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Sunday, May 5, 2013
The Depression was a terrible time in this country, but it was not just about the economy even though that is what most people focus on. It was also a time of severe drought and one of the biggest man-made ecological disasters in history. Good times.
Allow me to digress. There was so much difficulty in the world that ordinary people became heroes. They weren't jumping over buildings or stopping trains with their bare hands, but they were out there finding ways to support their families when there didn't seem to be a way. Times like that often brought out the best in people.
My mother was born just before the stock market crashed in 1929. It was the family joke that it was this was the catalyst that started the chain of events that led to the crash. Yep. It was all her fault. So she was raised in that time of lack and want, and it affected her for the rest of her life.
Before she passed away, Mum had been writing a memoir about this time in history and the way families were drawn together. It is about the simple life that was lived during these times. She died before she finished the book. I have it on disk, but I have not yet felt like facing it yet. Someday I hope to finish it for her.
She told me many of the stories of growing up in that day and age. She would come home from school, grab a pickle out of the fridge, and go lie on the living room floor with her head under the radio while she listened to her favorite kids' shows. It was what kids did back then before computers and television.
My grandmother was the local busybody. This was not for the gossip value though. She would stand at the window as children would walk to and from school and make notes on who was missing shoes or warm coats. Then she would contact churches and the Ladies Aid Society to find these items for the family. In addition to taking care of her own family, she did her best to help other families as well.
Many women did what they had to for their families. In many cases they had to find ways to feed their families with little or no income. They would pickle green tumbleweeds and purslane. Purslane is a common weed -- almost as common as the dandelions. They would also pick the tender young leaves of dandelions to cook for a nutritious side dish.
My father and his brother hunted small game such as squirrels and pigeons to help their mother put food on the table. Their father suffered from tuberculosis and was often away in a sanitarium. When he was home he was a barber during a time when most people chose to cut their hair at home to save money. There were times when he was lucky to make 50 cents a day to support a family of 7.
When the collars or cuffs on a man's shirt became worn and threadbare his wife would remove them, turn them around and sew them back on to extend the life of the shirt. When garments were completely worn out my grandmother would remove buttons, hooks and eyes, and zippers so that they could be used to make the next outfit.
My grandfather was a banker in a small bank -- one of the few to not close its doors in the panic after the stock market crash. He made sure that he remained present in the family and kept a critical eye on the family finances to make sure that the kids always had what they needed. This was especially important for my mother who was sick with allergies and asthma a great deal of the time and had managed to contract a serious bladder infection during these years. Back then no one had health insurance and so you had to be prepared to pay everything out-of-pocket.
Men who lost their livelihoods during this time suffered most of all. Jobs were not just how they supported their families, it was a definition of who they were as a person. Some managed to reinvent themselves and create new jobs and identities. Others found different ways to support their families. Doing either took a great deal of inner strength.
It was a time when taking any sort of charity or perceived hand out was considered a failure. Even taking a job with one of the many public works projects going on at the time was seen by some men as a failure. It meant giving up on their chosen path in life and resorting to accepting some sort of help from outside. These men were heroes for doing what had to be done. They showed up every day, often doing things they were ill-suited to do, to make sure their families survived.
There were no social safety nets back then. When men lost their jobs the family income generally ended. There was no welfare. There were no food stamps. There were no food pantries to give food to the needy. Many of these programs grew out of what happened to people during the depression.
To get by one of the families in my mother's neighborhood took advantage of the drought. As the drought dried out the lakes of Minnesota they would collect turtles and sell them to the big hotels in Minneapolis for soup. It didn't make them rich, but they were able to survive.
Many of us today spend some time living a modern version of the Depression whether it is due to unemployment, being underpaid, or having amassed a large amount of debt. This is when ramen noodles become a mainstay of the diet.
A friend of mine and I were discussing the things we did to get by when we faced times like these -- from eating cheap mac and cheese to cutting up worn out sheets to use instead of toilet paper. I worked part-time cleaning motel rooms while job hunting once and saved the used bars of soap to grate into soap powder to wash clothes and dishes. Fortunately times are better now.
It's a good thing that things are better now. I can't handle the thought of one more bite of ramen noodles in this lifetime.