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12 green and frugal lessons from my mom

As I try to simplify my life, spend less and focus more on sustainability, I am often reminded of the way my mom used to do things.

We’ve come full circle, in a number of ways. It seems like every new thing we do to save money or the planet was being done by my mom years ago. For my mother, that was a way of life.

For me, every thing I do is a new discovery and sometimes an effort. When I thought about my childhood, I wondered if the secret to living a frugal and green life might be in our ability to recreate the life our parents and grandparents lived.

These are what I remember from my childhood. If all of us lived the way our parents and grandparents did, we might recreate a simpler, more frugal and sustainable life.

1. Use cloth for everything. Paper was not an option.

My mother used cloth (or just water) for everything, including cleaning, diapers, and receiving blankets. Old towels and saris were soft and made perfect receiving blankets. Floors were cleaned with a wet cloth dipped in a bucket of water (with just a little disinfectant). No waste, paper or harmful chemicals to worry about.

And today, I am trying my best to use as little or no paper in my kitchen. It was not easy in the beginning, but now it seems rather effortless. I have about 30 little color-coded washcloths and napkins for various purposes, and stick them in the washer with my other clothes as they get used.

2. Reuse, reuse, reuse.

Growing up, we had very little trash at home since we almost always reused everything. We reused clothes, toys, books, plastic bags – pretty much everything we had. Even the fruit peels and older food was picked up by the milkman to feed his animals the next day.

And today, I do my best to reuse, give away, donate or recycle everything at home. Giving gently-used toys away to a child in the neighborhood helps me get rid of the stuff AND starts friendships.

farmer's market
Photo by Tony

3. Eat locally and seasonally.

We did not have a vegetable garden growing up, but the farmer’s wife brought the produce on her selling cart every second day. My mom bought almost all her vegetables directly from the farmer.

Today, we love to shop at the local farmer’s market. My girls LOVE to talk to the old farmer at our local farmer’s market and enjoy his stories about the farm. He sometimes even walks them back to the flower garden as he picks the sunflowers for his flower shop. Reflecting on my own childhood, the connections with the farmer and his stories are what my children will cherish for years.

4. Call the milkman.

While the farmer’s wife sold my mother the vegetables, the milkman directly delivered milk at our home every single day. He lived less than a mile away and delivered fresh milk to most people in my neighborhood.

Today, my husband and I are exploring local farms that deliver organic milk once a week.

5. Live actively—one family, one car.

Exercise was never a factor when we were young — people just had a more active lifestyle, took the bus often, and walked from place to place. Living in the United States, integrating physical activity into my day has been extremely hard, especially with a desk job.

I do try my best to take walks with my girls everyday, go hiking, walk to the store, and just integrate ourselves into an active lifestyle. I have a number of friends who do not own cars and use car-sharing services like Zipcar regularly. Besides taking away the pain of owning and maintaining a car, they claim the best part of it is meeting so many like-minded people all over the city.

6. Use stainless steel lunch boxes.

We did not have disposable boxes growing up — we used the same steel lunch boxes for years. Today, I am exploring steel lunch boxes to send to preschool with my little one. I love these.

sarah jane studios
Beautifully hand-drawn by Sarah Jane at Sarah Jane Studios

7. Use handmade.

Clothes, bags, gifts, greeting cards… Almost everything we ever used was handmade. And we never thought of it as being friendly to the earth — handmade was just more thoughtful and pretty.

And today, I love shopping on Etsy to support artists and handmade. My kids are old enough to make cards and gifts for people. Our favorite activity is to bake together for family and friends.

8. Bargain, haggle, or negotiate.

No matter what you call it, it is important to explore the best deal on everything. My mom taught me that and I am grateful.

9. No credit cards.

My parents had no concept of credit cards. Even as very small kids, we understood that if we do not already have the money for something, we simply cannot get it. I know that having no loans or overdue credit card payments has given me the courage to work on my start-up and forgo the big income from my previous corporate jobs.

10. Eat out less—eat simply at home.

We rarely ate out as a family — it was usually reserved for a celebration. Today, as a family, we reserve things such as eating out and eating ice-cream for special celebrations.

11. Take your own bag to the grocery store.

My mom had a cloth bag she carried with her everywhere. Few stores even had plastic bags or offered them, and when they did have them, we would have to pay for the bags. My mother never wanted to pay for anything she did not have to.

