Still Acting Poor
by Michael D’Agostino
Most of the people who lived through the Depression of the 1930s continue to behave as if another one is just around the corner. Mom-Mom, my maternal grandmother, although a young girl back then, is a good example of someone who appears to have been strongly affected by the Depression. When so many people were out of work and had little to live on, they had to stretch their resources, such as clothing and food, to survive.
Mom-Mom does not like to throw anything away. If there is any chance anyone could possibly use it for anything, it gets packed away or stuck into a corner. She stuffs her house, just as squirrels in the fall stuff their cheeks with nuts. Her house becomes her cheeks. It seems as if every bit of space is utilized, but there is always room for just one more item. The house is like a museum: the obsolete, the broken, and the just plain useless all have a place. In contrast to today’s throw-away society, people in the 1930s had to save everything.
Christmas is a time for memories: remembering friends, family, and that gift paper we used to wrap Mom-Mom’s presents the previous year. She will carefully untie each ribbon, untape each seam, and smooth each crease, so she can roll the paper up and squirrel it away for next year.
She never signs Christmas and birthday cards, nor even writes on the envelope. Instead, inside you will find a piece of scrap paper, which has outlived any other useful purpose, and somewhere on it will be scrawled her message. This she does to give us the opportunity to send the card to someone else. The card becomes part of the gift, to have available to use and reuse.
Also, back then, as the economy spiraled down, many businesses closed; therefore, goods and certain types of services were in limited supply. Even if the materials were available, people didn't have the money to buy them and had to find ways to adapt what they had or scrounge what they needed. They had to become creative in their use and reuse of the materials they had on hand, inventive in adapting what was available to what was needed, and self-sufficient in fixing things for which they would have paid a repair man.
Mom-Mom’s back porch rotted to the point that throwing one more board across, as she has been doing for the past five years, wasn't going to solve the problem this time. Rather than buying the proper materials, or better yet, calling a contractor to build a new porch, she collected wooden skids (3' x 4' platforms) from a nearby building site and stacked them to approximate a porch.
Just as Mom-Mom did not consider paying a contractor to build her a porch, when a broken water pipe ruined the bathroom ceiling, she taped it up and painted over the damage resulting in an amateur-looking repair. One could understand her self-repair attempts if she were living on a limited income. But not only does she have substantial savings, she has a sufficient permanent pension and investment income. Though the ceiling looked ruined, it still functioned as a ceiling, and in the past the choice was that or no ceiling.
During the Depression, Mom-Mom saw that even a few pennies could make a difference in someone's dinner. Given her current financial resources and her generally frugal ways, there is no need for her to cut corners on most things she buys. But she will go to extremes to save very small sums of money. For example, the price of one of her favorite drinks went up at the American Legion from $1.25 to $1.35. Therefore, she no longer drinks screwdrivers (orange juice and vodka) at the Legion. She only orders screwdrivers at the Linglestown Firehouse where they are still priced at $1.25.
Another manifestation of this unrealistic carryover from the past, of how money needed to be used, is when she buys the least expensive product without regard to quality. In a few weeks the item breaks and she either attempts a temporary, usually unworkable repair, or has to buy another. The last time she needed a wrench, Mom-Mom went to Kmart and found one for $.99.
As to be expected, the wrench broke within two weeks and off she went to buy another. She has been told that if she would only spend the extra $2 for a Craftsman wrench, there will be a lifetime replacement guarantee. However, Mom-Mom as well as others, who experienced the crisis of not having enough money for bread, have trouble getting it through their heads that there is enough money TODAY.
On the other hand, with certain items which are not at all identified with that time in her life, she is willing to spend relatively larger sums of money. Surprisingly, to those who know her, she paid over $100 for a pool stick. (Mom-Mom loves to shoot pool and is quite good at it.)
Even though out-of-work and having plenty of “free” time, people back then should have been “working,” so wasting time was seen as a negative. Mom-Mom continues to “work” as though a Depression could reoccur tomorrow. She is alway busy. Even if just sitting on the couch, she is reading her newspapers (morning and evening news and a few tabloids), watching TV (during commercials she switches to other shows she’s taped). In the summer, add an AM radio plugged into one ear listening to a baseball game.
While doing laundry downstairs, she’s also cleaning, listening to records, watching TV, practicing pool, and rooting out some precious object previously squirreled away. She calls all the things she does “work” and makes it sound like a pain in the ass. It’s not that she enjoys her leisure time, she’s trying to get her work done.
As you can see from the examples about Mom-Mom, people of her generation have yet to take-in or accept that not only have times changed, but it is unlikely that the situation, which required such sacrifices but no longer does, will repeat itself in their lifetime.
NOTE: My son submitted this essay while attending the Community College of Philadelphia in Spring 1982. (Michael was 20 years old, my mother was 62.) I made minor edits for clarity and replaced the term “Grandma,” which was appropriate in a college assignment, with Mom-Mom. As a toddler, Michael gave her the name and always called her that even as a man out in bars, where they played pool.