Mother and sons in the Great Depression
We who lived through the Great Depression of 1930 are not frightened of talk of another in the 1980s. There was much suffering and hunger and deprivation. There were some positive results. Over the years we have come to look at the Great Depression as a "Crucible for building character."
With 25 percent of the population unemployed, my husband did not work one day for four years. We were on county relief. We had two small sons, two and four years old when the depression hit in 1930. "Relief" consisted of soft coal in winter, rent of $15 a month, and a quart of milk a day paid to the milkman. Our Groceries were carried home on a child's coaster wagon over two miles. Each two weeks we received six eggs, salt pork, beans, potatoes, flour, sometimes-dried fruit, and a cabbage.
We supplied our own firewood for our coal stove. A brewing company tossed broken boxes on a heap to be burned. Again the coaster wagon was loaded high, tied securely, and pulled up hill to our home on First and Lloyd Sts.
I married very young; had my two boys before I was 21. I had only an eighth-grade education. I was sure I could clerk in the Woolworth's dime store. I filled out an application; the manager laughed in my face.
"I have college people working here at $10 a week," he said. "You need more education."
My boys were now four and six years old. I took them to school and began to write letters to the Milwaukee School Board. I persisted. They wanted me to pay tuition! After three months, I was allowed to enroll in Lincoln High School. I walked two miles even in the cold Wisconsin winters. I finished high school. The teachers were very kind. They supplied me with dresses, shoes, and coats. I am sure I was the best-dressed student in the school. Some teachers suggested I go on to college. I did.
My husband hung around saloons, doing odd jobs, coming home only occasionally to change clothes. He was paid in food and drinks. He became an alcoholic and died young.
I graduated in 1941. My older son finished high school and was drafted immediately. I signed papers for the younger to join the Marines. I went to teach in a Central Texas grammar school.
All the years at college I had again been helped by kind teachers. My fees were paid from a special fund. When I asked about repayment, I was told, "When you are able, you can pass along a kindness to someone."
The depression was a challenge to me. As a result of my education I went to Europe to teach. I traveled around the world, teaching and working in Australia and Germany.
This is 1980. My neighbor, a janitor in a nearby grammar school insists we needm another decade like the 1930s. Another deep depression. His reason: "The children at school take their lunches at noon and, without even unwrapping them, they stuff them into the garbage cans. They buy junk foods with money from home."
Will another depression teach us as much as the last one? Then food and money both were scarce and valued. There were 12,800,000 unemployed. There were soup lines. There was hunger. There was no unemployment check. Men were not concerned about each other's health. The only question was: "Are you working?"
The children absorbed all this as if by osmosis. There was doom and despair in the very air we breathed. Children did not ask for money for moview or candy. They knew there was none or little. After seven years, factories began to work a few days a week; schools began to give music lessons. My sons enrolled for violin and trumpet.
It was spring of 1938. My son brought home a flyer reporting that them Fritz Kreisler was playing in concert on May 3. I wanted my son to see and hear him. It was a season-ticket affair. My son, undaunted and hopeful, thought there would be student tickets.I gave him $5 and carfare and instructed him not to spend any more than he absolutely had need to. After the concert, bubbling and eyes sparkling, he handed me my five dollars.
"I did not spend any money," he said. "He was wonderful; his violin talked. My music teacher took me on extra ticket."
My older son quiet and dependable, also knew the value of money and thrift. It was in the late thirties; a group of children were planning a trip to the zoo in Washington Park. I suggested they go. We had not been for seven years. Again I counted out carfare. I instructed them to buy a 3-cent ice cream cone and packed lunch. In all excitement, I realized too late that I had left my last five- dollar bill in the folds of the purse I gave them. That day my aunt came and I confided in her as to what had happened.
"You won't see your money again," she said. "I know, the other children will make him spend it all."
"I don't think so," I said. "I know my boy."
She stayed until the boys returned. I pounced on the child when he came in demanding the purse. Wide-eyed he handed it to me. I showed him the five-dollar bill still hidden in the folds of the purse.
"Gee, I'm glad I did not know it was there," he said. "I would have worried all day about losing it." Even today, after 50 years, I experience a warm glow that my childless aunt was so wrong.