A few weeks ago, my seventh-grade daughter began working on her first history research paper for school. Leslie Ann’s assigned topic was the Great Depression.
“You know, Les,” I told her, “My mom was about your age when the Depression started. Grandma was a teen-ager during the 30s.” I could see my daughter pause with disbelief as she contemplated that her own grandmother had been alive so long ago.
Then I told her about the Depression stories that I heard while I was growing up—how my mom’s family had to watch every penny; how kids were darned glad to get jobs after school delivering papers, baby-sitting, cleaning other people’s yards or sweeping up; how a dime was big money and had surprising buying power. The family considered themselves fortunate because they had a decent house to live in, food on the table, and were able to buy shoes and clothing when needed. There wasn’t much left for frills. “Grandma didn’t get a class ring or any yearbooks in high school because they cost too much,” I told my daughter. “Grandma was just glad they never ended up in the breadlines like those pictures in your history book.” Leslie Ann’s eyes widened. It was hard for her to comprehend that those doleful scenes of unemployed workers were not only real but startlingly close to home.
I explained that my mom survived the Depression and so did my dad, but in many ways, they never fully escaped it. The war came. They married late. My baby boomer brothers and I were reminded often how grateful we should be for the current prosperity we enjoyed because it might not last. As it turned out, we got everything we needed, plus class rings and yearbooks and a lot (but not all) of the stuff we wanted.
Leslie Ann and her brother, I fear, have way too much stuff. What can I tell them? “You kids should be grateful. We had only one TV set when I was growing up, and it was black and white.” It’s not their fault that we live in times when consumer goods are plentiful and inexpensive, the benefit of high productivity and advanced technology.
When I helped Leslie Ann proofread a rough draft of her paper, I noticed what she had written about events leading up to the stock market crash: “Throughout the 1920s, many people became used to good times and having good jobs. They bought new cars and invested in stocks. They forgot to think about what would happen if all their money disappeared.”