February 15, 2009
THELMA MAY BEETS
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.
Bertha was not quite 11 when the stock market crashed in 1929. Still, she was old enough to navigate New York's streets alone. On weekends, she delivered her father's lunch and watched the customers pass through the glass double doors of Tress and Greenstein.
In the weeks after the crash, she heard people on the street talking about wealthy men who had lost their fortunes. Some drank poison or hanged themselves, the newspaper hawkers bellowed on the streets. She became aware that her father, now pale and drawn, was spending more time at home.
"He never talked about the business to the kids or when we were present," said Bertha, the youngest of seven. "He would say, 'Well, we'll have to look for something else to do.' "
Eight months after the crash, Jacob sold his share of the tailoring shop and bought a bakery on 110th Street, a block from Central Park. It was a deep and narrow storefront with a faded green awning. People lined up for dense loaves of rye and horn-shaped rolls covered in salt.
Every couple of weeks, as customers' debts grew, her father sent her to collect. She would crisscross the neighborhood, climb flights of stairs and politely ask for the lady of the house. Everyone recognized her as the baker's daughter.
She loved to walk -- to school, to basketball games, on dates strolling through Central Park. She found jobs along the way -- tutoring children, selling paper flowers, folding bolts of cloth in a fabric store.
There was a beauty to never standing still, even though it was hard on her shoes.
When holes in her soles grew to the size of quarters, she cut off a chunk of the tan cake boxes in her father's bakery and slipped them inside her shoes, over and over again.
"If the cardboard was thin, we'd put two layers in," said Bertha, 90, who still arches her tiny feet when she walks on a cold day, as if trying to get away from the memory of wet snow.
LEMUEL ARTHUR LEWIE JR.
It took time for the Depression to settle into the minds of children whose parents had jobs, a precious commodity at a time when the national unemployment rate would eventually hit 25%.
Arthur Lewie's father, Dr. Lemuel Lewie Sr., was the only African American dentist on Main Street in Columbia, S.C. For years, patients -- black and white -- came to him with aching jaws and throbbing teeth.
Arthur began to notice that things were different when patients stopped paying cash. "They'd bring hams, chickens, things like that, for us," he said.
Arthur was 10 at the time, the eldest of three, and he had never known hard times. Unlike many of their neighbors, the Lewies owned their wood-frame home, with a wraparound porch so wide that the children could race their tricycles on it. It sat on 4 acres of rich soil with corn, flowers and grapevines running along the side of the house.
His mother, Ophelia, heard the news of banks collapsing in the North. She suggested to her husband that they pull their money out of the black-owned bank in Columbia and invest in postal bonds. "My father left all his money in the bank and, of course, he lost it all," Arthur said.
He realized that life was changing. Trips to buy clothes became less frequent. There were fewer visits to family in other parts of the South.
He began spending more time with his parents, turning the land into a working farm. Sections of lawn were replaced with rows of tomato plants, cabbage and collard greens. Pits were dug into the ground to store potato slips and vegetable seeds.
His father, who had a passion for automobiles, worked on his own car to save money. He showed Arthur how to fit piston rings, adjust valves and replace crankshaft bearings.
Each vegetable picked and engine repaired impressed the boy with the importance of self-reliance. "I knew the value of being able to make things, and do things yourself," said Arthur, 89. "I could be self-sufficient. . . . I could live off the land.
"I wouldn't ever have to beg," he said.
Reva Goodwin remembers lots of strangers showing up on her family's back doorstep, asking for something to eat. There was always a bowl of soup waiting for them.
In northwest Baltimore, she grew up with the constant smell of stock simmering from the blackened cast-iron pot that sat on the stove's back burner.
Her mother, Edith, would add whatever was available to the pot, depending on the season and the amount of money that Reva's father, William, made from the auto repair shop he owned.
Bunches of kale, winter squash and ruby-red stewed tomatoes went into the pot. In the summer, ears of corn were shelled to join onions, potatoes, rice and celery.
Meat joined the soup whenever available: ham hocks, chicken chunks, stew beef, bacon grease -- anything to make each spoonful more satisfying.
Visiting friends would cross the kitchen's gunmetal gray linoleum, carrying a gift for the pot. A couple that worked for a caterer in the city routinely arrived with boxes of leftover chickens, extra beans, even sweet rolls to enjoy after a bowl of Edith's soup.