I carry my reusable target bags in two sizes along with me all the time. I have to say, it is a great feeling not to need bags when we go grocery shopping.

12. Focus on quality and simplicity.

Perhaps the most important thing I remember about the way my mom did things years ago was her focus on quality and simplicity. A lot of the things families did years ago had to do with leading a simple life, rather than on saving money or the planet.

With so much consumerism and being a target for marketing, it is hard to keep the focus on quality and simplicity. Perhaps traveling back in time might make it easier for us to lead lives with less stuff.

What lessons on simplicity can you share from the lives of your parents and grandparents?

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by Maya

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Shannon

    I agree that seeking the old paths is the way to go. Just 2 generations ago life was so different and so was our focus.
    .-= Shannon´s last blog ..The Importance of Probiotics =-.

  2. Tabitha (From Single to Married)

    As I was reading this list, I was thinking yep – my mother did a lot of these things too. It’s amazing how quickly we forget! But I also realize that my husband and I do a lot of these things now without even realizing it. We only have one car and we used Zipcar before that (the benefits of living in the city). We’re looking into cloth diapers for when our little one arrives in a few months and we use our own are trying to reuse.

    But we could definitely do better so I’m glad for the reminder. Our parents/grandparents were definitely on to something, weren’t they?
    .-= Tabitha (From Single to Married)´s last blog ..Married to An Older Man =-.

  3. Lori

    When the economy tanked, I thanked my parents for raising me with a frugal lifestyle. And thank you for this post. I grew up with these same ideas, and it is always good to have a reminder to renew our commitment to a simpler life.

  4. steadymom

    This post is so calming – there are so many lessons to learn from generations past. I love the idea of the fresh milk delivery – wish it was available here!

    .-= steadymom´s last blog ..Four Creative Ways to Play with Toddlers =-.

  5. Kristin O.

    Great post! It seems that life is moving at a much faster pace now than it used to and we adopt too many conveniences (that are usually expensive and wasteful) to compensate. Most of the options you mentioned are possible without having to alter your daily routine too much, which makes it easier for many peoples’ busy lives. I just love how making greener choices tends to also mean making frugal choices!

  6. Maria Brown

    Thank you for these suggestions. We have been working on leading and “simpler” lifestyle for awhile now by making some small changes in the way we live (less paper tower, cloth diapers, less processed food). I think it is so interesting that the simpler things are often less expensive, more nutritious, and more eco-friendly.
    This process is also helping us to think about how much more we can give to others when we are saving money and living more simply. My husband read a quote yesterday about downgrading your lifestyle so that someone else can upgrade theirs. I think living simply allows you to do just that.
    .-= Maria Brown´s last blog ..One more and I would be an Octopus =-.

  7. Terra

    Thank you so much for the reminders in this email – reminding me, while we do “so much”, there’s so MUCH more we can be doing!

    I had a question – you mentioned color coded washcloths/napkins – can you expound on this? 🙂 Thanks!
    .-= Terra´s last blog ..interesting =-.

  8. Visible Voice

    I love this post because it’s definitely the way I grew up as well as what I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. Two years ago I’d go through a 16 pack of paper towel a month with a bottle of multi purpose cleaner. And that was just for the kitchen!! Now I buy paper towel about once a year and I bought anti bacterial cloths (from a company called Norwex) that you can clean your home from top to bottom with one cloth (including the bathroom) and throw it back in the wash and start all over. So I have a bunch of those cloths as well as a mop made of the same material that I just use water to clean with. I find things feel cleaner, it’s safer for my family to breathe in and safer for the environment. Also when I was growing up I lived in a province (Nova Scotia, Canada) where recycling is mandatory! As in there is a garbage day for blue bag items, paper, compost and then regular garbage. And if you don’t sort your garbage you can get a fine! I so miss home because of that because where I live now there’s not even garbage pick up or a proper dump (I live in isolation) so I can’t wait to move to a place where I too can recycle more, go to a local farmer and do all this stuff that you’ve suggested! Love this kind of post!
    .-= Visible Voice´s last blog ..20 things… =-.

