Storytime – the Great Depression

Writing assignment for one of my writing groups:

It’s 1933, and the country is in the grips of the great depression.  You’re the man of the family, or you’re the mother, trying to make do with what little you have to feed the family and take care of your children.  Perhaps you’re a child, wondering what’s going on.  What’s your story?

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Here’s my effort:

Well, it’s been a long time since all this happened, you see, but I’ll try to give you some idea of how it was for us who lived through it.  You kids here just don’t understand, because you’ve got everything you need and you’ve never been hungry.  Maybe one of you can ask your mother to refill Grampa’s coffee cup, and I’ll tell the story again.  Are you sure you aren’t tired of hearing it?  Ok, ok – just kidding, I’ll start now.

You probably saw all of those pictures at the library about the poor families living out on the plains during the dustbowl, driving rickety old cars or trucks and having to make their way to California to find work.  Well, our family’s story is not quite like that.   We started out pretty well off, but then saw it all go away.

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I was just a kid at the time, but I can tell you how it all seemed to come crashing down.  Father came home from work one day and right away we could tell that something was wrong with him.  He didn’t laugh and joke with us kids and didn’t seem to notice that Barky was wanting to go for a walk.  He and Mother went into the back bedroom and they had the door shut for a long time before they came out.  There was just me and my little sister Janie then, and we were pretty worried, I can tell you.

When they finally came out of the bedroom, they called us into the living room for what they called a ‘family meeting.’  I don’t remember our having one of those before, so that stuck in my mind.  I glanced at Janie, and she was on the verge of tears as we went into the living room with them.

Father said, “I know you’re both worried, because I kind of ignored you when I came in, and I even ignored good old Barky,  but I’ll try to tell  you what’s going on.”

He went on to say that he didn’t have a job any more, and it actually looked like the place where he worked was going to be out of business.  He was going to be home a lot now, unless he was out looking for work, and that we’d probably have to dismiss Sophie, who did our cooking, and old Fred, who helped with chores and the gardening.  He also said we might wind up living somewhere else, but it was a little early to tell about that.

Poor Father.  H could not have foretold, nor could he have been prepared for what did happen to our family. You’ll probably think I made this up, just to scare you, but this is the way it was, I promise you.

We did lose Sophie and Fred, and we did have to live somewhere else.  You may have seen pictures of the kind of house we had in the beginning, with lots of windows on the front, two or three stories tall, and a big front door.  When the money quit coming and the savings ran out, we had to scramble for the basics of life.  We moved into what they called a ‘cold-water flat’ downtown, crowded into that old building with lots of other families who were in the same boat as us.  We were lost in the innards of the big city, and no one much cared what happened to us.  If we couldn’t pay the rent, our stuff would be tossed out onto the sidewalk.  If we couldn’t pay for groceries, we didn’t eat.

bread-line

Father was able to find the occasional day work, but nothing permanent.  We had just enough to scrape by, but if one of us got sick, we had to get better by ourselves, and we hoped we never got really sick.  There was only enough to keep us fed, and there were no new clothes, and there was no longer an automobile for us.  Janie and I were too young to find real jobs, but we scavenged for what we could find in other folks’ trash, or over by the old car factory we might find something useful occasionally, even if it was just an old broom.

Mother worked wonders with what little food that came in, and we ate a lot of thin soup, flavored with small bits of meat. For our entertainment, we read aloud stories out of some of the books that followed us to our new place, and occasionally we’d try to play charades.  When it was really cold, we just huddled together in the big bed and tried to stay warm and not think too much about being hungry and fatigued.

Sometimes we’d go with Mother down to the bread line, so we could add a little something to our meager diet.  It made us feel bad to have to do it, but it was winter, we lived in the city, and there was no way to have a vegetable garden.  Times were hard, but we came through it.

I know, I know, you’re all getting restless now, and now that the power is back on you can go back in there and watch tv, maybe play some video games. You enjoy yourselves, and I’ll just sit here with my coffee and remember the old days, the hard days.  Hard, but those were days that drew us all tightly together.

I sure miss Janie, and I surely do miss your grandmother.

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