In 1930, a depression year-my sisters and brother, all older, worked to support the family. Fay worked as an elementary teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, Jeanne worked for an insurance company, Sara for a broker on LaSalle Street, my brother Al was a junior partner in a small law firm. I was twelve, a freshman in high school; knowing things were not good, but not really knowing why. Aware of agonized whispering, counting out money, my parents making lists.
Fay came home from school one day and told us that the city of Chicago was broke, and that teachers would be paid in Scrip, not cash. My mother exploded, “Can we pay the rent with scrip? Oy, vey.” She clutched her head as if she felt another migraine headache coming on. My sister tried to reassure her, saying that we could buy food with Scrip, and maybe clothing in some places. She said we could offer Scrip to the landlord and hope for the best.
“Clothes I can sew, but potatoes I can't grow in concrete. Soup I can make from carrots and onions, but not from stones,” was my mother's reaction...
When Sara came home that evening, she walked into the dining room with a heavy step, and told us that she was the only one left in the office. Everybody else was laid off. The next one home was my brother Al, who threw his briefcase on the table and said, “Court adjourned early today. Rumor is there's no money to pay the court clerks. God knows what's going to happen. Anybody listen to the news yet?” Nobody said anything. Then Jeanne came in, her face pale, looking as if she’d seen a ghost. She sat down without saying anything. Fay brought her a glass of water... My father hadn't come home yet.
Jeanne took a deep breath. She said, “Mr. Sloan tried to kill himself. When I came in this morning, I saw him half out the window, just his legs sticking out. I grabbed him and tried to pull him back in, but he kept pushing with his hands. Finally I grabbed the belt of his pants and leaned on his legs, and he finally relaxed and let me pull him back into the room.” She put her head down on the table.
My father came dragging in at that point. He walked over to where my mother was sitting, sat down and put his hand over hers. She looked at him with an “oy, what more can happen?” expression, and when he told her that his partner had gone off with the truck and all the tools, she made a face as if to say, I knew it, I knew it. She had been suspicious of Meyer since Pa had gone into business with him. Ma blamed Meyer for being careless, for allowing my father to fall off a roof they were working on, even though Pa kept telling her it was not Meyer's fault. Now Meyer had gone off with Pa's only chance of making a living, even with his hernia.
But Ma didn't say anything. She just gave Pa a look that would shrivel a plant, got up, went to their bedroom, and came back with her bankbook. “Sara, Jeanne, Al, Fay, get your bankbooks. We have to see what we’ve got.” This was before the bank failures of 1933, when “money in the bank” was the mantra for protection against all calamities. When all the bankbooks were lined up in front of her, she said to Al, “All right, add it up.” After Al counted up the money, Ma looked at the total and announced that we had enough for four months rent. “We'll manage,” she said. I remembered those words all my life; they became my mantra, the “I” replacing the “we.”
Our family made it through the depression years; I graduated from high school, and worked my way through college. We all managed in our own ways to survive, but we were scarred by those years, haunted by the fear of poverty. Now, seventy-eight years later, I sit in my garden, wondering how many families today are having the same kind of conversations around their own dining or kitchen tables that we had in 1930. This time, bank deposits are protected by the federal government, but mutual funds have disappeared, workers’ pensions have evaporated, school budgets are cut once again, and deceit and fraud are in the air.