Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In The Trenches - A Reader's Story

One of the all time favorite posts was submitted as a guest post by Linda from Practical Parsimony.  It was first posted on September 22, 2010 and it seemed like a good time to share it again for those that may have missed it the first time.  If you feel like you have it rough or need some encouragement this will give you that boost you need to keep moving forward:

One of my goals for writing In The Trenches blog has been to have a feature where readers could share their stories.  Recently I posted U.S. Poverty on Track To Post Record Gain in 2009 and one of our readers comments looked like the perfect opportunity to  begin.   I contacted Linda, the writer of Practical Parsimony , and she agreed to share her thoughts and family experience of the Great Depression and the impact it has had on their lives. Here is her story:

I write Practical Parsimony, a collection of miscellany about my thrifty ways. Much of my thriftiness or frugality comes from my parents who lived through the Great Depression. Carol has graciously invited me to write a guest post. If you like the guest post, please visit my blog.

From my present perspective, my parents told me little about the Great Depression. But, I cherish what I know. Of course, when I heard about it through their eyes and filtered though their experiences, I did not have the questions I do now. I just listened. Okay, maybe they told me things I forgot or just ignored. It’s too late to ask.

My mother, Tommie, was born in 1921 and graduated from high school in 1938, one month after she turned seventeen. She talked about their life—three children (she was the youngest of four) living with her widowed mother, Ruth, and her grandmother, and my great-grandmother (Sally) during the Depression. Less than a year before my grandfather was shot and killed, my grandmother gave birth to a son that died within a few months. Six months after my grandfather, Tom, was murdered, my mother was born.

My mother never knew her father since he died before she was born. Yet, two women kept them all together and well-fed on a 90-acre farm in north Mississippi, affectionately called “the Old Home Place,” even to this day. My great-grandfather, Eli, came across the mountains from North Carolina and bought the land and built the home my great-grandmother, grandmother, and my mother lived in all their lives.

By the way, my great-grandmother, Sally, was college-educated in a time when not many women went to college. She entered college in 1870. I have copies of the college opening sessions for four years, all with her name in the student list. Eventually, she bore 12 children and raised 11. The legacy of education can still be seen today in the speech, lives, and mannerisms of the family even now, one-hundred-forty-years later.

I can only aspire to be as self-supporting as they were during the Great Depression on their Mississippi farm. Think about it—there were no unemployment payments, no food stamps, no social security payments, and no disability payments. Would we band together today as they had to? On the other hand, how many people who needed help back then were neglected?

They lived on a farm they had to plow, often without a mule. My mother agonized over the sight of her own mother pulling a plow while her small son (my uncle and my mother’s brother), guided the plow. I could tell by the quiver in her voice and the dimpling of her chin as she pressed her lips together that over 50 years later my mother was wounded still from the memory of her mother’s inhuman toil.

They raised meat, chickens, and crops and had plenty of milk and eggs. (Mama still could wring a chicken’s neck, dress it, and have it in a frying pan for us to eat.) I never heard of them getting any help from anyone, but surely the community shared resources.

When my mother (called “Cotton Top” because of her white hair) was six-years-old, she was walking through a field. A rattlesnake bit her on the leg. She ran home and told her mother and grandmother. No one believed her even though she was persistent. Finally, they believed her when her leg was double the size of the other. She spent a week in a hospital, near death for part of her stay.

When she was thirteen, she went to the spring for water. As she lowered her hand, holding a dipper near the water to dip water into a bucket, a Cottonmouth Water Moccasin bit her. She ran home and was immediately taken to the hospital for another stay.

You noticed? In 1936, they still carried water from a spring, their only source of water. A dipper was used to dip water from a natural spring, and put it into a bucket to carry to the house for any water need.

Memaw (my grandmother Ruth) worked in the school cafeteria and was allowed to bring food home at the end of her day. Mama said they needed the food. Sometimes, the food supplemented what little they had, especially in the late winter, I imagine.

By the way, my friend from Kansas thought lots of grandmothers were given the name—“Memaw.” She was so surprised to find out that is just what some of us call our grandmothers in the South. “Memaw” is not a given name. My grandchildren call me “Memaw.”

My grandmother sewed for people during the Depression and was paid little. When Mama was a senior in high school and wanted a new short coat as was the newest fashion, my grandmother showed Mama how to shorten it, a tailored coat with lining and lots of detail. My mother passed the skill and love of sewing to me. I have supported myself sewing at times.

Mama started school in a one-room schoolhouse. In the first grade she learned all the second-grade lessons and completed all the second-grade homework and class work after she finished first-grade work, so the teacher promoted her to third-grade.

Mama said she wanted to go to college in 1938, but could not afford to attend. People offered to pay her tuition and help her go away to college. She did not think she had the right clothes, so she just would not. This, she said, was the worst mistake of her life. She regretted her decision, and told me to attend college, no matter what I had to endure. I did.

