Over the hills.
Yesterday, I drove 150 miles over the hills and through the woods to my grandmother’s house. “GG.” She’s 103. Lives independent, because all the men she knows are “just too old” and she’s “not planning on any more children.” There’s always a sparkle in her eyes when she looks at you. While her short term memory betrays her more often than the last year or so, her wit never does. Always listening and wanting to make you feel special. To laugh. To smile back into hers eyes. To say as she does that, “she’s lucky,” is an exaggerated understatement. Every day of her life she has been able to say, “I feel great.” She never worried for money and the only job she ever had was “making up my brother’s bed for a nickel a week.” Survived two exceptional husbands – one who laughed to 78, and the second who was gracefully internet active and drove himself to the hospital where he died at 99. Adored by two children, now in their eighties, seven grandchildren, sixteen great-grandchilren and ten great-great-grandchilren. And is almost mythical to spouses, extended family and friends. She renewed her driver’s license last year and State Farm reduced her insurance rate for being a safe driver – though she no longer drives on the interstates because she’s “too polite to merge.” She doesn’t wear glasses and devours paperbacks by the box – the bawdy ones, too. Plays bridge. Pays her bills. Manages her investments. Remembers and writes birthday cards – though friends are now all second and third generation. Clearly, we are lucky, too.
A year ago, I would have also visited my “younger” grandmother who we knew as “Papa’s Mama.” At 98, she finally got her wish of the last few years and died. She had occupied a Medicaid bed in a nursing home for seven years – too healthy to die, too infirmed to live the purposeful life which was all she had heretofore known. I never knew her when she was healthy, and seldom when she was happy. She was walking to the drug store diner on her lunch hour one random day in the early 60’s, when the brakes of a parked car gave way and pinned her between another car. Her legs were crushed and, in that moment, so was her joy. Six months in the hospital. Numerous surgeries. With torturous rehab, she regained her ability to walk, but she never fully recovered from the pain. Late in her life, Papa’s Mama finally revealed her long dormant sweet side to those of us who had only known the other. It was after she’d buried her second husband of 50 years, her only son – he called her “Pal,” her humble devoted brother, and her favorite and always misunderstood, or at least she felt was misunderstood, grandchild – all within just a few years of each other – that she seemed to give up feeling sorry for herself and lovingly reached out to those of us who had always hoped it was there for us, too, but had never known it. Papa’s Mama’s life had been hard.
GG was 24 in October of 1929, married and pregnant with my mother. Her father was in real estate, owned some rental homes and the building that housed the local department store – the stock market crash hurt them, but years later their worthless stock certificates turned back into modest wealth. GG’s husband was an engineer and kept his job, while his parents owned a grocery store that prospered even during those terrible times, and in a few years, was acquired by a chain for stock that merged with a national chain for more stock. Their view of the great depression was mostly from the inside of a chauffeured car and of the gratitude of those less fortunate that they both helped and profited on.
Papa’s Mama was 19, married and the mother of my six-month old father in October of 1929. Her family was country poor. Her father was a farmer. Her mother, the meanest, nastiest-spirited woman I have ever known, took them in and reminded my grandfather every day that he was a miserable failure. Family folklore has it that during one of her nightly beratings at dinner, she placed a bottle of rat poison in front of him and dared him to drink it. He did. Papa’s Mama was a homeless widow at 22. The only societal safety net then was family, church and a soup kitchen. At a time when few women worked, she got a job working in the office of a hotel. She didn’t have a car and couldn’t afford the street car. Six days every week for the next 10 years, whether it was 90 degrees and sunny, or 33 degrees and raining, she walked the five miles from her rented room to her work and she kept working most all of her life.
What does that say about our great depression?
Those that have some wealth, some property or stocks, a dependable job, they’ll do okay. The percentage won’t change much for them – they’ll still have more than most, even with less. Wait it out. Hold onto to those investments, they’ll come back.
Those without wealth will have it very hard. Lives will be lost. Families will be broken. There will be hunger. They’ll have to do without. There won’t be much joy. Some, with luck and hard work, will make it. It may take a decade, but the next generation can have it better. Others, won’t be so lucky.