    • JulieO

      I also started using Norwex products last year and love them. I have yellow for the kitchen and blue cloths for the bathrooms. I also have the mop and love that I don’t need to go down the “Cleaning” aisle in the grocery store anymore! I rarely use paper towels and the only other paper we use is bathroom tissue, Kleenex and napkins but after reading this post I would like to transition to cloth napkins. I also use cloth grocery bags and love our city’s new curbside recycling program. We are putting out 1 bag or less of garbage each week for collection. It’s amazing!

  9. Mrs. Not the Jet Set

    What a great post!

    I always ask myself “What would Grandma have done?” If everyone lived like my grandma and your mom the world would be a much better and simpler place to be.
    .-= Mrs. Not the Jet Set´s last blog ..The Big Birthday Lesson: A new tradition =-.

  10. Scattering Lupines

    I don’t have children yet, but as I was walking the other day I found myself wondering about the mechanics behind cleaning a REALLY dirty cloth diaper. I will certainly WANT to use cloth diapers if and when I have children… but how do you clean the stink one? I don’t want to put poop in my washer or down my sink!

    I’m sure there is a perfectly logical way to clean these…. is there?
    .-= Scattering Lupines´s last blog ..the best anti-aging supplement on the market =-.

    • Kelly

      If you are breast feeding it is pretty easy, because the poop is not solid and washes away very easily. I was VERY skeptical, because I remember my mom “dunking” the diapers in the toilet before washing, BUT washing machines and cloth diapers have come a long way since then (20 +years ago). When the poops do get solid you just take the diaper to the toilet and drop it in! It sounds gross (I have a very sensitive stomach) but if I can do ANYONE can!
      Good luck! It is a great way to keep the landfills clear AND it’s healthier for the kids too! Hope this helps.

  11. Pistolette

    Great tips. I do all of those except #11. I reuse the grocery bags they give you for garbage at home (or as lunch bags for my hubby who can never remember to bring home the lunchbox).
    .-= Pistolette´s last blog ..In Over My Head =-.

  12. Angelina

    Thank you so much for this post. It was soothing to read – although my mom was not at all like yours – a consumer at full speed, I have many memories of my Grandmother making my clothes, scraping every last bit of everything and saving her cooking grease for later.

    I reflected upon this last weekend actually as DH and I put up our first clothes rack outside. (The old fashioned aluminum kind.) I felt so good about what we were doing and nostalgic at the same time. I think the concrete is set so I might get to use it today!!
    .-= Angelina´s last blog ..Tag Sale Deals! =-.

  13. Audra

    Tupperware! I remember growing up and using tupperware to store leftovers after each meal. We would eat leftovers a few times a week either for another dinner or for lunches. We did not throw away uneaten food, we did not use and did not have the disposable storage containers. I still use some of the same tupperware from over 30 years ago!
    .-= Audra´s last blog ..Organics, Starbucks, Coupons and More! =-.

  14. Kirsty-Abu Dhabi

    So true – my parents grew veggies all year round, we walked everywhere and my Dad still uses our old nappies to shine his car!! (30 something years on!)
    .-= Kirsty-Abu Dhabi´s last blog ..Baby Bella ● Abu Dhabi Baby Photographer =-.

  15. Anne

    I know the phrase “save the planet” is just about the easiest thing to type in order to bring into your readers’ minds today’s popular doctrine of greenness. But all the suggestions you wrote fit squarely into a human scale; that is, nobody has to grow strong enough to rise above and save anything. They are humble acts, buying and growing, walking, washing and cooking. Living like humans rather than conceiving ourselves as saviors.

    • Ola

      Wow Anne, that was so beautifully said!
      .-= Ola´s last blog ..I’m sorry =-.

  16. Carmella

    Yes, my grandmothers were great at using what they had, not wasting, and making something out of nothing. Such inspirations, for sure! I think what so many of us are realizing, is an education in the ways our forebears did. It’s a going back to, and picking up from where they were, and carrying those great things on. I’m so glad we can.
    .-= Carmella´s last blog ..High Kick =-.

  17. Danielle

    So many great ideas here, thanks for all the reminders.

    One thing we are doing right now, amidst sideways glances from friends and family, is living without a car even with our babe! It forces us to think and plan ahead with trips to the grocery, slow down and take it all in, walk daily. I love it!

