenarians. The eldest daughter of seven children, Kathryne was only ten when the world witnessed its worst economic disaster to date. Forced to leave urban life for the affordability of the country, she and her family moved from San Antonio to Simmons City, a present-day ghost town. Her family ate what little they grew. Kathryne’s father built the rural home in which they lived; she helped carry the rocks he used to build it.

Growing up during the Great Depression helped shape Kathryne’s habit of repurposing and reusing her resources, and when possible, avoiding use altogether. It wasn’t a question so much of environmental impact but of financial survival. Now that consumers grapple with environmental impact as an important factor when making everyday decisions, we can all learn from Kathryne’s creativity in repurposing materials.

I try to incorporate many of my grandmother’s habits in my own life. I am given confused looks at gift exchanges with friends when I begin neatly folding tissue paper to reuse. I often bring plastic cups home from restaurants or coffee shops to rinse and properly recycle. I am conscious of the excess packaging of a product before purchasing. Similar habits are not difficult to adopt. 

Last month was the hottest month ever recorded. Time is running out for San Antonio to reach the environmental sustainability goals set forth by the public-informed SA2020 Vision. SA2020 put forth the goal to decrease residential waste by 50 percent from 2010 to 2020. Its 2018 impact report shows progress, but at 13 percent decrease in tonnage of waste from 2010 to 2018, it is nowhere near the proposed goal. 

While holding public entities accountable and lobbying for environmental policy are both crucial civic acts to take, each of us has the agency to make lifestyle changes. If the San Antonio community is serious about achieving its environmental sustainability goals, residents must avoid unnecessary waste and make choices with conservation in mind. We can shop at second hand stores for clothes and household items, repurpose materials instead of simply disposing of them, buy food items in bulk – and yes, even iron the tissue paper we receive in a gift and reuse it.

After my grandmother broke her femur at age 97 in a fall, her doctor asked, “How do you keep going?” Kathryne looked him straight in the eyes and said with fierceness: “Work.”

Work is finding purpose to keep going. Work can be pursuit of career growth, or working toward a household project. Work nowadays for the soon-to-be centenarian is gardening and painting. She still wakes up every morning and applies mascara and lipstick, even if she won’t be visiting with a guest or leaving home. That is work. 

When this challenge of overconsumption of natural resources poses the question, “How will you keep going? How will you solve this complex and messy issue?” We need to answer, “work,” if we all seek to live long, fulfilling lives and provide the same for our children. Kathryne wasn’t employed at a green company; she owned her own beauty salon. Yet she still lives her life in a way that would make an environmental activist proud. We can be conservationists too simply by approaching our daily choices as consumers with the mentality of “work.” Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to make it to 100.

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