That pot was never empty, and nothing in the kitchen was wasted. Ketchup bottles were turned upside down to coax the last few drops.
My mother "had everything imaginable in that soup, all of the vegetables that were nourishing," said Reva, the eldest daughter of six children. There was always something to share.
Her father complained that she was giving away food, but Edith shrugged it off. Theirs was a tight-knit African American neighborhood, a line of brick row houses filled with schoolteachers, chauffeurs and city workers.
As children grew older, winter jackets and summer dresses were passed down from home to home, until the cloth was too thin to wear. After that, they became rags for quilts and washing.
The people asking for food were often white. It didn't matter to Edith. In her eyes, having food to share meant the difference between being rich and barely surviving.
"In the neighborhood, everyone looked out for each other," said Reva, 79. "We had to mind everybody in the neighborhood. . . . People have forgotten that."
Even with the help of family and friends, there were sacrifices, many of them beyond the understanding of children.
In the depths of the Depression in 1933, Richard Harding's mother found a job as a nurse's aide at Whidden Memorial Hospital, just outside Boston. The pay was decent and there was a spare room in the hospital's nursing home where she could live for free. There was, however, no room for children.
Richard was 7. His father, a fisherman from Newfoundland, had drowned when he was 10 months old. His mother, Temperance Anne, had struggled to raise him and his sister, Margaret.
Anne asked two of her brothers to take care of her children, and they agreed. Earlier in the Depression, she had helped them. "I have to work and I'm sorry," Richard remembered his mother telling him.
His uncle reminded him that he was "the extra kid in the family," said Richard, who resented the chores he had to do that his four younger cousins didn't have to.
Across town, Margaret was included in most family activities, but knew she too was a burden.
Both uncles were carpenters who were struggling to find work in Boston. They rose early each morning and headed to a nearby union office, waiting for jobs that came sporadically.
Anne and the children spent weekends together. They wandered along the downtown square's shops, gazing at window displays of the latest fashions. "We never talked much about how we felt about how we were doing," Richard said.
For nearly four years, they lived apart from their mother. Richard thought of running away. Margaret grew withdrawn.
Then Anne met Andrew Hillier, a Newfoundlander 12 years her senior. He was a good man with a steady job, and they wed in 1937. Anne told her children years later that she remarried to bring them home.
Long after the Depression, Richard said, his uncle reached out and they slowly developed a friendship. Richard, after raising his own family and facing his own worries, came to understand his uncle's words.
"A lot of his abrasiveness was this constant on edge of 'How am I going to provide for this family?' " said Richard, 82. "He gave me a roof to live under and enabled my mother to work."
That was worth forgiveness, he figured.
After years of the Depression, the hardships gradually began to ease as federal spending boomed, factory jobs grew and prices slowly rose.
The changes, however, were hard to notice on the farm outside Jonesville, Mich., where Judy Kyser grew up.
She was an avid reader, sneaking away from the battered metal washtub to curl up on her feather bed with a stack of movie magazines about faraway Hollywood. At dusk, when the wagonload of hay had been harvested, she sat next to the family's oil lamp with murder mysteries and dreamed of solving crimes.
But as the Depression wore on, she set aside the books and magazines from the school library once the sun set. Coal oil was too expensive to waste.
She was left to her own imagination at night. "I can remember as a teen going to bed early because then I could dream," said Judy, now 84. "I dreamed about the movie stars and the different lives and how it would be to meet these people."
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act, which promised to install electrical distribution systems to rural areas. It was one of many government efforts to pump cash and technology into the country.
It took two more years for electricians to arrive at Judy's family farm. On a summer day, they came with rolls of cabling the size of a tractor and began planting wooden poles along the road.
Judy was the youngest of seven and the only girl. Her father had passed away. Her mother and two brothers were running the farm. Crop sales were rising. So was the price of milk.
That first night, after the workmen left, she raced to her bedroom. There it was: a light fixture, with a single bulb. She tugged on its metal chain and a warm light bathed the room.
Within months, the family bought an electric iron, a washing machine and a radio. "It was all the things that made life easier," she said.
World War II was coming, and the country's impending burst of production would eventually catapult the U.S. out of its economic malaise.
But at that first moment, a light bulb was enough for Judy. The dark days of her childhood would never seem so dark again.
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