We’ve been talking a lot in my family about the old days since Mom is turning 93 in August. The old days means all the family history since my Mom was born in 1917. She does not know much family history before then. My Mom’s mom defied her well-off (not rich) family to marry a poor man of Scottish descent who apparently was very entertaining, but never earned enough to lift the family above the poverty level. He was a mason but would not join the masons because he was not a “joiner”, I guess. Mom’s mother worked very hard and seemed to produce delicious meals out of thin air and water. Some of these meals were probably not quite so wonderful, however, because there are still foods my mom won’t eat (like fish, which her Dad caught and her Mom cooked). As if the family was not poor enough along came the Depression. Mom tells stories of walking with her dad all across Onondaga County. She says her dad used to work at Onondaga Lake (probably for a park’s project) and walk to and from work every day. But she holds no rancor towards her father. She always speaks of him fondly as though they are still walking by the side of some dusty old Syracuse road hand in hand. Her parents, her sister and her brother all died quite young. Where her long-life genes come from is a mystery to her.
My dad also came from a very poor, and apparently dysfunctional family. His mother put the fear in him and leaned on him a lot. He had two sisters and three brothers. One brother spent his life in a mental institution, one died in a bicycle accident, but the others grew up and had families. My dad didn’t stop supporting his parents until he was 30. Then he married my mom and they started their own family.
Although my dad only had an eighth grade education, he was very smart. He was an electrician and he taught himself calculus. Every one of us, all eight, finished high school and many went to post secondary school.
So they climbed the “ladder” of American success as high as they could go given their circumstances.
Mom remembers how poor we were but she doesn’t really seem to resent it. My dad did leave her with her house, free and clear, and a small pension. She certainly can’t fly to Majorca or shop for much except groceries and gifts. But she is quite content at almost 93. I, on the other hand, feel I would have been miserable living my mother’s life.
When my mother experienced this it was happening to everyone. Rich and poor alike felt the sting. It was a no blame, no fault situation, although people did experience personal shame. This 2010 recession has not hit everyone. People are pointing at the jobless as if they have done something wrong. There is more stigma attached. So, in spite of all this nostalgia about poverty, I am not suggesting that any one should enjoy this recession, or unemployment, or scary financial insecurity, or foreclosure or bankruptcy. These stressful things that made good memories for my mom, probably contributed to the early deaths of her parents. We need to do all we can to create enough jobs so that everyone who needs a job can get one. I would rather see employers whistling for employees, than employees whistling for jobs.