Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Growing Up During the Great Depression

During the roaring '20s, my mother's birthplace was a prosperous community, known for its coal mines and steel manufacturing.  However, the stock market crash of 1929 changed everything.  In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the mines closed down and my grandfather, along with hundreds of other immigrants, was out of work.

Daily life, during the Depression, was bleak.  My grandmother gardened and canned.  At least once, my grandfather and great-uncle Leo managed to raise pigs and make sausages.  A chicken was baked and boiled and stretched to last a whole week, and a 5-cent knucklebone from the butcher become soup (or at least, beef broth).  When her parents realized the butcher thought young Molly was cute, they sent her to the butcher with a nickel because she always got "the ones with the most meat on them."

I suppose things could have been worse.  Both of my grandparents were skilled gardeners and craftspeople.  They could grow, make, or repair almost anything.  And they weren't ashamed to forage for edible wildplants.  My mother told me many times how she and her father would go to the cemetary to pick dandelions for a bitter spring salad.  Her father made her promise not to tell anyone that the dandelions came from the graveyard, and her mother made her promise never to pick dandelions from the graveyard.  "I couldn't win," she said - she was caught between the threat of Father's leather strap, Mother's "kuhansa" (the Yugoslavian word for spoon), and the Catholic church's prohibition against lying.

When it was time to pay bills, my mother would walk for miles with her parents to drop off the payment in person, because who could afford a stamp or bus fare?  If a store on the other side of town had canned milk on sale, the kids walked there together, Molly on one side of the street and her brother Johnnie on the other, pretending not to know each other.  I don't know why Johnnie was embarrassed to be seen with his sister, but he was, so they walked separately, bought their canned milk individually, and then carried the heavy bags home again, still pretending not to know one another.

There weren't many pets in those days, perhaps because no one could afford to buy food for useless animals.  A neighbor had a vicious German shepherd that would lunge at little girls, and choke itself when it reached the end of its chain.  Another neighbor had a cat that hated children and scratched my mother when she tried to pet it.

When my mother was given two pet rabbits, she was excited, until she realized that she had to feed them.  Of course, there was no money for rabbit food, so she spent her free time gathering grass and woodland plants for them to eat.  As the rabbits multiplied, so did her workload.  Nevertheless, my mother loved her rabbits and took good care of them all summer long.

When fall came and the plants died, my grandfather pragmatically butchered the rabbits and my grandmother canned the meat.  My mother was heartbroken.  Although her parents tried to force her to eat the rabbit meat, my mom refused and she never bonded with an animal again.

In those tough times, food was far too precious to throw away, even if it tasted terrible.  Once, my mother was putting salt into her soup and the lid fell off the salt shaker, along with all of the salt inside.  Her father made her eat the whole bowl of soup.  And, though it's been decades since that incident, I have never seen my mother add soup to a dish at the table.  One negative experience, apparently, was enough to teach her not to take risks with seasonings.

My mother's birthday fell in December, but nobody celebrated it.  Her birthday was too close to Christmas, and her family could not afford an extra gift.

For Christmas, Molly and Johnny each received one orange and one piece of candy.  I'm sure, like all kids, they wanted toys.  Perhaps they scrutinized the pages of the Sears catalog before using it in the outhouse, and dreamed of dolls or soldiers, but what they got each year was one orange, and one piece of candy.  No toys, no socks, no warm jammies, no new clothes for school.  An orange and one piece of candy, and that was it.

Sometimes, when I'm in the produce section at Christmas, I see bin after bin of ripe navel oranges, and I try to imagine my mother as a little girl wearing a too-short skirt and darned, tattered socks, carefully peeling her one orange of the year and savoring every bite, making that precious fruit last for as long as possible.  My childhood was so much easier than my mom's!

Maybe because her childhood was so hard, she did her best each year to make Christmas wonderful for us kids.  We had a beautifully decorated tree with lights and tinsel, and lots of presents that magically appeared under the tree on Christmas morning.  We always had warm coats for winter, shoes that fit, and new clothes for the holidays.  My mom would cheerfully do without, to make sure we had what we needed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

John and Amalia Start a Family in the US of A

My mother's parents came from Yugoslavia.  My grandfather, John N., was originally from Germany, but fled to Yugoslavia to avoid working in the salt mines.  My grandmother, Amalia B., came from a farm.  I think she was one of 16 children.

John came to the United States first.  Amalia came to join her brother, Leo.  I'm not sure how or when the two young people met, but they married and had two children, Johnnie and Amelia.  Johnnie was the man-child, and my mother just a girl, born to do chores and marry (or so her parents thought) a Yugoslavian coal miner in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

My mother was born in the early 1920s, during a period of prosperity.  Although her parents didn't speak or read English, there was work in the coal mines for John, and Amalia kept house.  In those days, being a homemaker was really a full-time job.  My grandmother made bread one day, washed clothes on another day (by boiling the clothes in some metal container in the front yard and stirring the clothes with a stick!), and cooked and cleaned constantly.  Since the house was heated with coal, there was always dust, and with two kids, there was also always something to be cleaned!  My grandmother also tatted, and made beautiful lace borders for pillowcases, handkerchiefs, and other household items.

When little Molly started first grade, she spoke no English, but she learned quickly, and every day, her father made her teach him what she had learned in school.  Soon John was reading the newspaper, and because he knew what was happening in the world, he became respected as a leader in the Yugoslavian community.  He used this to financial advantage, and started selling life insurance to fellow immigrants.  My mom still remembers being dressed up in her best clothes and being taken to visit her daddy's clients.  She hated it, but had to go because she was cute and her presence increased sales.

In 1929 - about the same time my mother started elementary school - the Great Depression began, and so did the hard times.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Stories My Mother Can No Longer Tell

At first, I attributed her forgetfulness to strain and exhaustion.  What began as skin cancer behind my father's ear became cancer in his saliva glands, his lymph nodes, his bone, and finally, his brain.  My mother took care of him throughout all those years of surgery and radiation, until the day before he died.  In the last weeks of his life, helping him out of a chair was an enormous challenge, yet my father insisted on using a walker instead of a wheelchair, and my mom, being stubborn and independent, cared for him at home for as long as possible.  One day, he had a stroke or seizure and fell, for the last time, onto the floor of their bedroom.  A hospice team took my father to the hospice house, and my mother, still hoping he might come home, carefully packed a suitcase with a razor, a hair dryer, and his favorite Grape-Nuts cereal.  He died that night, before he could use anything my mother sent with him, and it was only then that we realized there was something wrong with my mother's memory.

My first clues came when we were driving to familiar places, like the grocery store.  "Look," my mother would say, pointing at a construction site near her home.  "I wonder what they're building there."  Every time, I answered, "Condos" and assumed this was a symptom of grief.  Other landmarks remained equally mysterious to her:  in particular, a closed grocery store and a recently opened Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market surprised her each time we drove past.

However, my mom was able to shop for groceries, cook her own meals, and do her own laundry, so I didn't pay that much attention.  I was absorbed in my own grief, and I had my own life to live.  Later - a few years later - we would receive a diagnosis of vascular dementia and untreated diabetes.  A few years after that, my mother would enter Alzheimer's care.

Sometimes, I wish I could call my mother and talk to her, but I don't call anymore.  The voice on the phone is familiar; the woman I knew is gone.  At least once a week I stop by with Depends and baby wipes, toilet paper and snacks.  We sit in her room and talk about inconsequential things.  I hug her and kiss her before I leave, and some staff member distracts her so I can key in the combination and slip away before she realizes that I'm gone.  None of us want her to realize that the door is locked, and she is no longer free to come and go.

As my mother's short-term memory and independence slipped away, so have the stories of her life.  I regret now that I was not a better listener, but I do remember some of her life history.  This month, I want to share some of her story with you, in honor of her and of all those who can no longer remember their own stories.

So, December's theme is "Stories My Mother Can No Longer Tell," in honor of those we love who are slipping away from us one memory, one moment, at a time.