I can read the confusion in their eyes, when I tell people things like how I cut my own hair. They seem surprised when we don’t rush out to buy a new minivan after the birth of our third child. They marvel at the time we spend, out in the sun, working hard on our garden. Co-workers convey an unspoken disapproval of the fact that I never go out to eat for lunch. They chuckle while mentioning that my boots are pretty beat up. More often than not, people strain to come up with suitable reactions, often just smiling and changing the subject of our conversation. Our friends and acquaintances must assume that we have financial issues (we do have quite a bit of debt), because why else would employed adults not be spending money? I’m no longer ashamed of the debt; it’s the result some bad decisions and we’re working hard to get rid of it. I do take issue with their pity. It’s clear that they believe we are suffering because we’re not spending money like everyone else. What they don’t understand is that we could be like them, but we’re choosing to live differently, so we can buy freedom instead of meaningless stuff. We are not suffering, which is why I feel the need to recount some stories from the Great Depression.
I’ve always been fascinated by American History. Our documented history in this country only goes back a couple of hundred years, so it all seems relatively recent. There is also my sense of connection to those individuals in black and white photographs, walking the same streets that we travel today, and who might be the great grandparents of our friends and neighbors. I like to concentrate on the small details in pictures, trying to decipher clues about the realities of their daily lives. It was less than one century ago, when Americans suffered through disastrous financial times. It’s so easy to take our current fortune for granted, but a little perspective can go a long way in helping prioritize our life.
One of the most-poignant realities about the Great Depression is how quickly ordinary, middle-class families lost everything. There have always been poor and homeless segments of society throughout history. However, for the greater part of a decade, families like our own were forced to take extreme measures to merely survive. These families truly were struggling.
And then suddenly, our most gracious home was gone. The servants left. I was so dumb that when we were losing the last of our grand houses, I told my classmates that “Gee, bailiffs are coming to our house.” I didn’t know what a bailiff was or what that meant. I was too damn young. After we lost the last of our homes, we moved to New York to get some kind of assistance from my mother’s family. Well, from both of my parents’ families. We lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment while my father went out on the road, recouping things. Judith Crist
When I was in the ninth grade, when school had a month left to go, the county was going to charge five dollars a head to attend. I had two brothers and two sisters in school. And it just came my time to go to work. I worked one week building a bridge. I carried water for the concrete mixer; five days of work and I could pay for all of us to go to school. Owen Hassett
Everybody did it in those days. Children had to go stay with grandparents and aunts and uncles simply because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them and clothe them. Ernestine McMillan
Their mainstay meal was meatless gravy that was served over bread . . . No one in the family snacked between meals. She said the children ate whatever was put before them and “were not picky.” Anna
No one traveled. I only remember one kid who actually traveled to California, and I thought he was the luckiest kid alive. Henry Hager
I remember one time I hoed corn for a week for my great uncle and my pay was a pair of my cousin’s shoes. They were like new, but they did not fit . . . Our pillows were made of heavy ticking material and stuffed with feathers which were saved from the chickens that were used for food. Only the softest of the feathers were saved. Also, instead of mattresses, our beds consisted of what we called shuck beds and feather beds. The shucks (corn husks) were saved from the corn when it was harvested and stored for feed for the animals . . . Our philosophy, although not articulated until World War II, was “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Florence Cochran
People would be sleeping on benches. They’d have holes in the bottom of their shoes and in order to keep their feet off the ground they’d fold up newspapers and put it in the soles. Patricia Johnson
As the coal cars shook and rolled from side to side moving down the track, chunks of coal rolled off the top of the load and fell to the ground below. The two boys picked up chunks of coal and stuffed them into their gunny sacks. They loaded the sacks into the wagon and hauled them home. Most of that coal was used in the cooking stove which also provided warmth for the kitchen. The doors were closed to the rest of the rooms so the warm air would stay in the kitchen and provide at least one warm room where the family could congregate. Donald
When I was in senior high school, I had one wool skirt in the wintertime and two blouses that went with it. I would wear one blouse and wash the other one out in the sink so I could wear it the next day. Fran Suddath
I was going to have a birthday and my mother said, “Don’t expect any presents, because the banks have closed.” Rhoda Fidler
I find these stories fascinating and inspiring. Families worked together to survive. Everyone contributed for the benefit of the group, including extended family. The survivors seem to have a fairly positive attitude about their experiences. They commend their parents for being diligent and making sacrifices. These individuals wear their difficult history proudly, like a badge of perseverance.
Yes, once in a while our children will eat some ramen noodles or generic macaroni and cheese. But they always have a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade bread, and at least one serving of meat every day. I’m certainly not feeding them gravy on bread for dinner, night after night. Sure, I’m on my third year of no new clothing, and the kids wear hand-me-downs or things from consignment stores. But our clothes are clean, fit us, and are free of holes (for the most part anyways). I don’t have to make my children do farm work to earn a pair of used shoes. We have a more-than-sufficient house, with things like running water, electricity, and heat. We have luxuries like vehicles, televisions, and cell phones. We both have good jobs.
We don’t need sympathy; to the contrary, we are very blessed. Our family is healthy and happy. In addition, we have the means and motivation necessary to do something pretty extraordinary with our lives. Not so long ago, young and old toiled away to survive from one day to the next. We are living a very rich life, with the ability to earn enough money to semi-retire at only 40 years old. We are so fortunate to have this choice. With some hard work now (granted, no where near the long and labor-intensive hours worked back in the 1930’s), we will be able to relax and enjoy the rest of our lives on our own terms. If everything goes according to plan, we will even be able to travel the country with our family for six months or so.
I understand, from personal experience, just how easy it is to get caught up in the current of a mainstream, consumerist life. Self-worth becomes dependent on titles, brand-names, fancy dinners, exotic vacations, cars, and “owning” a McMansion (don’t forget that a mortgage is debt). However, there are other options. It’s amazing what a little perspective can do for your attitude about money, and your priorities. As our efforts are no longer focused on mere survival, we have the ability to dream beyond a standard existence. You have a choice on how to spend your money. To all of those people giving sideways glances towards the slightly-fraying bottom of my pants or the rust spots on my car, be thankful for your freedom to choose and for all of the genuine luxuries in your life. And know that we are taking full advantage of our good fortune and working towards a prosperous future, all while enjoying the most-important things right now.