Legacy of the Depression

January 03, 2000|By Catherine Foster

I suspect I have a different relationship with oranges than do most people. My father always placed one in the toe of our Christmas stockings, as was the old Depression-era custom.

Then, an orange given for Christmas was a rare and wonderful gift -- a burst of sweetness in a grim diet of oatmeal.

My father carried on this tradition and so our stockings would droop with the weight of this instructive gift.

There were many such instructive gifts, and sometimes our shoulders drooped with the weight of them.

My father never made a big deal about it, but he wanted us to know the shadow that lay behind the sunny, affluent '50s.

His father had been the wealthy owner of car dealerships. When sales plummeted in the '30s, his family lost everything. They joined the migration from Tennessee to California, where mother, father, and the two boys lived in a studio apartment on Hollywood Boulevard and had to accept charity food baskets.

It took my grandfather 10 years to find a permanent job. Six months later, he died of a heart attack at his desk.

So my father worked several jobs to put himself through college and to support his mother. After graduation, he took the first job he was offered, and kept it for 37 years.

Despite acquiring the trappings of middle-class success, the Depression lived on in my father. He did not trust the universe to cup him in its big, safe palm, but acted as if any minute it might tip him out again. He closely guarded the family pursestrings.

Once, when I was about 12, I wanted to buy a pair of what I thought were reasonably priced shoes. I made a good case for them. He flat out said no, we couldn't afford them. I stormed upstairs and slammed my door. A little later, he trudged up to my room with a pair of his own shoes. With tears in his eyes, and looking embarrassed, he turned them over.

There were holes in the soles.

OK, OK, so it was a bit dramatic. But it worked: Not only was I shamed out of even wanting those shoes, I threw myself into planning how I could cut my own -- and everyone else's -- expenses. The incident showed me that while we lived in a middle-class neighborhood, we didn't quite inhabit that comfortable space.

I became self-reliant, learning to sew, buy on sale, stay out of debt, and always have insurance. That training kept me afloat through lean years as an actress and then as a fledgling journalist. At some point, my fortunes turned and I had enough money. It was then that I realized that I had the Depression in my DNA.

Even now, when I have a good job and the economy is roaring along, I am thrifty -- some say miserly. I've always bought used cars -- and thought it a good thing. I got my legs waxed once and said, "Well, that was a waste of $50."

I know that not all boomers are like this. Many of them are spending their fool heads off on hulking SUVs and houses on steroids. Sometimes I think we couldn't all have come from the same generation.

I finally concluded that they were probably raised by the "other" kind of Depression-era parents, those who came through determined to make pots of money and lavish on their children that which they were denied.

But surely there are some others like me out there, who were raised by parents so seared by what they had gone through that they felt the best way to protect their children from future disaster was to live small and save -- and teach them to do the same.

My father's experience has made me grateful for what I do have. I don't have to buy day-old bread, like his mother did; I can buy a fresh croissant at the bakery -- and even wash it down with a $3 cappuccino. I have plenty of shoes and none have holes. I like living low on the hog. It acts as a bracing corrective to these gaudy times when every advertisement whispers, "You don't have enough. Just buy me and you will." Ha!

Those who lived through the Depression are passing on every day. As they go, so will their memories of those hard times, and the strategies they developed to get by. But those of us who inherited the Depression will carry it on.

We second-generation tightwads are quiet but recognizable. That's us you're passing on the road, in our ancient cars whose six-digit odometer readings make us so proud. We keep too much of our money in savings instead of stocks, secretly convinced the market is going to crash.

Any day now. I like to think we're thrifty because we're honoring, in the midst of excess, those who did so much with so little. (More likely, though, it's because we can't shake off our early programming.)

Call us misers if you must, but we have the gift of being able to look at an orange and see, not Vitamin C, but lives that were squeezed to produce the juice we live on today.

Catherine Foster is an editor of the Boston Globe Magazine.

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