In the early hours before dawn, Thelma May Beets shuffled across the cold linoleum floor for a weekly inspection of the trunk next to her bed.

Her husband built the rust-colored tool chest when he came home from World War II. Now it is full of food: sugar, pasta, soup, oats, crackers, creamer.

Nearly blind, she reviewed her inventory by touch -- peanut butter jars with ridged lids, ground coffee rustling inside a can like dried oak leaves blown in the wind.

"If you like to eat, you better save some," said the 91-year-old widow, her fingers spotted with age and curled by arthritis.

Thelma has long kept some food in the chest, but as the latest recession has deepened, she's made a point of keeping it full. It's a compulsion she learned as a child of the Great Depression, the period of epic hardship that began with the stock market crash in 1929 and lasted for a decade.

Her memories of that time have come flooding back lately. The survivors of the Depression are approaching the ends of their lives, and their tales flow freely -- of countless injuries and precious joys. They experienced humiliation and unexpected generosity, moments of fear and times of laughter.

The privation left scars that have lasted a lifetime. Thelma still smarts from the looks that other children gave her worn checkered dress, her only one. The bare walls of the abandoned home her family moved into, and snowflakes that sneaked in through broken windows, still linger in her memory.

"My age group, the older people, we came up the hard way," she said from her home in Sedalia, Ind., about 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis.

But many survivors of the Great Depression say that their youth eventually became a time of triumph for them. The country, ever resilient, learned to adapt to this society of wanting and embraced a cooperative spirit that would carry it through another world war, the Cold War and a dozen recessions to come.

The children of those times learned things that they would remember for the rest of their lives. They discovered how to make endless pots of soup, how to use corncobs for fuel, how to make undergarments from bleached feed sacks. They learned the value of a wild imagination and honest neighbors.

They were good lessons.



It all began for Bertha Greenstein when she couldn't get a new pair of shoes.

Good shoes were everywhere in New York in the late 1920s -- T-straps, Mary Janes, slip-on boots, soft leather pumps. Nothing said style like shoes.

Her father, Jacob Greenstein, was an immigrant from Romania and co-owned a tailoring shop in Lower Manhattan. He spent his days surrounded by bolts of fine cashmere and the sharp, rich scent of hair tonic. His nimble fingers smoothed the cloth across the shoulders of stylish stockbrokers and other businessmen.