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Even now, I close my eyes and see my parents seated at the kitchen table, my mother sobbing convulsively. It was 1933 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just declared a "bank holiday." The Union Trust Bank had closed and we had lost our lifetime savings - all $400!
My father, a skilled union carpenter, was unemployed for three years. We lived in a duplex that he had built. Our only income was the $25 per month in rental for the upstairs suite, which we failed to apply to the mortgage. There was no safety net, no unemployment compensation or social security, and my parents refused to apply for "charity."
Our entire back yard was converted into a vegetable garden. My father filled a large steamer trunk in the basement with sand, burying beets and carrots in it for use in the winter. My aunt, an actress, mailed packages of her used clothing to us and my mother transformed them. When I was twelve, I wore a black satin spring coat - beautiful material, but so unsuitable!
After three years of futility, my father developed a door-to-door egg route. He added butter, sour cream, farmer's cheese and noodles to his wares. My mother made the noodles by using cracked eggs and those with blood spots. Dad worked long hours and, in a prosperous week, netted 15 dollars.
Finally, he was hired as a carpenter by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) at $70 a month in 1937. Shortly afterward, the bank informed us that our house would be repossessed because of non-payment of the mortgage. Dad found a suitable duplex for sale in the neighborhood, and my aunt sent us $1,000 for a down-payment. When he approached the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) for a mortgage, however, Dad was denied a loan because his house had been foreclosed. So we were in a catch-22: we needed a house because our house was being foreclosed, but we couldn't get a house because our house was foreclosed.
So I, aged 17 at that time, wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, the President's wife, explaining our dilemma. We were pleasantly surprised when the HOLC wrote us (we couldn't afford a telephone) asking my father to come in to apply for a loan.
That fall, I matriculated at Ohio University with the aid of a scholarship. I had an National Youth Administration (NYA) job mending bed linens for the dormitories, earning 30 cents an hour for 40 hours ($12) a month. During my last three years I was secretary to a professor at the same rate. Babysitting a professor's infant involved feeding and diapering the baby at 25 cents a night (NOT an hour). I spent that Christmas vacation in our "new" home.
The scholarship, NYA job, babysitting, one summer job and two loans helped me to graduate magna cum laude in 1941. At 89, I am now completing my twenty-seventh year as a student at Cleveland State University.
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.)