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On the Edge

Depression survivors remember hope

The lessons they learned during childhood in the 1930s weren't easy, but have lasted a lifetime.

February 15, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

THELMA MAY BEETS

In the early hours before dawn, Thelma May Beets shuffled across the cold linoleum floor for a weekly inspection of the trunk next to her bed.

Her husband built the rust-colored tool chest when he came home from World War II. Now it is full of food: sugar, pasta, soup, oats, crackers, creamer.

Nearly blind, she reviewed her inventory by touch -- peanut butter jars with ridged lids, ground coffee rustling inside a can like dried oak leaves blown in the wind.

"If you like to eat, you better save some," said the 91-year-old widow, her fingers spotted with age and curled by arthritis.

Thelma has long kept some food in the chest, but as the latest recession has deepened, she's made a point of keeping it full. It's a compulsion she learned as a child of the Great Depression, the period of epic hardship that began with the stock market crash in 1929 and lasted for a decade.

Her memories of that time have come flooding back lately. The survivors of the Depression are approaching the ends of their lives, and their tales flow freely -- of countless injuries and precious joys. They experienced humiliation and unexpected generosity, moments of fear and times of laughter.

The privation left scars that have lasted a lifetime. Thelma still smarts from the looks that other children gave her worn checkered dress, her only one. The bare walls of the abandoned home her family moved into, and snowflakes that sneaked in through broken windows, still linger in her memory.

"My age group, the older people, we came up the hard way," she said from her home in Sedalia, Ind., about 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis.

But many survivors of the Great Depression say that their youth eventually became a time of triumph for them. The country, ever resilient, learned to adapt to this society of wanting and embraced a cooperative spirit that would carry it through another world war, the Cold War and a dozen recessions to come.

The children of those times learned things that they would remember for the rest of their lives. They discovered how to make endless pots of soup, how to use corncobs for fuel, how to make undergarments from bleached feed sacks. They learned the value of a wild imagination and honest neighbors.

They were good lessons.

--

BERTHA GREENSTEIN

It all began for Bertha Greenstein when she couldn't get a new pair of shoes.

Good shoes were everywhere in New York in the late 1920s -- T-straps, Mary Janes, slip-on boots, soft leather pumps. Nothing said style like shoes.

Her father, Jacob Greenstein, was an immigrant from Romania and co-owned a tailoring shop in Lower Manhattan. He spent his days surrounded by bolts of fine cashmere and the sharp, rich scent of hair tonic. His nimble fingers smoothed the cloth across the shoulders of stylish stockbrokers and other businessmen.

Bertha was not quite 11 when the stock market crashed in 1929. Still, she was old enough to navigate New York's streets alone. On weekends, she delivered her father's lunch and watched the customers pass through the glass double doors of Tress and Greenstein.

In the weeks after the crash, she heard people on the street talking about wealthy men who had lost their fortunes. Some drank poison or hanged themselves, the newspaper hawkers bellowed on the streets. She became aware that her father, now pale and drawn, was spending more time at home.

"He never talked about the business to the kids or when we were present," said Bertha, the youngest of seven. "He would say, 'Well, we'll have to look for something else to do.' "

Eight months after the crash, Jacob sold his share of the tailoring shop and bought a bakery on 110th Street, a block from Central Park. It was a deep and narrow storefront with a faded green awning. People lined up for dense loaves of rye and horn-shaped rolls covered in salt.

Every couple of weeks, as customers' debts grew, her father sent her to collect. She would crisscross the neighborhood, climb flights of stairs and politely ask for the lady of the house. Everyone recognized her as the baker's daughter.

She loved to walk -- to school, to basketball games, on dates strolling through Central Park. She found jobs along the way -- tutoring children, selling paper flowers, folding bolts of cloth in a fabric store.

There was a beauty to never standing still, even though it was hard on her shoes.

When holes in her soles grew to the size of quarters, she cut off a chunk of the tan cake boxes in her father's bakery and slipped them inside her shoes, over and over again.

"If the cardboard was thin, we'd put two layers in," said Bertha, 90, who still arches her tiny feet when she walks on a cold day, as if trying to get away from the memory of wet snow.

--

LEMUEL ARTHUR LEWIE JR.

It took time for the Depression to settle into the minds of children whose parents had jobs, a precious commodity at a time when the national unemployment rate would eventually hit 25%.

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