I am the son of Depression-era kids. Both of my New York-born parents, who are now gone, lived through those incredibly difficult, soul-wrenching times, and they never, ever forgot them.
I recall my mother, a native of the South Bronx, teasing my father, who came from the Queens neighborhood with the curious name of Ozone Park, about having it “so easy” during the Depression.
“Didn’t you once tell me you had roller skates back then?” she asked him. “Who in the hell had roller skates in the Depression? We couldn’t even dream of such a thing in the Bronx!”
They could laugh about it decades later, but the Depression left an indelible mark on the psyches and souls of my parents. Both sets of my grandparents lost newborn babies during those hard years and were forced to take on unpleasant, menial tasks just to eke out a living and survive.
Family lore has it that my father, as a child, needed a serious operation, and his parents just couldn’t afford it. They were barely scraping by. Plus, they had just lost another child. While my grandmother pleaded with hospital doctors to help her son, a wealthy passerby reportedly happened to overhear the conversation and offered to pay for the surgery.
A bubbe meise? I don’t know. Maybe. But the story reveals the truly dire nature of those times.
In some ways, my mom’s situation was even more desperate. Her father, a blue-collar worker originally from Poland, seriously hurt his back at some point during the Depression and was out of work for a long time.
The family was at their breaking point financially — “I remember wearing cardboard in my shoes because my soles were all worn out,” Mom told me on countless occasions — so they moved to Baltimore to be closer to my grandmother’s relatives, who had connections with potential employment opportunities. As a result, my grandfather got a pretty decent job at the Curtis Bay shipyard and loved this city until the day he died.
With the challenges before us now during this pandemic, I think back on my parents and grandparents and what they had to endure during the ’30s. Like then, the world seems like a mighty scary, daunting place these days.
I must admit, I generally don’t particularly care for “comparison history,” like when multiple people send me memes with proclamations about what Anne Frank had to go through during her years in the isolation of the attic. Please, leave poor Anne Frank out of it! Or generic Facebook posts chastising us with, “Your grandparents had to go off and fight a war, you just have to sit on your ass and binge on Netflix!”
Those kinds of admonitions and reminders — while perhaps inevitable and intended to put things in perspective — seem a bit too facile and simplistic to me. I personally don’t like when the specters of the Holocaust or Second World War are evoked to compare to contemporary scenarios. Obviously, those were singular, horrific times beyond comparison, and let’s hope and pray they’re never replicated or revisited.
The same goes for the so-called “Great” Depression. I’m not necessarily trying to draw comparisons to those difficult times. That extent of misery, God willing, will never be experienced again in this country, although the current news is somewhat foreboding and bleak. But drawing inspiration from that time and those folks that survived that era is a different story.
I remember my parents telling me about the overwhelming sense of community and solidarity that permeated across America during the Depression, and certainly later during the war years. For instance, my maternal grandmother had an old friend here in town named Lottie who was like a sister to her. My mom used to tell me about how “Aunt Lottie” took in my grandparents and her when the chips were way down and threw a few precious nickels their way, even though she had little to spare. They all remained friends for the rest of their lives, like mishpachah.
“They don’t have friendships like that anymore,” my nostalgia-prone mom used to say, a bit glassy-eyed and shaking her head at the memory. “People were really, really there for each other back then, through thick and thin. It was in the air.”
As good as we’ve had it in this country over the years, and as soft and fractured as we’ve become, I don’t know if we have that same type of mettle, that kind of compassion and commitment to each other. The only time I’ve witnessed or experienced anything remotely like that in my lifetime, on a national scale, was of course in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hopefully, we’ll never have to be tested quite like those generations that came before us. They seemed to come from a different kind of stock, arguably cut from a different cloth.
But I pray that if we’re called upon by fate and the Almighty, we will indeed rise to the occasion and be there for each other, through this pandemic … and even beyond.