We had a roof and happiness
WE weren't all Okies during the Great Depression, even though the photographs of abandoned farms and ramshackle cars loaded with household goods are the best-known symbols of those hard times. Many of us had roofs over our heads - but not always our own roofs. One way or another, we helped each other; we managed, we rose to the occasion. What we needed - or gave - might be as substantial as a place to live or as intangible as maintaining self-respect. When my father, out of work for several months, could no longer support his family, my aunt and uncle took us into their small apartment in Providence, R.I. Uncle Tom was one of the fortunate ones, having two and sometimes three days' work every week at Brown & Sharpe.
It was a sad day for my parents when we arrived. My mother was barely able to hold back tears for the loss of her home and for her furniture packed away in storage. I was not really unhappy, having been promised a wonderful new junior high school where every girl in the gym class had her own dressing room and shower and where there was dancing in the cafeteria at lunch hour.
It did turn out to be an impressive school. The principal himself gave us a tour the day I entered, possibly impressed by the fact that both my parents and my aunt had come along to get me enrolled. We all marveled at the marble and brass in the lobby (never entered by students), the famous marble shower stalls, the auditorium equipped like a real theater (the principal demonstrated all the special lighting effects for us), and a pretty little furnished apartment where the home economics girls practiced housekeeping. My father and mother and I could have lived happily in that apartment.
As it was, I slept on a couch in Aunt Sadie's dining room; my parents had a tiny attic room. After a few months of this, old friends in Maine offered a small apartment in their large house, and found or made small jobs for both my parents.
I stayed in Providence because of the good school, I was told, but really because there was so little money. By this time I was at Classical High School, which lacked showers, dancing, and almost everything except excellent teaching of some good, hard subjects.
It was good of my aunt and uncle to have me, they who had never had a child of their own. One of their rituals was a weekly Parcheesi game with another couple. On those evenings they found something for me to do. (I probably let it be known that I thought it was silly for four grown-ups to get so excited over a game of Parcheesi.) The other couple's niece, Edith, who lived with them and was several years older than I, sometimes took me to the movies or otherwise looked after me.
One evening that I remember seems to me a telling example of how ordinary, middle-class people kept their standards in spite of the depression.
Aunt Sadie gave us car fare for the trolley ride across the city to spend the evening with a cousin of Edith's - 10 cents each way, plus 2 cents for a transfer. (I could take the streetcar to school for a few cents less than that by standing in line every Tuesday afternoon to buy a week's worth of school tickets, and you can be sure I did.)
MARGIE and Cliff, I'll call them, had been married less than a year. We couldn't let them know we were coming, because they had no telephone. Cliff happened to be out for the evening, at a lodge meeting. Margie was delighted to see us and to show off her small, pretty apartment and her wedding gifts.
We played a simple card game, rummy or hearts, at the dining room table after Margie had removed the pink glass bowl and candlesticks she kept there. The crocheted doilies they stood on were some she had made for her hope chest, she said.
As it neared time for Edith and me to leave, Margie, acting the gracious hostess, said we mustn't go without having something to eat. She started coffee on her gas stove, then opened a cupboard in her shiny, white kitchen and took out a can of ham spread. I could see that there was nothing else in the cupboard. Edith protested that she wasn't hungry, couldn't eat a bite, but Margie insisted. She made thinly spread sandwiches, and they tasted wonderful to me. As Edith and I were walking to the trolley line, she said grimly, ``I'm afraid that was Cliff's tomorrow's lunch we just ate.''
Margie had done her best to keep up appearances in the face of hard times and, in a different way, so did another and even poorer woman I remember well, though I saw her only once. She was visiting my aunt one afternoon when I came home from school. Her frilly dress, bright makeup, and unnaturally blond hair were in contrast to plain, sensible Aunt Sadie. The two women had been in grammar school together, and they talked about old schoolmates. The visitor had recent news of many of them. My aunt seemed to be holding back - I sensed she was wondering why the woman had come and whether she was selling something. The doorbell rang many times a week with house-to-house salespeople on their rounds.
The woman lived some miles away. When she got up to go, she said with an embarrassed laugh, ``I'd better get started - it's a long walk.''
``You didn't walk all this way!'' my aunt exclaimed. Then she realized the situation, and went to get her purse.
``Here's a couple of tokens for the trolley,'' she said, ``and wait, I've got some things here I don't need.'' She came back from the kitchen with half a pound of butter, a loaf of bread, and two or three cans of soup.
``Thank you, Sadie,'' the woman said simply. ``And don't worry, I won't come again.''
Later, telling my uncle, my aunt said, ``She seems to spend every day looking up people she used to know. I believe she would go hungry except for what they give her. And I almost didn't realize! I'm sure she never would have come right out and asked.''
After I happily joined my parents in Maine, I never heard what happened to these two proud women, but there's no doubt in my mind that they came out just fine, Margie with a nice home and well-brought-up children, the schoolmate with work worthy of her energy and determination.
I remember the boarded-up factories of the '30s, the apple sellers on every downtown corner, the bread lines, the disrupted lives; and I recall how my homeless family was given a home. But the day-by-day living through it, keeping the flags flying, allowing each other to keep our pride - that, too, is how it was.