Gleaning information from the older generation

Look around you, how many grey and white heads are nearby? If you are lucky, you will have at least one, if you are very lucky you will have multiple to choose from. Why is it so fortunate to have older folk around? Simple, beneath all that gray and white hair is a plethora of knowledge and experience. This is a valuable resource, and one that is dwindling each and every day. Often the biggest feat is to find those who lived through the great depression and still have their mental faculties and are willing to sit down and talk about their lives, that’s the trifecta!

These folk grew up during a time when most things were done by hand, black and white TV was something for the wealthy, that’s if they had electricity. Lighting was often candles and kerosene lanterns. Some lived on farms and had to get up before dawn to take care of farm animals before eating breakfast and heading off to school. These folks grew up in circumstances that most of us can’t even imagine.

They didn’t have cell phones much less smart phones, many didn’t have land line phones either, what they did have was referred to as the grapevine, one neighbor talking to another over the fence or in line at the local grocery or hardware store, news about what was going on in the neighborhood was passed this way. And Heaven forbid you did something wrong while away from home, believe me, it would make it home to your parents, eventually they would find out about it and punishment was coming. People were more polite to each other, children especially, people said please and thank you, they also shared what they had, which in many cases wasn’t much.

Things weren’t disposable, when you bought or made something,  you used the heck out of it, you used it up, you wore it out, if it broke, you fixed it and continued using it. If it was still in good shape, you passed it on to another person, these were often considered family heirlooms and were proudly cared for and passed down to the next generation.

Another motto they lived by is “make due or do without”, they were tough,  resilient, resourceful and frugal. How many of you remember having a “junk drawer” in the kitchen growing up? This drawer would contain everything your parents couldn’t bear to throw away, if there was any chance it possibly, might be used again or useful for something else…. my parent’s junk drawer contained screws, nails, tools, rubber bands, bread ties… oh let me tell you about the bread ties, there were ones of every possible color, length thickness, and don’t even THINK about going through that drawer and tossing anything in the trash, even though it looked like a mess of unnecessary junk to you, THEY had it memorized down to the last nut, button and rubber band.

Food was very important, it was often scarce, especially meat, if you were lucky (like my dad) you had a milk cow, perhaps you have a few free range chickens for eggs and the occasional (rare) chicken dinner. You made everything from scratch, there was no microwave, no prepackaged convenience foods, your mom had a well worn cookbook with all of her favorite recipes, complete with hand written notes jotted down on the oil stained pages.

So here’s what you do, and seriously consider doing this before it’s too late, get a voice recorder, find someone, or preferably many someone’s who lived through the great depression, sit down with them and talk, do a sort of interview, ask questions like “was it hard for you and your family during the depression?”, “how did you survive?”, “what would you do differently?”… you get the idea, once you express an interest, I believe most will be willing to talk to you. Let them go on as long as they want to, and don’t forget you can always come back another day and ask more questions.

One of the things I tend to do when I meet an oldster for the first time, eventually I will ask them if they grew up during the great depression, that often sparks a grand conversation.

I think you will be pleasantly surprised at what you will learn. Here are some books to help, these are the memories of the folks who lived during the great depression.

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One Response

  1. Both my parents lived through the not so Great Depression. They both lived in the burbs of NYC, one in NY and one in NJ. I have read many stories of the men and women who persevered during those times and made it through by hard work and skill. During that time, more than 30% of the American population lived on farms. Most, both in the city as well as those in the country had the basic self-sufficiency skills that many today look upon with admiration and awe. To realize that we are such a deskilled culture in such a short period of time is shocking. To think that the grandparents and parents of those years really made a go of it, however, is in error.

    While many had solid skills, money was necessary for supplies and one needed the right tool for the right job. Many times ingenuity was used and the job got done, but it may have been “patch on patch with a hole in the middle.” Would that be acceptable today? I think not. Some kids didn’t go to school because they didn’t have shoes or clothes to go. In the rural areas they might have lived on groundhog.

    The men and women of the not so Great Depression made it through mostly because they endured. In the case of both my parents who were both born before the stock market crash, living in the northeast was a benefit. While there wasn’t a lot of money around, there were some jobs to be found. My widowed grandmother and child (my parent ) experienced a problem being able to buy food at one point, but it was not prolonged or extended. Their housing situation was “interesting,” and despite the fact that it was far from great, it worked. My other parent lived with grandparents, aunt and uncles who all had jobs and contributed to the household. There was food, daily living was very frugal, and the proximity of everyone living under one roof was a challenge, but compared to other stories of that same age group and time period, they did very well. Shockingly enough, they had a telephone and magazines. They also had a car that, upon occasion, was taken off the blocks, revved up, and driven, usually to the yearly Thanksgiving visit with relatives.

    The most surprising thing about the household of adults of my extended family was the low level of them doing it themselves. They would rather do without. They were skilled. I have never been able to figure out that one.

    My widowed grandmother was working at a rather low paying job with long long hours. I know she had a very good skill base that helped them through the toughest times, but when you work that many hours, exhaustion takes over. Doing things yourself takes time, money and supplies.

    Today’s elders who lived through the not so Great Depression would be in the mid to late 80’s. They were children with childhood experiences. Those who lived on farms during this time period would have different stories than those who lived in and around the cities. The stories my grandmother (b. 1892) growing up in the burbs, that today is clearly a city, in her youth has been more educational to me than the stories of both my parents. Everything was made and done by hand. This included household linens, including sheets, clothing for both sexes, having backyard chickens in the city, an outhouse, cooking using a coal stove, being the care giver for those who were sick, beating the rugs on the line, and washing all the laundry by hand. She was married in 1915, and probably had electricity before she married. I am sure I am missing something, but I was too late smart enough to ask many questions before she passed away. I do not mean to demean my parents’ experiences. Life during those times was a challenge, and either you met the challenge or you endured. When I reflect upon the not so Great Depression, I think about my Grandmother. She never complained about those years. She never did. She was one tough lady. I think it says something about her character.

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