    I also second your ice cream is for special occasions idea. Although, I may be a bit loose on what constitutes a special occasion. Just so long as there is no ice cream in the house, we’re ok!
    .-= Danielle´s last blog ..A Matter of Perspective =-.

  18. Jen @ After The Alter

    It’s amazing how the past always seemed simpler. Do you think that we will think that our kids will think that we had it easier? It seems that the modern “conviniences” can be inconvinient at times. I have been trying real hard to go greener and go paper free in my kitchen…it’s a struggle but I think I’m doing well. Great tips!
    .-= Jen @ After The Alter´s last blog ..Learning On Other People’s Kids =-.

  19. Melissa Taylor

    Wonderful writing and suggestions, Maya. Thanks!

    I’m right there with you – making my own kids use reusable containers for everything, just like my mom did with me. (Mine was orange tupperware!)

    Just retweeted for the world to read! (@imaginationsoup)
    .-= Melissa Taylor´s last blog ..Win a lively and educational cd =-.

  20. Rebekah

    Thanks for this post. These are great ideas I’m going to use.

  21. Cassie

    What a great post! And most of your suggestions would be so easy to implement!

    I do have a question though, could you expound upon your kitchen ‘cloth system’. I’d love to move away from paper in my kitchen as well, but I’ve always had issues with the same dishclothes being used for different things. This sounds like the perfect solution!

    Thank you for such a wonderful, inspiring blog!

    • Maya

      Hi Cassie,
      You just gave me a great idea for a post – color coded kitchen 🙂
      We really just have 4 kinds/colors of washcloths in our kitchen drawer.
      1. One for wet(very dirty) use – our oldest ones
      2. One for dry use/dusting – these are dusting cloths – the static kinds
      3. One as home use napkins – for kids at meal times
      4. One for special use – really only for adults/guests – so they will not resort to paper.

      I actually will reuse 3 for 1 before throwing them into the washer, but the color coding and types really help the kids. And 4 is really so I do not feel guilty or ever run short of napkins for guests.

      I am still not completely paper free, but we are immensely better now than we were at the start of the year.
      .-= Maya´s last blog ..Goodbye My Gentle Giant =-.

    • Mrs. Not the Jet Set

      One of the things that helped us transition into a non-paper kitchen was by adding a small trash can (or bucket) under our kitchen sink. That way no one had to walk across the house with a dirty towel dripping. Hope that helps!
      .-= Mrs. Not the Jet Set´s last blog ..The Big Birthday Lesson: A new tradition =-.

  22. minnesota:madre

    What a great list. Sounds like your mom is a great lady. Reminds me a lot of my grandmother who grew up during the depression. She is the queen of sales. She is a very classy lady who can always find it somewhere else cheaper.
    .-= minnesota:madre´s last blog ..pajamas =-.

  23. Krystal

    Love this post!

    Have you ever heard of Lehman’s? If not, you might like it. They sell lots of stuff that goes along with an old-fashioned, simple, do-it-yourself kind of lifestyle. As a matter of fact, a lot of the stuff is Amish.

    You can find them here:
    .-= Krystal´s last blog ..More (mostly) Wordless Wednesday =-.

  24. K

    This is a great post–some of these things I already do, and somethings are a great idea that I hadn’t yet considered. I am about to buy my first home, so while I’m waiting for the Closing day to come, I’ve been researching what we can do in our new home to live simpler and greener.
    I think it can sometimes be hard to be ‘the odd one out’…trying to live simpler in a world that is so focused on convienence and more stuff! So, thank you for all these great blogs, they are helping me to stay on track!

  25. Kika

    I understand the idea of wanting to “turn back the clock” to take advantage of certain more natural, slower, healthier ways of living. However, what also came to mind was the fact that my grandparents and even my dad lived lives that were extremely hard – they wouldn’t really want to go back to that. I am thankful for indoor plumbing, choice at the grocery store, the ability to buy furnishings and craft supplies, books, whatever. We live in a unique time in history where we have the advantage of using the tools of modernity wisely while also pulling from the beautiful and useful of the past.

    • Maya


      I agree, it is not about really turning the clock back – it is more about the perspective.
      If instead of doing 20 different things that are green and frugal but make our lives harder, we might be able to create a simpler life and do 40 things that are easier for us to do. To me, a number of these are about a perspective shift and that is what I am talking about.

