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Why I ask myself: Do I really need to buy this?

TARA HARDY/The Globe and Mail

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My mother-in-law, bless her, still has a rotary phone: one of those heavy, black, clunky ones. This means that she is often foiled by the "press 1," "press 2" messages when she tries to get through to a government office or a major utility.

There used to be an option for rotary phone users. The message would say: "If you are calling from a rotary phone, please stay on the line and an agent will be with you shortly." But no more. Obviously they assume that everyone has push-button phones these days, even octogenarians.

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So she comes to me for help, which often leads to other complications. Because of privacy issues, the agents need to talk to her and get her permission to talk to me. This happened recently when I was dealing with an insurance company on her behalf.

"No problem," said the agent, "I'll teleconference your mother-in-law into our conversation."

I explained that my MiL would not understand the term "teleconference," and that if she had to press anything she couldn't. He ended up having a long one-on-one chat with her, during which she told him all about her neighbours, her church and her family, including her beloved great-grandchildren.

He seemed a little frazzled when he came back on the line with me. "Your mother-in-law is quite the character," he said, somewhat breathlessly. Yes, yes she is.

My dear mother-in-law is typical of her generation: If it works, she says, why replace it? She is, without knowing it, an eco-warrior. She reuses and recycles items, but hardly ever replaces them.

For instance, she doesn't have a shredder. Instead, she carefully tears up sensitive documents, puts them into a bucket and covers them with hot water. Once cooled, the resulting pudding is put into her compost heap. Simple, effective and costs next to nothing.

Her car is a spotless 1994 compact that has just over 20,000 kilometres on it. You read that right. I doubt anyone has ever sat in the back seat, which is covered with a hand-crocheted blanket. My MiL takes her car faithfully for servicing twice a year, and the mechanics fall over themselves urging her to sell it to them "when she is ready." The tires were replaced recently because she is sensible enough to know of the dangers of aged rubber.

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When she went earlier this year to get her licence sticker, the clerk refused to believe the mileage figure and went out to the car to check … and then came back sheepishly, apologizing for having doubted her.

The wallpaper on her downstairs hallway dates from when she bought the house nearly 40 years ago. It's in perfect condition in all its burgundy flocked-velvet glory.

The summer kitchen downstairs boasts a range from the 1950s. My mother-in-law says it works better than the comparatively juvenile Kenmore stove upstairs. She survives quite well without a cellphone, computer, food processor or clothes dryer. Her one concession to modernity is a flat-screen TV my husband and I bought her. It rests on top of the massive console she doesn't want to get rid of (why buy a television stand, after all?).

Her garden has fruit trees and berry bushes in abundance, which delight her great-grandchildren. Every summer she picks redcurrants, gooseberries and strawberries and preserves them, packing the jams, jellies and syrups in recycled jars that have seen many years of use. Her tomatoes, beets and onions go into soups, sauces and relishes. Veggie peelings go into the compost heap. In fact, she generates so little waste that she rarely puts out garbage or recycling more than once a month.

As for water consumption – again she breaks records for low use. She has a dishwasher (it came with the house) but has never used it. Instead, she washes her dishes in a plastic pan in the sink and pours the water onto plants in the garden. The little dish soap she uses acts as a gentle pesticide.

Water from handwashing her "smalls" gets reused the same way. And she does not believe in our modern habit of tossing once-worn clothes into the laundry basket. She is careful with her clothes and they last for years and years. Some people pay big money for her retro look.

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And I firmly believe that all these little tasks she does – handwashing, line drying, sweeping instead of vacuuming, walking to the store if the weather is fine, and so forth – have prolonged her life. Instead of pushing a button or pulling a lever, she uses just a little more energy and does things herself.

It's easy for us all to be seduced by glitter and novelty, and by TV programs that focus on transforming our lives and homes with new furniture and splashy accessories. Yet we know they won't necessarily make our lives any better or happier.

Thanks to my MiL's example, I often find myself stopping pre-purchase to ask myself, "Do I really need to buy this?"

She's inspired me to do my best to wade through materialistic clutter and focus on what really matters: the bonds that tie us together as family, as a community, as a people.

Fiorenza Gleasure lives in Toronto.

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