Looking for Old Lessons That Can Help Now

While the pundits continue to bat around the notion of whether or not the US is in a recession, I can't help but think that they should get past that and decide whether we're in a full-blown depression. If they did, we could all look back to look at the lessons learned that first time around and begin to adapt them to today's plight.

I never knew any of my grandparents, they had passed on before I was old enough to talk, and I know I missed out on a lot of personal history because of it. They lived through the Great Depression, and their wisdom would come in handy now.

My parents weren't too keen about talking about their times growing up either. My father was a son of an immigrant who felt that his past had nothing to do with me or my future. My mother just never talked, and I now believe it was because she was constantly running away from her past, whatever that might have been. They both experienced the Great Depression as young children into their teenage years. I have little snippets to draw from, dropped here and there while I was growing up, and not much more. The TV show, The Waltons, probably held more wisdom that I ever learned from my family. But, there were those snippets...

This photo was taken in 1962, on the steps of the porch of my grandfather's house that he bought through Endicott-Johnson Shoes, the company that recruited my father's father from Poland, and my grandfather spent his life working to pay that house off. House payments, just like the tab run at the local company-owned grocery store, were deducted out of his paycheck. The work was piece-meal, meaning that if he didn't bust his ass day after day, his paychecks could feasibly run in the red. I don't remember hearing about life during the Great Depression from my father at all, so I have no idea how it impacted my grandfather's arrangment with EJ Shoes. My mother's parents also worked for EJ Shoes most of their lives, but they were not immigrants.  All I know is that EJ Shoes made it through the Great Depression to remain in business well into my adulthood before it folded.

That house was pretty cool. My grandfather's wood rocking chair sat next to his magazine rack and a floor lamp, directly opposite the black and white TV. You could see the tubes glowing through the cloth meshing across the front of it. There was a black dial phone hung on the kitchen wall, and when it rang, it rang so loud that you could hear it ringing down the block. There was a massive dining room table that couldn't be taken out of the house because it wouldn't fit through any doors.

Our washing machine in the cellar was an old ringer type; the water squeezed from the clothes when fed through two large cylinders mounted on top. The bathroom upstairs was huge with an old claw foot bathtub, and my grandfather made me a wooden step stool to get up onto the toilet. In the back yard was a huge apple tree that produced huge yellow apples every year that my grandfather made into apple sauce.

I had a stuffed Huckleberry Finn and a teddy bear that were with me constantly. I wore one dress to school three days a week, and my second dress on the other two days. At the corner store, candy bars were a nickle, and a piece of licorice was a penny.

Things didn't change much when we built and moved into our house out in the country in 1964. Sundays became the special day of the week. We'd go to church in the morning, then come home. My father would nap while my mother cooked the early afternoon Sunday dinner, which was either spaghetti, Salisbury steak or roast beef. Spaghetti Sundays were my favorite.

Fridays were a bit odd. It was taboo to eat meat on Friday, so my mother would fix noodles and peas, a dish she said her mother fixed on Fridays too, remnant of the Great Depression. I love noodles and peas! That is the only way I'll eat peas, even to this day. If we didn't have noodles and peas, my father made potato pancakes. The only other thing I remember is a mention of lard, which I think was used instead of butter.

My mother would take a huge pot and made up a ton of spaghetti sauce. She'd make meatballs by hand, and buy sweet Italian sausage from a butcher in town. My father would add in pieces of beef and pig hocks, and the huge pot of sauce with all the meat in it would simmer for half a day at least. Once dinner was over and the sauce cooled, it was stored in plastic containers and frozen, to be thawed and used for other Sundays.

My parents would dish out the food and place the plate in front of my brother and I. Everything on it had to be eaten, no matter what, and there were never seconds. There were no snacks to munch on between meals at all. Once in awhile, on Sunday evenings, my father would drive us into town to eat at McDonald's, or he'd buy a frozen pizza and a bottle of Pepsi and we'd have that instead.

Clothes were bought once a year at the end of summer for school. I wasn't allowed to wear pants to school until I went to Junior High, and that took more than a little arguing to accomplish. Once pants busted through at the knee or became way too short was when they were cut off for summer shorts. We didn't get shoes unless we absolutely needed them. We got toys at Christmas, and that was it for the year.

Looking back, it's hard to believe how tough times must have been. But, I didn't know it at the time; it was my 'normal.' I made sure my clothes didn't get dirty or torn, learned to sew patches on my jeans, and never lost anything. That carried over into my adult life as I don't throw anything away in case I might need it again. I still have a pair of jeans I'll never fit into again that were bought as 7th grade school clothes. I have every single book I've ever had still, and all my violin music from the time I started playing in 4th grade. I even have the house plant my parents bought back in 1964, and I have the picture of Jesus hanging up that was my grandfather's. Yes, I'm a packrat.

I live frugally. It's just something I've never thought to change. What I need to do now is learn how to grow a garden and raise chickens.


  1. I was born in the 60's so I only have memories of spending. But my grandfather told me many stories of what he had to do to survive. And if many of us today had to go through the times he did, we would not make it. It is a great depression right now for a lot. I just hope that it gets better soon. There are a lot of hungry people right here in America.

  2. Yes, there is more hungry, and a lot more homeless. As soon as you lose your address, you fall out of all the statistics. Out of sight, out of mind. We'll never really know just how bad it gets.

  3. we might find out, theresa. that's the sad part.

    you brought back a lot of memories for me with this post. my grandmother was a house servant until for a wealthy family until she turned sixteen. she married, and went to work in a factory. i remember her ringer washer -- i was always afraid it would eat my fingers.

    i'm glad that in this day and age, at least, we have a form of communication that reaches others. my grandmother never talked, either. i think how much easier her burdens might have been if she had been able to communicate.

  4. You bet that ringer washer was an evil, hungry monster! Just seeing how flattened out the clothes came out the other side of those rollers was enough to convince me of that.

    Just think of how much history we've lost, Netta. We can't be! We've lived through a lot of history ourselves.