      Now, I live far away from home in a country where friends are family. And I am extremely grateful for the conveniences the times offer, but I am also trying to do whatever I can to be less dependent on some of the conveniences I really do not need but have just gotten used to …
      .-= Maya´s last blog ..Goodbye My Gentle Giant =-.

  26. Mrs. Money

    Beautiful post! I think it’s funny we try to make all these advancements and then we go back to what works and is good for everyone.
    .-= Mrs. Money´s last blog ..Getting Made Fun of for Frugality =-.

  27. Kerry

    I’ll put a plug in for being credit card free. We have not had a credit card for about 8 years now and the stress it has removed has been amazing. Our debit card can be run as a credit card for things that require that but its still just a debit card. We have never missed having one, never needed one (and we have bought a home, traveled internationally etc.) and as a bonus…a few years after we closed all accounts – we stopped getting the offers for them in the mail! Less junk mail!

  28. Paula

    I love these ideas! When I recently made a batch of cloth napkins for our family my husband commented, “You know, we always used cloth napkins when I was growing up!” He had completely forgotten that. Ahhh, simplicity. Love it.
    .-= Paula´s last blog ..Life, Intentionally =-.

  29. Sharon

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. What a great post. We’ve been paper-free in our kitchen for the last 4 years or so…I don’t even think about it now, except when I’ve got a bug to kill! It’s amazing how much simpler it really is when you don’t have to run to the store for paper towels, napkins, cleaning supplies (we use mostly vinegar and baking soda), plastic baggies, etc. My one paper item I’m still attached to is muffin cups. My husband refuses to use them, but I’m still hooked. I’ve heard they have washable ones now, but haven’t given them a try!
    Great thoughts and reminders. Thank you.
    .-= Sharon´s last blog ..Some changes… =-.

  30. robin

    I considered that stainless steel lunch box too, but I was worried about food migrating (strawberry juice, specifically, was a problem with our last bento lunchbox.) I eventually went with a kit with a stainless steel box, containers, thermos, water bottle, reusable cloth snack bags, and cute bamboo cutlery. And grr, when I went to grab the link I saw they are now on sale!
    .-= robin´s last blog ..Children Are Like Kites. Also, Children Like Kites. =-.

  31. Sandee

    loved this post. I am far away from all this…but little by little. Hopefully I will move more toward it. I am into the handmade, and repurposing. (Making hats and fingerless gloves out of old sweaters, little purses too)…

    You inspired me on the cloth. I want to move toward that and away from all the paper…(napkins and paper towels). I think I will start sewing up a batch of clothes…some napkins and add to the dishcloth pile. I just need a better way to store them in a very small kitchen. Any grand ideas?

    And I want to start collecting bags, for shopping…..maybe sew up a dozen. I was thinking all those leftover, pillow cases and sheets could make cute shopping bags!

    Thanks for the inspiration.
    .-= Sandee´s last blog ..An Adventure… =-.

    • Susan

      Find yourself a pretty basket at a thrift shop (you may even find one with a lid) and keep them in there. If the basket is nice then you can leave it out in the open and just grap a cloth as you need it. If you are really ambitious you could use it as part of your seasonal decor; ie attach a Christmas ribbon to the handle in December, etc.

  32. Micha

    Thanks for this great post. Although I don’t want to turn back the clock, there are a lot of things I follow my parents (perhaps even more, than they do today): we have only one car, we are part of a vegetable garden project and get fresh organic vegetables delivered weekly, we like handmade, fresh cooking and try to live a more creative life.
    .-= Micha´s last blog ..Stempelbild / autumn stamps =-.

  33. allknames

    we use to reuse our tinfoil

  34. Susan

    This was a great post. I love hearing about the habits/lifestyle of previous generations. While I have no particular desire to ‘recreate’ 1965, I think there is wisdom and benefit in the skills of our mothers and grandmothers. My mom makes homemade fudge and I only get it once or twice a year when I am home.

  35. Tricia

    That post is so inspiring and I feel very proud of the fact that we do most of those things already.

    Thanks for sharing and for giving me some more to think about.


  36. hailey

    this is so inspiring!

