My Not-So-Great Grandfather And The Great Depression

by Kevin Lewis

I’ve recently begun to dig a bit into my family history. Any search will uncover things we don’t expect, but I’ve been lucky enough to find some facts that have given me a new perspective on a man I haven’t seen since I was 13. One of the things I have discovered is how the Great Depression affected my childhood holidays so many years later.

Picture this. It’s deep in the late 70’s. It’s so early on Christmas morning that it’s almost still Christmas Eve. The sun has not yet peeked over the horizon, but the rambunctious creatures that are my younger brother and sister are already stirring. Third-grade me tries to ignore the wiggling sleeping bags by my side and snuggles deeper into my cocoon. My mother had bundled us up and ushered us upstairs at bedtime, putting us to sleep in the empty apartment atop the triple decker that my grandparents owned with my great-grandparents. The unheated empty apartment. In Maine. In December.

I can’t see my breath when I poke my head out of the bag and it’s not so cold that my facial muscles freeze when I smile, but my nose gets numb fairly quickly. They had to know this was no way to ensure kids will remain quietly asleep Christmas morn.

At some point between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., there is no stopping my siblings so we creep silently down the back stairs in our stocking feet. Fortunately the door from my grandparents’ living room on the second floor is wide open in the charmingly naive belief that that would help warm up the third floor. It fails in that task but helps to keep our ruckus down, as there is none of the rattling, creaking, and thunking it takes to crack the stubborn thing.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the thinking that it was better to risk frostbite for the youngins than waste heating oil dollars. Obviously, home heating is a topic Mainers need to take seriously. The ones who don’t freeze to death. And I’m not saying we were any danger that Christmas: of death, hypothermia, or frostbite. But the worry over keeping warm and cost of the same was ever present.

Yes, the oil crisis was not long past and malaise still stalked the land, but it’s still kind of inconceivable from a 2014 standpoint that they stuck us upstairs without heat. I mean, they loved us. They left the door open, after all. In that mildly frozen Christmas Eve are echoes of the Great Depression and the deep wounds of want and make do.

When the 1940 census records were released in April 2012, I began researching immediately, excited to learn new facts about my family and what their lives were like then. On my father’s side, the situation was pretty much exactly as I’d been told, but I hadn’t been told very much about my mother’s side before she came into the picture. The few stories my maternal grandparents told of their childhood were mostly folksy tales of getting by, or were, like my Nanna’s jump-in-the-lake-during-thunderstorms-because-it’s-the-safest-place story, a lesson in how easily I might never have existed. As far as I can remember, my great grandparents were silent on the subject. I still had five (six?) living great grandparents in the late 1970s so, in retrospect, that was a telling silence.

I began to picture the outlines of their experiences in very rough strokes as I studied the facts revealed to census takers more than 70 years before. My maternal grandmother’s family was relatively well to do. In a mill town where the biggest employer was Bass Shoes and most workers spent their days on or near the factory floor, my Nanna’s father, Grampa Eddie, was a master shoemaker practicing his craft in the rarified company of his hand-sewing peers, away from the tremendous noise of the industrial stitching machines. Not that it saved his hearing after spending too many years around the machines. Though his ears didn’t work so well, his hands earned him full-time employment and a salary of $1,500 in 1939. Add the $400 that my grandmother’s older brother brought home, and the $1,900 annual household income for a family of six kept them all solidly above the poverty line. Of course, they never had to pay much for shoes, either.

On my maternal grandfather’s side, his dad, Great Grampa Austin, had a seventh-grade education. He was not at work when the census taker came calling at the house they rented, and he was not involved with the WPA. He was seeking work as he had been unemployed for nine weeks. His occupation is listed as “finishing room.” He had worked at the woolen mill. He worked three whole weeks in 1939, making a total of $95 for the year.

Also helping? My grandfather. At age 20 he had completed his junior year of high school before getting a job. He was at work that day, though he had only worked eight hours the last week of March 1940. Thanks to the census taker’s handwriting, I’m not sure what his occupation was exactly but it looks like he worked in the mixing room at the woolen mill. As a 19 year old, he was the main breadwinner for the family. He had worked 26 weeks in 1939 and brought home $353 from the mill that year.

My grandfather’s mother and younger siblings are not listed as working so the family of six had to survive on $448 total in 1939. According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, the median income in the country for a family of five or more was $1,612. The Austins were poor.

One thing not counted by the census was any income earned by owning a business, including a farm. I don’t know this for a fact but I’m pretty sure they depended on a fairly large garden to feed themselves, and there were most likely odd jobs here and there for the older siblings as well. The low (almost ridiculously low from a 2014 standpoint) rent of $12 a month — 33 percent less than the other side’s rent — for a house must have helped. Finally, it’s possible they were among the first Americans to get food stamps as the program launched in 1939.

Official poverty statistics don’t exist prior to 1959, a fact I didn’t learn until after 90 minutes of Googling. According to Tavis Smiley, however, in his book The Rich and the Rest of Us, in 1939 40% of U.S. households under 65 earned poverty wages figured at about $900 for a family of four. The Austins were really poor. The knowledge that they were in good company with nearly half the country may have taken some of the sting away. As one who has been through a much-less-dire Great Recession and resulting two years of not-so-funemployment, I know that for me being part of a giant worldwide calamity mitigated the awfulness a bit. But you can’t eat that knowledge, or use it to buy boots for the winter.

Having to support your entire family at age 19 had to have been a terrible burden, the kind that left deep wounds my grandfather never got over. So he got to open his presents first on Christmas, and he already had a drink in his hand when he did. His refusal to turn the heat on upstairs was one piece of a much larger pattern of selfish acts. I never understood why he had been the kind of man for whom people broke the superstition to not speak ill of the dead until I saw the census data and the bleak tale it told.

When I was 19 I worked three jobs with only two full days off the whole summer. I needed to close the gap between my student loans, Pell Grant, and the little my mother could afford to chip in for school and my tuition. It is, frankly, nearly impossible to put myself in the skin of my hard-working younger self, let alone fully empathize with having the weight of your entire family’s monthly bills on your head.

Grampa drank and smoked himself into the grave just weeks after after retiring at age 65, an birthday and an milestone he had been looking forward to as long as I could remember. In the years between the time he supported his parents and siblings as a very young man and the night he snored loudly downstairs while I and my siblings slept in a meat locker, he served in WWII, mostly neglected three kids, started a business, lost a couple of them, and always bought a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve every year when my mother was a girl because they were almost giving them away at that late date so why waste money getting one earlier?

I loved my Grampa, and I’m glad that I was mostly too young to realize what a cheap bastard he could be. I’m even happier that I was able to discover why he was that way and could offer my mother some new understanding of the less-wonderful parts of her childhood memories. That thing William Faulkner said about the past not even being the past? From now on, I’ll apply it to the Christmas I experienced an echo of the Great Depression in an unheated upper room.

After decades of procrastination, Kevin figured he should finally start writing more than pithy Facebook updates and cleantech press releases before his professional epitaph became “adequate PR guy.” You can check out his lackluster twitter feed @kevmudgeon.

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