GRANDCHILD OF THE DEPRESSION
I can’t deny being a baby boomer, but I’m also partly a grandchild of the Great Depression. I try to remember the importance of gratitude–a lesson from the hard times of thirties–even though I was born in the fifties.
Like two-thirds of her generation, my mother’s education stopped with high school graduation. Sending a child to college was not possible for a family that survived at least one Depression-era winter by living on black-eyed peas picked from hay bought for the family cow.
My paternal grandfather deserted his family in about 1929. So, my father dropped out of high school to help support himself and his mother. She took in laundry–and did it in a washtub over a fire in the backyard–sometimes for less than the spare change she found in pockets.
My parents’ situations weren’t unique. Unemployment in the thirties averaged almost 20%. My mother’s father sold milk to those who could pay for it, and gave it to those who couldn’t. An uncle remembers a boy who wore borrowed shoes when they served as pall bearers at a grade school classmate’s funeral.
My parents lived the lessons learned from the Depression and their example taught me to distinguish needs from wants and not to take things for granted. They didn’t need to remind me verbally of what they had been through. In fact, I hadn’t heard some of these stories until years after my parents’ deaths.
I remember the phrase “the less fortunate,” from my youth, but now it’s rarely used. Poverty has become a choice or a character flaw and it’s convenient to write off those who not so many years earlier would have been “the less fortunate.” Those three words have been replaced by, “I’ve got mine, you’re on your own.”
Extolling responsibility and choice alone ignores luck, timing, the influence of parents, and a myriad of other ingredients outside our control. Of course, it’s theoretically possible for the child of blue-collar parents to become a neurosurgeon or an investment banker. But now, with tuition at my alma mater, a state university, up by a factor of 18, I wouldn’t be able to go to college at all, much less to work my way through graduate school and to finish with zero debt.
I applaud those whose industriousness has been rewarded. I also applaud those whose efforts, no less hard-working, have been less rewarding. I know they exist. They are my family, friends, and neighbors. So, I take it personally when someone with a certainty born of ignorance implies that all poverty is a lifestyle choice.
Many Americans have substituted hard-learned lessons from the Depression for rarely-questioned assumptions which have taken root over the last thirty years and have nibbled away at compassion and gratitude on a national scale. When we take success for granted, it robs us not only of the opportunity to be grateful for what we have, but gives way to a pernicious absence of compassion toward those who have less.
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