Our grandparents who grew up during The Great Depression could teach us all a thing or two about self-sacrifice and financial hardship. It did not mean ordering the Porterhouse steak instead of the rib-eye or drinking Polar Springs bottled water instead of Perrier.
Depression-era children, now elderly or deceased, told me that once you truly have gone hungry, you never forget what it feels like, and you never completely get over the fear that it could happen again. It was a lesson they learned well, and once learned, it was never forgotten. To this day, they cannot bring themselves to waste food, even when it is plentiful.
When my grandparents, the Martins, were a young married couple and my mom was a child, housing was scarce and outside of the family’s meager budget. At that time, large houses were often divided up and rented to several families. My grandparents rented a few rooms in one of those homes.
The only barrier between my grandparents’ apartment and the one next to theirs was a small closed door. On the other side of that door were the Zimmers, another young couple with young children. The Martins and the Zimmers were expecting an equally grim Christmas that year. Times were hard.
With difficulty, The Martins and the Zimmers managed to scrape together 20 cents each, which was enough to purchase one small, scraggly tree. The communal door was propped open and the tree erected in the doorway, with one half of the tree extending into each apartment. Each family decorated the half which protruded into their apartment.
Mom’s father sold newspaper subscriptions until he had earned enough to buy my mom a doll. My grandmother sewed doll clothes and a tiny quilt, using scraps from worn and outgrown clothes.
Because jobs were scarce or non-existent, the men in the house had plenty of time on their hands. They spent weeks in the shared garage making doll furniture and toys out of scrap lumber.
Although my mom was just a toddler at the time, she still remembered 50 years later the mysterious sounds of sawing, sanding, hammering, and laughter, as well as the feeling of excited anticipation in the house. Mom remembers that as her favorite Christmas, although it was surely the hardest for the family.
By the time my mom’s generation married, the country’s financial condition was not much better.
For their first home as newlyweds, my mom and dad rented a converted chicken coop in someone’s back yard, where they shared an outhouse with three other families.
“We were happy to get it,” she said. “It was fixed it up really cute.”
I don’t care how cute it is fixed up, these days no young newlywed would agree to live in a converted chicken coup and share an outhouse.
I would be perfectly willing to live in a converted chicken coop if only it did not smell so much like chicken excrement and I did not have this allergy to feathers.
As their situation improved a little, they were eventually able to rent a few rooms in a private home, where they shared a bathroom with the bachelor across the hall.
They had no refrigerator, so they shared the one downstairs with two other families.
Each week they put their pennies in a quart jar until they had enough for a downpayment on a refrigerator. Even many decades later, Mom remembered that a quart jar holds exactly 27 dollars worth of pennies.
Because they had no credit, they were told they would need a co-signer in order to purchase the refrigerator. Too proud to ask for help, they did without.
The next generation was mine. At that time, the early 1970s, young people were expected to leave their parents’ house and strike out on their own as soon as we graduated from high school (or college if we were lucky enough to afford it).
In fact, we were eager to do so. Our first independent homes were shabby apartments shared with one or two friends who could pay their share of the rent and utilities. Furnishings consisted of our parents’ and grandparents’ cast-offs, supplemented by a bookcase made of cinder blocks and boards and at least one end table made of a cable spool.
At least one roommate slept on a mattress on the floor because there weren’t enough beds. Nobody minded the austere conditions because we knew we were no worse off than our contemporaries. We had faith that things could only get better.
Gradually, we bettered our lots in life and moved on to the expected rewards earned by hard work and sacrifice.
I am worried about today’s young adults. They are confident, well-educated, and proficient in technological skills, yet in most cases, they are sorely lacking in basic survival skills. They can surf the internet, which did not even exist when I was their age, yet as children of a much more affluent era, they often do not know how to economize.
Most newlyweds (or more often cohabitors) start their lives together with more and better “stuff” than their parents spent a lifetime accumulating. The difference is that Mom and Dad probably are debt-free and learned the art of delayed gratification. They know what it is like to start with nothing and work your way up to a comfortable old age.
Remember the Martins and the Zimmers? My grandparents and their neighbors who shared a Christmas tree? Over the next several decades they became and remained good friends as they raised their families. More than thirty years later, when their children were grown and on their own, Mr. Martin and Mrs. Zimmer passed away.
Through the next few years, as the widow Martin and the widower Zimmer shared their grief, they came to realize how much their long friendship and shared past meant to them. They married and spent their remaining years together.
Be like the Martins and the Zimmers and your own grandparents who survived The Great Depression. A contented life isn’t about the “stuff” you accumulate. Don’t dwell on what you don’t have. Appreciate what you do have and the loving people with whom you share your life.