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Saturday, August 8, 2009
Child of the Great Depression
My mother was married in 1929 and I was born a year later. Not good timing. By the time I was five my parents were traveling around the country with two kids in tow, my sister and myself. I don't think we were headed anywhere. We lived in our car, and city cops did not like transients to take root so we kept moving. My mother bathed us in service station bathrooms, using their soap and hot water. She also would rinse out a few things in the basin while there. She had the door locked, and we were in there some time, however no one ever banged on the door or chased us out. Attitudes were different then. Now you would be a bum, but then there were so many in the same boat, most people were tolerant.
Once my father was out of the picture my mother went on relief, called that for obvious reasons, and we moved into an apartment in a run down tenement filled with fellow depression casualties. Surplus food was made available to those on relief. In our area you went to a big, green warehouse and stood in line. As you moved past a table you were given staple items such as coffee, canned milk, flour, p-nut butter, cheese etc. You were also given whatever surplus there was of subsidized food. You might get a whole bag of grapefruit or oranges, things of that kind. One thing I remember clearly, you always got margerine. Margerine was a new product and was packaged as a white block that looked like lard. A capsule of orange/yellow food dye came with it. You dumped the margerine in a bowl, broke the capsule and poured the contents over it and then used a fork to mix it. That was my job, and I can tell you you had to mix until your arm about fell off. Then there was a major improvement. The margerine started coming in a plastic bag. The capsule was in there too. You squeezed the capsule until it broke then kneaded the bag to mix it all together.
I don't know about every state, but in California a major effort was made to insure children were getting enough to eat and medical treatment. This was done through the schools. There were not ony lunch programs for those who could not afford lunch, but breakfast programs as well. We were often asked questions that now a days would be considered an invasion of privacy, but at the time were accepted as the norm. "What did you have for breakfast?" "How many baths do you take a week?" These two I remember as they got me in hot water. When asked how many baths I took I said one. When I told my mother she asked, "Didn't you tell them you took a shower every night?" "No, they only asked how many baths." When asked about breakfast I said I drank coffee. My mother put a tablespoon or two of her sweetened coffee in my glass of milk as I liked to pretend. That one resulted in a call from school.
We had free eye exams and free glasses if needed as well as physicals, and you got vaccinated at the health department for no cost.
As a child I didn't give it much thought at the time. I can only guess now at how scared the grownups were.