  37. Laura

    My mother was soooo not like that. Growing up, it was all about the paper napkins and the Chef Boyardee for dinner. It was all about convenience. She was just visiting me this past week and kept laughing at all the things I do that seem sort of “backward” to her… like using cloth napkins (“but then you just have to wash them!”). Even just a few years ago, using cloth napkins or bringing my own bags to the store would have felt like a hassle, but now it’s just part of habit.

    I love when doing what’s right for my soul, for the planet, and for my pocketbook all turn out to be the same thing. Doing things like baking my own bread, growing my own vegetables, and sewing clothes for my kids… these happen to be “green” and “frugal,” but most importantly they are spiritually and sensually fulfilling.
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..The Staff of Life =-.

  38. Carolyn

    Beautiful post with great ideas. However, I have to disagree with #9 about No Credit Cards. We use a credit card to buy almost everything–BUT we pay off that card every month. We never carry a balance and have never had to pay interest or other fees. That credit card has a built-in rewards system that gives us cash back on the stuff we would be buying anyway. And that cash back pays for our Christmas every year. Credit cards aren’t always evil–I think they can actually be beneficial when used correctly.

  39. Tipper Lorry

    A simple idea from my husband’s grandmother, who grew up drawing water from a well:

    Keep a bowl of soapy water in the sink. Use it to wash as you go. Yes, it gets cold, but you can always rinse in hot. It saves water (you rarely need a whole sink of soapy water, really) and it makes cleanup a lot easier, too. I use a pretty bowl, so that I have the pleasure of contemplating something beautiful while I perform a mundane task.

  40. Esther

    Growing up, we were a very large military family living only on dad’s income. Mom was a scrimper and recycler, also, way before it was cool:
    She darned our socks
    never, ever threw out food (we’d have oatmeal for dinner!)
    Made our “bread”…we always had tortillas
    mismatched socks became mittens in the winter
    clothes were always handed down
    Sometimes, it wasn’t the best memories, but it was mentoring for my adulthood.

  41. Erin

    I love this article. My grandparents owned a farm on which my father and his eight other brothers and sisters worked their entire lives. They never had disposable diapers, fast food, or anything else that cuts corners (but helps to further pollute our bodies and Earth) years back. In fact, my mother always says “when I first started dating your dad, I will never forget my first trip to his farm – I was amazed that every scrap of everything was used in some way, and next-t0-nothing went into the garbage. The food they ate, the milk they drank all came from the farm – and the scraps they didn’t eat, went to the pigs. They ate the pigs, and used the fat to make soap. Literally, every bit of everything was used and nothing went to waste”. Had I known my grandparents made soap – what I do now in my business, I would have asked MANY questions! 🙂

  42. Crystal

    Just curious… you say you color code your cloths… what are some examples of how you categorize them?

    • Maya

      Hi Crystal ,

      I responded to Cassie’s comment earlier – with details. Let me know if that helps (you just have to scroll up above in the list of comments).

      .-= Maya´s last blog ..Goodbye My Gentle Giant =-.

  43. Maya

    Indeed Anne, so well said.

    “Save the planet” is just terminology since WE are the ones that seem to have a big hand in destroying it 🙂

    And my point was exactly that – we do not have to act cool to save the earth, we just need to live a simpler life and think back a few generations …
    .-= Maya´s last blog ..Goodbye My Gentle Giant =-.

  44. munchkin_momma

    Wonderful post! I just had this discussion with my fav aunt the other day. Sadly in the context of how looking back I was stupid about many many things like usuing disposable diapers, my former compulsive buying obsession, how much stuff i bought for the convience of it ect. Now that I am a SAHM of 3 kids in a household with 1 income and 1 car I have been kicking myself for all my past wastefulness and trying to do better by making simple “convient” for us. Not perfect by any standard but we are on our way. Now if only I could find a farm I could afford to buy meat at or one that sells fresh milk and if I could cure my black thumb for growing anything we’d be a lot better off.

  45. Mary

    I really liked this post. I grew up with the same basic style as you mentioned. I think you put it in words perfectly. I found myself reverting to my mom’s ways instinctively the moment I had kids of my own. I am always trying to do more and find clever ways to make life better.
    .-= Mary ´s last blog ..Back to cleaning and being green at home =-.

  46. Screw Oil Press

    It’s great to hear from you and see what you’ve sent up. This is a great blog. You deserve an award of some kind. Thanks!

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