My brothers and I were raised on tales of the Great Depression, tales that told the reason for those sayings every kid hears: "Eat all your food, you're lucky to have it," and "Save your money for a rainy day."
My mother used to tell us how she first heard about The Crash of 1929. "I was a Western Union telegraph operator and I was working that day. I remember," she would say, "your father and I were young, we were just married a couple of years and your brother had just been born." They'd bought a house and furnished it and had some money in the bank. They were living a
She was working that October Thursday. It was hectic and she started taking a dictation message from a man who was sending instructions to someone. My mother read back the message and then the men offered her some advice. "Sister," he said, "if you've got any money in the bank or in stocks, you'd better get it out fast. The market's gone! It's all over."
My mother called my father. He was an electrician with the same company but by the time they were able to make arrangements they were, like most people who were alive at the time, wiped out.
They lasted a couple more years in the new house, but then they had to sell -- the house, the furnishings, the car. Everything went. They rented a smaller house in another part of the city.
She used to tell us about the house: how it was what he always wanted, how it was the house of her dreams and how she still missed it even after 40 years.
We drove by it, my father and I, a few years ago, and he parked the car at the corner and looked at it. "That was our first house," he said. "We lost it in The Crash!"
The Depression went on for many years, a time of thanking God for whatever you could get. Ment no longer thought in terms of succeeding and moving to the top: They just wanted to hang on to the jobs they had.
My father had a job shoveling coal into a furnace of a building 10 hours a day, six days a week, $8 for 60 hours. He was, he said, thankful to get it: There were his friends who didn't even have that much.
Then, one day, the boss discovered that my father was an electrician and could repair things -- things he'd been sending out for rewiring. So, he offered my father the job and gave him a bonus of four dollars.
"I knew," my father said, "that he was taking advantage of me -- that it was costing him about $15 a week to get that old equipment fixed, but I needed the job and we needed the extra money. Four dollars a week was good: We had two children by then. So," he shrugged when he told us the story, "I did it. Nothing else I could do."
My mother's sister was a working woman. She was in sales, and she survivied.
She was pretty, and she was smart, and she ahd a great many boyfriends. One was a fruit wholesaler and a couple of times during the Depression a truck would come down the little street where we lived and deliver a crate of oranges or apples to our house. My mother believed in sharing her good fortune and would give a couple of pieces of fruit to each family that had small children. Fresh fruit was hard to come by and half an orange to such on was a treat.
But my mother had to ask my aunt to tell her friend not to do it anymore. My father by then had a WPA job and someone had reported my mother as having "too much money," affording luxuries like fresh fruit for her family. Even then, during the worst of the Depression, the good never showed in some people, my mother would say.
My father would tell us how one night during the winter of the third year of the Depression he was working extra late. It was almost midnight, it had snowed all day and had continued into the night and my father didn't have money for the trolley. So, he walked from his job -- a distance of 11 miles. He'd been shoveling snow since seven that morning and was tired, hungry and cold.
He stopped at a hotel on his way home and asked the doorman if he could just wait a few minutes there to warm himself, before he continued. "Sure," the doorman said and they talked for a few minutes in the lobby. Then, a man came down in the elevator and asked the doorman to get him a cab.
When the doorman heard the man's destination -- a few blocks from my father's house -- he asked if he would give my father a lift. He looked over at my father and said, "Why not? We're all in this together." My father still recalls the unknown man's kindness.
Long after the Depression was over, even after World War II and Korea, my mother clung to the tricks she learned during the "hard times." We still had "leftovers" day on Thursday, when spaghetti sauce, meatballs, diced potatoes, canned green peas and poached eggs were combined for my mother's specialty -- "peas and eggs." The children hated it, but even now, it's one of my father's favorite meals.
And there was the red Calumet baking powder can that during the bad years contained nickels and dimes for "emergencies," but in better times held dollar bills for "a rainy day," a legacy of the Depression.
Later, when hard memories faded there were happier thoughts of The Crash -- of the only time my father bet a number, and how it hit, and how he was paid almost a whole week's wages and was able to pay off the bills. And, how, once a month, the entire family visited my Aunt Laura in the country for fresh eggs and fruits and vegetables.
It's 50 years since The Crash, but I'll visit my father and I know he'll tell me again how it was during those times -- of the apple vendors in the streets, of people committing suicide, but, mostly, of how he and his family and friends survived.