Friday, May 24, 2013
This week I talked to my patients about life during the Great Depression.
Ruby was six years old when the economy crashed. She remembers that her dad built a wagon for her so that she could help out. She and her little brother would pull it down to the train yard and pick up pieces of coal that dropped from the trains. Sometimes train workers threw chunks of coal down to them. The coal they collected kept their stove going during the winter. If they didn't get enough coal they drug the wagon to a nearby corn canning factory and loaded the wagon with corn cobs. One way or another they kept the fire burning for mom to cook dinner.
I asked Ruby if she was stressed about being so poor. She said she doesn't remember being stressed at all. She does remember the neighbor children coming over once a week to listen to a program together on the radio. And laying in the grass watching lightening bugs and swimming in the river.
Ella's mother died the first year of the depression. Ella was in the middle of 7th grade but her father pulled her out of school and arranged for her to marry a friend's son, because he couldn't support her anymore. Ella was 14 when she got married. She had her first baby at age 15. Then 7 more babies. I asked Ella if her young husband was good to her. She said "No. He was a drunk from the very beginning and money was always tight." And then she added with a smile, "But we sure had wonderful kids."
Emmitt was 20 when the depression hit. He remembered being desperate to get a job and help his family. He heard of a man hiring and headed over. When he got there the waiting room was packed with qualified men all equally desperate. Emmitt stood on the porch trying to decide what to do next when he saw the owner drive up. Emmitt ran down to the man's car and pleaded for a chance to work. The man asked "are you 25?" "Yes" Emmitt lied. "OK" the man relented. "Come back tomorrow and you can start." Emmitt kept that job for the next 37 years, proud to be employed and not wanting his boss to ever regret taking a chance on him.
One more. In the 1930's in Asheville you could get a bag of cornmeal for 25 cents. Mary's family was barely surviving. One Tuesday night there was no food for dinner. No breakfast on Wednesday morning either. Mary's mother realized they couldn't wait til dad's payday on Friday. She bundled Mary up and asked her and her sister to walk to their aunt's house 2 miles away. "See if she will lend you one quarter, and then you can buy a bag of cornmeal at the store on the way home." Mother asked. Mary and her sister walked down Louisiana Street toward town. One mile down the road Mary spotted something green laying the the side of the road. She ran over to it and picked up 3 dollar bills wadded up. 3 dollars!! They ran straight to the store and bought cornmeal, meat and some potatoes. Then they ran home with their packages. Mother fixed a big lunch meal and then made everyone clean up for church that night to show their appreciation to God for his gift.
All week I heard tough stories. Abusive husbands, empty pockets, hard times, growling stomachs. But what I heard more of was how much they loved their kids, how great their mother's pie was, how God always came through, how good the honeysuckle smelled on the barn fence and how bright the stars were.
The word that keeps coming to my mind is Resilience. "Resilience is the ability to work with adversity in such a way that one comes through it unharmed or even better for the experience. Resilience means facing life’s difficulties with courage and patience – refusing to give up. It is the quality of character that allows a person or group of people rebound from misfortune, hardships and traumas.
Resilience is rooted in a tenacity of spirit—a determination to embrace all that makes life worth living even in the face of overwhelming odds."
Though the country was bankrupt and money was scare, many in this generation were stockpiling experiences of character building, thankfulness, memories and love for their family.
From what I'm reading about how to become more resilient - it starts now. Investing in relationships that allow us to lean on each other for support when we need it. And living in gratitude for all good things we can count. “If we don’t allow ourselves to experience joy and love, we will definitely miss out on filling our reservoir with what we need when. . . . hard things happen.”