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Once I started to think about the "Great Depression" it was difficult to decide what to tell. So many memories come crowding back. I was the oldest of five children. My father was a self-employed auto mechanic; that was all he knew. When the times started getting tough, people still brought their cars into be repaired, but they would say "thank you" and leave, promising to come back on Saturday to pay their bill. Of course, they never did.
My mother had to go to work in the local mitten factory, sewing work gloves - not mittens. She would bring home about $10 a week. That kept food on the table and bought an occasional pair of shoes. She was always last on the shoe list. Sometimes, she would get tired and run her thumb into the sewing machine needle, and then she would come home with her hand wrapped in a bloody rag.
The Depression lasted at our house from the time I was in the first grade until after high school. The start of school in September was a time of joy for me because it meant getting out of our house, where it seemed we never did anything but work. The Great Depression robbed me of my childhood. However, I learned work skills, which have maintained me through many lean times since. I can still come up with a meal from a sparse cupboard. I only ask please don't make me can pears, make grape jelly or eat Spam.
In the third grade, I remember that just before lunch on Friday it was spelling test time. On Monday, there would be a new list of words on the black board, and we would practice them all week. Friday was test time. We would clean off our desks and the teacher, Miss Montgomery, would pass everyone a sheet of tablet paper. She would then give out the words for us to write. This was panic time for those who did not even own a pencil. There would be out stretched hands to neighbors with a whispered plea, "Can I borrow your pencil?" If you loaned your pencil, there was a good chance it would keep on moving and never return in time for the next word. We would use a pencil until it was too small to go into the sharpeners.
The county health nurse came to school once a year and gave examinations for eyes, ears, throat and teeth. I think they also checked for head lice, impetigo and ringworm, since these were very contagious. The nurse sent several notes to my house before my dad finally went to the City Loan and borrowed enough money to take me to the dentist. I still have my own two front teeth, thanks to a persistent county nurse.
There is nothing great about a depression.
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.)