Memories of a Life Well Lived
Sorry I’ve been kind of absent lately. We had a death in our extended family that, while not a complete shock, still kept me from wanting to post for the last few days. My great Aunt Mary passed away on Sunday evening. Because both of my father’s parents died when he was a teenager and his Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe took their place of raising him and his four sisters, the pain is similar to losing a grandparent. She was 87 years old.
I was trying to think about what to say or what to write because I knew that a lot of my family members would be reading this. I didn’t want to make them sad, but I didn’t want to seem too upbeat either. There wasn’t much pomp and circumstance surrounding her death. The obituary was about two lines I think. We didn’t even have a service.
And yet, all of this seems right somehow. My Aunt Mary was a simple, kind woman. She didn’t demand anyone else’s attention. She was willing to serve, and willing to help others, but she never asked for any favors in return.
Because my great aunt and uncle have lived in South Carolina since before I was born, I didn’t see them too many times face to face. I talked with them on the telephone a lot. I heard numerous stories from relatives of my dad’s generation. And every Christmas I got to see them at my aunt’s house. I got to hug them and laugh at their jokes and give them homemade bread. And yet, despite my shortage of physical contact with them, I have learned so much from them just by hearing the reports of others.
A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to interview my Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe about their life growing up in the Great Depression. We had a nice long telephone chat, and I asked them plenty of questions about their childhood and the events that shaped them into the people they grew up to be. What started out as a school project quickly became a chance for me to become more intimate with the relatives I didn’t know too well. I learned about their values and their histories, and hung up the phone with a new feeling of gratitude at the very easy life God has given me.
I thought I’d share the interview with you here, just so you can see the type of people my Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe are. I regret not talking to my Aunt Mary face to face more before she passed, despite my numerous letters and emails. But I feel blessed to have been her great niece, and I’m thankful for all the time she spent writing me and sharing about her life.
Interview with Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe: October 17, 2008
1. How old were you when the Great Depression started?
Joe: 7. Born in ’22.
Mary: I was born in ’24, so I was 5
2. Where did you live during the Depression?
Joe: In Baltimore, MD.
Mary: We lived several places because we couldn’t pay the rent. For the most part, though, I lived in Stewartstown, WV.
3. How did the Depression affect your family?
Joe: Well, to begin with, when the Depression started my father died in June of 1929. My mom took care of the kids; my older sister was 13, and my younger brother was 1 month.
Mary: Just about the same way for me. I was five and we lived in the country. We did get a newspaper, but that was all. We didn’t have much money; we did what we could. My mother died in 1935, in the middle of the Depression, and she left five kids. The oldest, your grandmother was 15; the youngest, your Aunt Jeanne, was 18 months. My father did what he could; we had chickens and a cow; not a lot of food. Your grandmother dropped out of school at 15, to help. She took care of Jeanne.
At Christmas, the only thing we got was a pair of socks and tangerines. And I don’t like tangerines to this day. Yeah, but we had no Christmas. We had ice cream once or twice a year when the stream froze over and we could cut the ice and make it ourselves.
You learn, more or less, how you can get along on less. We were very healthy and I don’t remember the doctor ever coming. My father didn’t take us to the dentist; he pulled our teeth himself. It wasn’t good times. It was the commodity of our neighbors and the closeness of our family that kept us going.
Joe: Everyone learned the value of a dollar. I worked on a produce truck and worked all day and got paid 50 cents a day so we could go out to supper and buy hot dogs and beans.
4. How did the Depression affect your community?
Joe: Everybody was in the same boat; everybody was poor but they just didn’t know it.
Mary: Just about the same for me. There were very few people who had a radio; many didn’t, no, I don’t think anyone had electricity; we had oil lamps. The kids came together and made up our own games. The people washed clothes on washboards, we didn’t have any indoor plumbing.
But we did learn a lot. We learned how to get along with each other; how to respect our parents. Back then, we couldn’t go and play at a friends house before asking our parents. My mother would say, “You can go over so-and-so’s house, but when you get there you ask Mrs. so-and-so for a clock, and you’d better be home in half an hour.”
My dad worked in a coal mine, and I remember the miners who worked for him, in their lunch boxes there was water. No food, just water.
5. Do you remember where you were on Black Monday, the day the market crashed?
Joe: I was probably asleep. In those days, extra papers would come out, we didn’t have televisions, and the paper person would knock on my door and give me $2.00 for 50 papers to sell. I got up at 2:00 in the morning to holler, “Extra!” I was too young to know how long it would last. But I know when the war started, the Depression broke.
Mary: I don’t remember.
6. What was the public’s general impression of politics at the time?
Joe: At the time the Depression started, Hoover was president, and in 1932 it was Franklin Roosevelt. Everybody supported Roosevelt. PWA everyone used to say, “Pop’s working again!”
Mary: Everybody was looking to Roosevelt to make better times, and blamed Hoover for the Depression. We all looked to Roosevelt to bring us out of the Depression. Roosevelt was a Democrat, I know, but I think that he was loved by both Democrats and Republicans.
My father established a PWA and a CCC’s in our community and put people to work working on roads and building things. They were like an army! They built Cooper’s Mill, up by Morgantown. The workers were paid, I think, $1.00 a day. But they also got food, like flour and butter and stuff, for working and building new roads.
But there was no such thing as welfare. You didn’t work, you didn’t eat, you didn’t get paid!
7. What items were necessary for your family’s survival?
Joe: The basic items: food, bread, and milk, and canned goods. Clothing was all hand-me-downs.
Mary: Yeah, from your family. Siblings, cousins; nothing was thrown away. And all the women could sew, either by hand or by machine. 99% of clothing was made by mothers. Mama could take jeans, well, back then they were called overalls, but now they’re called jeans, and split them down the middle and make skirts for the girls. And sheets. Old sheets could make skirts or pillowcases. You did what you had to do.
Joe: And a lot of people, farmers mostly, could make clothes out of feedbags. Lots of people went around wearing feedbags and you didn’t even know because they were patterned.
8. Was there anything you had to cut back on? What did you miss the most?
Joe: You cut back on everything.
Mary: We never had much to begin with. I can’t think of anything I missed the most, because we didn’t have much to begin with.
9. What was Christmas like? Birthdays? Did you still get any presents?
Joe: We had to go out to the churches and they would give us gift baskets. That was our Christmas.
Mary: I got those, too. And I remember saving pennies and buying things. My father used to save pennies and one Christmas he bought a wagon for all the kids. Back then you didn’t buy a bike for one kid and another thing for a another, you bought something for all of them. Oh, and my father always gave us a penny for Christmas to put in the collection plate at church, and we had to tie it in a handkerchief so we wouldn’t lose it.
Oh, some of the things we did are so funny now that I think back on them.
Joe: Birthdays came and went. Just another day.
10. Do you have any stories about your life when the country was at its worst?
Joe: The same thing everyone went through. Stash food.
Mary: The Depression didn’t get worse for us. It was bad at the beginning.
11. What’s one thing you learned about yourself from the Great Depression?
Joe: Tell the truth and be honest. And work hard.
Mary: Earn your money and don’t depend on the Federal Government. Of course, they didn’t have any more money than we did, but still. Respect people and get along with a lot less. We try to do that today, too. Save that money for a rainy day. Before we married, every week I put something in the bank; this was taught to me by my father, who never had a lot.
12. Just out of curiosity, how did you two meet?
Joe: I was in the service and Mary worked in the shipyard as a timekeeper. My sister worked with her, and she introduced us.
Mary: We wrote to each other when Joe was overseas. I still have every letter he sent me. He came home in 1945, and we married in ’52.