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Friday, July 22, 2011

101 Tips From My Depression-Era Kin

When I was five and my sister was eleven, our parents worked in a factory. That summer they were both on lay-off. These days I often hear people say they've been “laid off” when in fact the correct word is "fired." I guess it’s a change in our vernacular, but a “lay-off,” at least when I was a kid, meant something else. When the company a person worked for completed a specific contract, it was common for the factory employees to be “laid off” until a new contract was negotiated. With a new contract, employees went back to work. Lay-off was sort of a mini-vacation, except that you got unemployment insurance, something my parents were never happy about. They wanted to work.

At any rate, that summer in 1961 my parents were laid off. They didn’t work at the same factory and it was unusual for both of them to be on lay-off at the same time. But they were. Of course my sister and I never knew the family was having financial problems. Our lifestyle was more than adequate, and we were unaware that at night mom and dad were tearing at their hair trying to figure out how support us, my widowed maternal grandmother, and half a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins who periodically landed on our doorstep. But the folks did okay and managed to take care of business without letting on that there was money trouble.
My father, John, had an odd sense of humor. He was first generation American, his parents having come over on the boat from Lithuania. He spent his first few years in Brooklyn before the family moved to upstate New York, where he and my aunt Mary were raised and where he eventually met and married my mother. A smart man, he had to drop out of school in eighth grade to help support his family. His father, my grandfather, fled the wife and returned to Lithuania, never to be seen again. Grandma was a tough one: loud, angry, and dead in her fifties. All this to say that dad had a difficult childhood, fought the good fight in WWII, and knew how to dig in and survive. 


So the summer my parents were on lay-off, dad was in the kitchen one day making cat food. An explanation may be necessary here: pets back then weren’t pampered like they are today. They didn't sleep on store-bought beds and eat special food specific to their urinary tract and aging teeth. Cats were cats. They lived outside, chased mice, and were fed in big tin bowls left on the back step. For reasons that remain unexplained to me, John would take vegetable peelings and leftover meat scraps and cook them all up in a big pot on the stove for the cats. For my part, going to the store for a can of cat food seems more sensible, but then I speak from a non-Depression era mentality. For him, boiling up God knows what on the stove and feeding it to the cats was a rational project.           

Helen and Alec, friends of my parents who were not in the same difficult financial situation at the time, stopped in one day to say hello (my mother wasn’t at home, was probably at the grocery store not buying cat food). They appeared in the kitchen and saw my father stirring gray muck in a big pot on the stove. Helen asked what he was doing. Straight-faced, he said: “Well Helen, we have to feed the girls something.”

Helen, not surprisingly, was horrified.

After a short visit, Helen and Alec left and my mother returned home. An hour later the couple reappeared with five bags of groceries. John hadn't shared his little joke with my mother, and she was bewildered to see friends arriving with food. When Helen explained she couldn't bear the idea that my sister and I were eating potato peelings for supper, my dad burst out laughing. My mother, however, was touched. Those were the days when it wasn't so hard to believe that parents might have to feed their kids vegetable scraps; days when friends did such things unasked, brought groceries to people who they thought needed help. 

My mom and dad and their friends were people of The Great Depression. They understood hardship, and the importance of saving money because you never really know what tomorrow will bring.

It's difficult to imagine that we today, in the age of the iPad and the drive-through, might ever have to endure such burdens. American stores are bursting with food and merchandise as our children spin about racking up cell phone bills. But recent events in the U.S. economy might well bring us all back to a time when life isn't the easy place it's been for so many decades. Retirement accounts are dwindling. Gas prices fluctuate between astonishing and eye-popping. Food costs are rising. The global market is faltering. When my mother passed away 19 years ago I found 24 outdated cans of stewed tomatoes in her pantry, dozens of disposable salt and pepper shakers, and a baggie full of used bread wrapper twist ties. They were there just in case. I didn't get this "just in case" mentality then. Just in case of what? I wondered as I filled the garbage can. The woman was lovely, but a bit paranoid. Now, two decades later, I read the financial news and find myself musing, paranoid? maybe not.

Only yesterday an optimistic friend remarked that the current economic trials may not be a bad thing, that such financial tribulations get thinkers to thinking and solutions flowing. I hope he's right. In the event he's not, however, I've come up with 101 money-saving tips in these times when cash is king, Depression-era ways my family elders might, if they were alive today, maneuver their way around the economic crisis we're all facing. Some of the tips are interestingly practical. Some are a little nutty. And some are downright frightening, that we might ever need to employ them. Let's hope we never do. But it's not a bad idea to hunker down and live lean and mean, save a few dollars, and have a plan. 

Just in case.

(PS: If you have your own tip, please share in the comments section!)

Tip 1
Cut your kids' hair. The younger the kid, the better
Yes, they'll complain. Some will freak out. They'll want to go to the barber or the salon. They'll insist you pay $40, $50, $60+ so they'll "fit in" at school. Rest assured: unless you're cutting their hair with the lawn mower there's a good chance nobody will even notice their new do was styled in the kitchen, a bath towel over their shoulders. During the Depression kids didn't run the show. Plop them in the chair and start snipping. They'll survive. If they really freak out? Cut their hair in between professional visits. The pennies will add up.

Check back tomorrow for Tip 2.       

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About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum