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My parents, Churchill and Grace Lewis, and I lived in the downstairs of a two-family house on Jay Avenue on the east side of Cleveland. There were only two years that we lived as a family of three because, four months after my birth, in October 1929, the Stock Market crashed and we were all to learn about the Great Depression in the most devastating ways.
It seemed impossible to these adults during this time to believe that they would ever prosper again. My dad would stand for hours in what was called a "soup line," where he would get a free bowl of broth for lunch and hopefully a slice of bread. People begged on the street corners and sold pencils for a penny. The country was on a slide without a bottom. Everyone was scared and tried to pull together to keep their sanity.
Grandma Eva became my surrogate mother because her job was that of "homemaker." My mother went back to her teenage job at Halle Brothers Department Store in downtown Cleveland. This time, she would learn the switchboard in the telephone office. My dad laid bricks when there was a job - maybe two, hopefully three days a week. He was considered one of the lucky ones. Eventually, he joined the W.P.A. (government backed jobs), initiated by F.D. Roosevelt. Dad supervised new roads built as well as road repair. This would lead him into his own business when times got better; Lewis Industrial Floors put asphalt floors into all the breweries in Cleveland, waterproofed bridges and provided us a good life.
One day, while pushing me in the baby carriage from South Euclid to East Cleveland for a visit to my paternal grandparents, Mother and Dad passed a hot dog stand. Mother said they could smell the aroma from a distance. "The closer we got, the hungrier we were!" She longed to try one or split one with my dad. They searched their pockets for the required 10 cents to no avail. Passing the stand, they could only continue their walk with their baby hoping for a snack upon arrival at grandma's house. Many years later, my mother recalled that day saying: "Now I can eat in any restaurant I choose and order anything I wish for, but when the memories of that hot dog stand revisit my mind, I must say, I wish I could be as enthusiastic now as I was then."
I know that every time I smell vanilla extract it makes me think of my great grandfather, Louis Forschner. He would walk from the bus stop down our long street and we could all smell him as he approached our home. You see, he would use the vanilla as cologne and really covered his long gray beard with a handful of this liquid.
We moved when I was five and ready to start kindergarten. This move would take us to East Cleveland on North Taylor Road. It was the downstairs of a two-family house. It was closer for my mom to walk to the streetcar stop for work. Still, there was no bedroom for me, so every night, they would bring a folding cot out of the closet, put it up in the living room, turn the light out and go to bed the same time I did. In the morning, the cot would be disassembled and returned to the closet. There were no "sleep-overs" with friends, in this house!
There was a two-car garage that went with this house and each weekend, my father and the man that lived upstairs from us would take the whole engine and everything under the hood of the car apart, just for something to do. They would take turns with each other's car and be covered with grease. If there was a problem with either of the cars, they would be fixed at home by these self-made mechanics.
There was a railroad track right behind our house; I would sit on the window seat in our dinning room and watch the trains, counting the number of "bums" on the roof of the train cars. Men were going all over this country to find work, and since they could not afford to buy a ticket they would sneak a ride on top of the box cars. Sometimes, if the train would stop near our house, the bums would jump off before they were caught and soon they would appear at our back door and ask for a handout. My grandma always fed those men soup, a sandwich and a cup of coffee, but the beggars had to sit down on the porch steps and wash their hands under the hose. If they wanted drinking water, they could help themselves from the hose, also. She would boil the plates and cups they used so we would not catch any germs. Paper plates were too expensive.
My grandparents that lived with us would receive a notice occasionally, and Grandma Eva would get on a bus and transfer several times to go to a bank called The Guardian Trust. She would take a very old, beat-up bank book with a $0.00 balance showing. All of their money had been lost in the crash, but they said that the bank made a promise to pay everyone back, over time, therefore a few dollars that was accumulated brought the customers back to the teller's window." They were trying to right the wrong.
Were we better for those struggles? I don't know. Did it take a toll on our lives that could not be repaired? Undoubtedly!!! Can we survive anything put before us? A definite "yes" in this country. Will there be other days like those? We're seeing similar times now. Will the sun shine again after this storm? Absolutely!
Story collected for the Ohio Department of Aging Great Depression Stories Project 2009. (Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)