Because she so desired to “learn more,” she enrolled in the twelfth grade for a second time. My mother’s cousin told me that other kids in school thought my mother was crazy to want to attend for another year after she graduated. My mother’s reply was, “I want to learn more.” My mother’s eighty-nine-year-old cousin remembered this statement and related it to me four years ago.

Mama said the only thing her family ever took from the government was one pair of shoes for each of the three children. She implied that others took what was offered. That was a source of pride for my mother who felt the lonely, outsider state of fatherlessness more acutely than did her older brother and sister. Other people in the community needed and received more from the government. Or, maybe they were just too proud to take anything else and took less like my mother’s family did.

My aunt, Ganelle, my mother’s sister said none of them suffered in their community because they were all poor before the Depression and stayed poor. They lived in the land of Faulkner and in his time, so if you have read his novels, you might know how life was in the stories I have heard of my family in the nineteenth century. Faulkner and my grandmother were born and died within a year of each other and about ten miles apart. Not much changed in the early twentieth century.

When still a young eighteen-year-old girl, Mama moved to Memphis, TN, and worked in a Ford automobile plant that had been converted to a “war plant” to make airplanes for the war. Her job was to make ball bearings. Out of her check, she rented an apartment with another girl from the same town, supported herself, and sent $6 each week to her mother back in Mississippi.

Mama did not go to college, but she joined the Women’s Army Corp in 1942, serving in Des Moines, Iowa. Of course, the Depression had ended in 1941. Even though the Depression ended, the effects lingered.

I was born September 11, 1946, one of the first Baby Boomers. Knowing my great-grandmother attended college and hearing my mother’s anguish over her lost chance, I was driven to attend college, eventually earning two B.A.s, an M.A., and a teaching certificate. Through great personal adversity, I prevailed in my quest for education. I only lack the Ph.D.

My parents taught me things that were necessary skills in the Depression. That is another tale to tell. Mama could “make do” with the best. She taught me how to look around and find a way to make things we needed. Now, I am still frugal. I “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Okay, I am not as parsimonious as I could be. But, I am definitely a product of the Depression since my parents came of age during that time.

Thanks Linda!

If you have a story to tell I would love to hear from you and share it with our readers.  Whether it is a brief "how-to" of something you have learned through the experience, memories of stories passed down through the generations, a recipe, or a picture, these stories and images serve to encourage us and bring hope to those now going through financial hardship, transition, and change.  Email me your story at inthetrenches {at} live {dot} com.  It is my hope that we can make this a regular feature as it is the fabric from which this country was and now is woven together.  Carol


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post! You show how life was frugal but often difficult.
I've been emailing my great-aunt (also a Memaw from the south!)trying to get some of her stories written down. She often thinks I'm silly wanting to go back to simpler ways. As she wrote to me recently, 'I love my automatic washing machine!'

Squirrelers said...

Absolutely fantastic post! Many of us - especially those younger - should read this. We have it relatively easy, all things considered, these days. At least in many ways, certainly in terms of putting food on the table, compared to how things were in the Great Depression. This applies to how things are in many other places in the world today. It's really something how folks could get by though sticking together and by their toughness.

Carol said...

Yes, Linda did a lot of work talking to relatives and rendering the story for us. The struggles and hardships they endured are unimaginable in our time but this is the spirit that has made America great. Now it's our turn to make a contribution.

Practical Parsimony said...

Molly, Thank you! I tried to comment yesterday, but I kept getting 503 errors! I love my washing machine,too. But, wouldn't it be great if we all knew how to survive without one. My mother struggled with a wringer washer, struggled until I was emotionally drained.I rejoiced the day she finally had a washing machine!
She and your great-aunt know the lack of choices, choices that you and I have. That makes all the difference--choice.
Call your aunt. Get a recorder with a suction cup to attach to the phone--perfectly legal. But, out of repect, tell her you want to record some things. ASK specific questions and she will give you more than you thought you could get. The things we value in the stories are commonplace to the tellers.
Good luck with getting the stories you want.

Squirrelers--Thank you! I am eternally grateful that I am not at the mercy of the elements, depending on weather for my daily sustenance. If my several buckets of tomatoes and peppers are eaten by bugs or beat down by hail, I can find more at the grocery or market. The nutrients I need can be gotten from a can or jar at the grocery store, even if these are not the best sources. When all the neighbors have the same problems with the elements, these people did not have anything to share, not the abundance available to us in retail grocers. Cans and jars of commercially grown and prepared food may not be the best for us, but the peace of mind they afford is invaluable. However,commercially prepared food should not be our only and best source of food. Just to let you know--I am all for growing our own or at least buying from local sources.

Petunia 100 said...

What a wonderful story, it brought tears to my eyes! My mother's family were sharecroppers in Oklahoma, and the one-two punch of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression hit them hard. Those experiences made my mother and her family permanently frugal.

Thank you so much for sharing this story.

Practical Parsimony said...

I did not see your comment since I have not returned to read the post until today, nearly 18 months later.