Monday, February 23, 2009


I was born at the beginning of the Depression, after the great bank collapse of 1929 had caused chaos in this country, after the Run on the Banks, where frantic people tried to take out their hard-earned savings, only to be faced with a Bank Holiday, put into force by a President who was trying to stop the country's descent into ruin.

I spent my younger years feeling apologetic for having been too small to realize there was a Great Depression going on. I wasn't depressed at all, but merely grew as all children do, happy to be among my huge family. Children do not realize they are poor, even if they are hungry. They merely expect their parents to come up with something to eat. I think, in my case, I was breast fed until the Depression ended. I don't know that for the truth. In fact, I made it up, but it seems logical to me.

I began to become apologetic when I reached the age of reason. Then, when I would reason that I wanted another piece of chicken, one of my brothers or sisters would say to me, "Stop whining! You're lucky you have any chicken at all! If you had been old enough to realize about the Depression, you wouldn't be whining at all! You'd thank your lucky stars you had one piece of chicken to eat!"

This attitude prevailed for years as I grew up within the confines of my family. I was not allowed to complain about anything, lest I be scolded for not understanding the hardships of the Depression.

"You don't know what suffering is!" my sister, Hilda, whom we all called Dude, would say, "You weren't old enough to know there was a Depression. When you go to bed and expect to die before morning comes, then you know what it is to suffer!"

If I was sent down to the Cellar to fetch canned goods, I never failed to complain. Then it was Bud's turn to chastise me with his Depression Lecture. Being the most level headed and intelligent of our clan, when Bud chastised, he had thought it through and you always knew you had crossed the line he had drawn. He never raised his voice or displayed anger, but quietly explained what he meant.

"We ate everything that was edible!" he said. "We ate every jar of food Mom worked and slaved to put up. I can remember her working over that woodstove, keeping it full of wood so the water would boil around the jars. She put up everything in the garden we could gather. She put up apples, cutting away the wormholes, and we all picked up potatoes from the fields, storing them for the long winter we knew was coming. We ate all of the potatoes, every one, then one day, we looked....and the jars of food were all gone and the potatoes, too! There was nothing to eat. Nothing! You weren't old enough to know how it was, but you should never complain about having those canned goods in the Cellar again!"

Hubert, of course, would take advantage of this to tell his Slippery Pig story, about the time he worked for a neighboring farmer for a week or so in exchange for a pig.

"Our mouths were watering at the thought of pork chops on the table!" he would say. "I worked my butt off for this guy, carrying water, grooming his horses, cleaning the muck from the stable. I got up before daylight to help him milk his cows and I didn't come home until they were milked again before dark!"

The pig was waiting for Hubert when the payday rolled around. He had ridden our old Prince to the neighboring farm, so he hefted the pig into his arms so he could ride home. He swears the pig was greased. The little creature squirmed and squealed and finally jumped from Hubert's arms to the ground, taking off at top speed back in the direction of the farm.

"He was greased!" Hubert would declare, his green eyes wide with indignation. "That pig was never meant to leave his home. And when I went back to get him, that cheating son of a gun said, 'What pig? I ain't seen no pig around here. I jes counted my pigs and I'm short the one I gave you. He's jes wanderin' round here somewheres and we won't see him agin! Son, you jes gotta learn to hold on tight!' "

He couldn't finish the story without adding his lecture for me. "Until you've worked all week for nothing and you've dreamed of the taste of pork and pork gravy, you don't know what it is to have your dreams dashed right to the ground!"

Sometimes I felt like yelling, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do it! It wasn't on purpose! I promise not to do it again!"

It wouldn't have helped. They had lined up against me because I didn't suffer sufficiently during the Great Depression. Dude especially thought I didn't understand that she had gone to bed to die. "Oatmeal!" she would say. "Oatmeal in the morning. Oatmeal at night. Mom bought a huge gunny sack full of oatmeal! Then it ran out, like everything else ran out, every drop of food we had, and there was no money to buy more! There were just a few flakes in the bottom of the burlap bag. So I gathered the flakes up very carefully and put them in a pan and boiled them. It was just a watery fluid, milky in color, and we had no sugar to sweeten it. I was going to eat it, but there you were, standing there, a little girl, big-eyed and cute, staring at me with those big eyes, and I knew you were hungry. So, I gave you my oatmeal, the last of the oatmeal, and I went to bed to die."

Dear Heaven, it was bad enough to have missed the Great Depression, now I had to live with the fact that I had taken the food from the mouth of my older sister and sent her to bed believing she wouldn't make it until the morning.

Naturally, Dude had to end her story by giving me a stern look with those big eyes of hers, so like my own, and said, "I don't want to hear of you complaining about anything again!"

When the work programs started and some money started coming in, we were able to eat again. My mother never put food on the table that she didn't tell of the hardships they had endured during the Depression and how Franklin Roosevelt had saved them. She never failed to look at me as she told the story and said, "Course, you weren't old enough to remember how it was, were you?"

This is why I have always felt apologetic about the Great Depression, filled with guilt in a situation where I probably should have felt fortunate. However, if my sister, Dude, my Mom, and my brothers were alive today, I could tell them that I may not have known the suffering of the Great Depression and I may not have ever been hungry enough that I have gone to bed to die. I may not have ever looked through the cupboards and found them empty, as empty as my empty wallet.

But I could tell them with some certainty that there is a good chance I may learn. Yes, with our country sinking into turmoil, there is a very good chance that may happen again. It's not something I am looking forward to enduring, but at least I can feel that I have apologized enough and someday, when good times return, I can look at some relative, some niece or cousin or grandchild and say, "You shouldn't complain, because you don't realize how bad things can get during a Depression. You've never known what real suffering feels like, so I don't want to hear a single complaint from you again!"

I don't even have to rehearse. I can hear those voices now, speaking of a time when the world had gone crazy and the larder was so empty there was nothing to feed a large and growing family. Their voices echo in my mind today, and I can hear the howl of the wolf at the door, clamoring to enter, red fangs dripping, teeth bared, eyes glistening. Here I am, no garden, no potatoes, no corn to stuff into those jars, no pump to give me water, no fuel or electricity unless I can pay the bills. It has occurred to me that I am terrible Depression material, since I hardly make it with supplies through a two day blizzard. My only excuse is that I never thought it could happen again. I never thought history would repeat itself.

If my brother, Bud, were alive today, I would tell him, "I never thought it could happen again!"

And he would say, the Depression Lecture intact, " If you had been old enough to remember the Depression, you would have been prepared for it to happen. So, don't complain, just think ahead and remember, you have nothing to fear but fear itself! That's what pulled us through and it will work for you, too!"