The metamorphosis is now complete. I swear, I’ve now officially become my mother.
Mom doesn’t just “come out of my mouth” on occasion. No, I’ve become her – well except that I’ll never fit into her literal clothes. In spite of the fact that fudge was mother’s favorite food and she believed religiously in first, second and third dessert, she was rail thin. How is this fair?
My mother was a child of the “Great Depression,” except the only thing “great” about the Depression was its decade-long duration. Beginning with a stock market plummet in October of 1929, drought followed in 1930 throughout the agricultural heartland of America. Investors lost everything, jobs disappeared, farms were repossessed, banks failed and closed and people were terrified, with reason.
This iconic 1936 photo taken by Dorothea Lange titled Migrant Mother shows a destitute pea picker in California. Florence Owens Thompson, age 32, mother of 7, hungry, dirty and not knowing where their next meal would come from represented the greatest fear that haunted all Americans. For many, it wasn’t just a fear, it was all too real.
The economic downturn which became the Depression began in the US, eventually encircling the globe. The Depression didn’t ease until the late 1930s and then was promptly followed by WWII which ushered in a slew of deprivations of its own including rationing.
Mother was born in 1922 in a crossroads town in northern Indiana. She was all of 7 years old when the Depression hit. She, of course, couldn’t and wouldn’t understand all of the underpinnings. What she was acutely aware of was that her father lost the hardware business, her mother’s job, such as it was, was the only thing that stood between her family and abject poverty. Income was critically affected, almost non-existent, without enough for even essentials. Mom’s maternal grandmother, Eva Miller Ferverda, loaned her son, John Ferverda, money and forgave the debt upon her death in 1939.
To make matters worse, mother was critically in during that time with Rheumatic Fever. Her father and grandmother cared for her while her mother worked. There was just no other choice.
Money was tight, very tight – but unlike so many others, they did not lose their home, thanks primarily to Mom’s paternal grandmother. Mom and her parents didn’t live on a farm, but on the very edge of a small town, not even large enough for a stop light. The town stretched a couple blocks in either direction from the main crossroads of two state highways. Businesses consisted of my grandfather’s hardware store, before that business closed, and the Ford dealership which sold both vehicles and tractors. Mom’s father, John Ferverda, worked there after he lost the hardware store, until there were no sales so no need for a salesman.
I don’t think mother realized how much the Depression influenced her childhood and formed many of her personality traits. In turn, she passed them on to me – although I’ve struggled to break some of those ingrained habits for years. This past month, or really just the past couple of weeks, they’ve come roaring back with a vengeance – apparently having been lurking just below the surface.
Some of these “quirky behaviors” are actually quite useful. Others make me smile with nearly-forgotten memories. Perhaps you carry some of these hidden depression-era traits too.
Before Recycling Was a Thing
In the 1930s, there wasn’t “disposable” anything. Throwing something away was simply wasteful, heresy, and it was never, ever done – not until its original purpose and a few repurposed lives had been completed and there was literally, nothing left at all that was salvageable. Then, and only then, could it be thrown away. By then, “it” was unrecognizable.
Let’s take bread wrappers, for example – the disposable plastic bread bags that we take for granted today, throwing them away without even thinking, although I always have a twinge of guilt. That never happened at my house when I was growing up. We routinely saved plastic bread bags and reused them for storage.
When we had too many, Mom would crochet them into a rug to pad the floor standing at the kitchen sink or the ironing board. One year, Mom even found a pattern to crochet a Christmas wreath from bread bags. I kid you not.
This recycling before that word was even invented was normal in our house.
We seldom got new clothes. Most of our clothes were hand-me-downs from either someone directly or a second-hand store of some sort. Being gifted with new old clothes was wonderful and nothing to be ashamed of! After we initially acquired the clothes, they were “taken in” or “let out” to fit a child as they grew or were passed to another child in the family. The sign of a great piece of clothing was a HUGE SEAM ALLOWANCE.
When grocery items began to be sold in glass jars, those were never thrown away either. Jars sufficed for everything. In fact, I still have a glass jar upstairs with “old silverware” in it that belonged to Mom, and perhaps to her mother too. You never threw anything away because not only was it wasteful and irresponsible, you truly never knew when you or someone else would need that item. During the Depression, and after, you simply found a way to make do with what you had.
During that time, chickens, wild berry bushes and a large vegetable garden saved the family. Mother cleaned the chickens that were butchered and sold. She was paid a nickel for each clean chicken. For the entire rest of her life, she pretty much hated chicken, except for fried chicken, and she utterly despised cleaning the chicken. I think she viewed them as her murdered friends and not a commodity food source. I inherited that soft-hearted worldview too.
However, during the Depression, you ate whatever you were fortunate enough to have. Period. There was no expectation that you would actually LIKE what was served – that was a benefit. Today when I see kids refusing to eat something, I think to myself, “you have never truly been hungry.” That’s the blessing of course, as is having food at all.
At home, after clothes could no longer be salvaged and made into anything else, they were deposited into the “rag bag,” a coarse brown bag fashioned from rough upholstery material salvaged from an old couch. The rag bag hung on a hook on a door in the closet that led to the attic. Rags were quite useful – for cleaning, for turbans around your hair from time to time – and also to crochet into rugs. Yes, Mom made just about everything into rugs. It was the last salvage of the nearly unsalvageable.
If there was any cotton fabric in the rag bag that wasn’t entirely threadbare and had any color left in the fibers at all, it was a candidate to be used in a quilt. You could always tell the quilts from wealthier, meaning not poor, families because their quilts were actually planned with matching fabrics. Not ours. We had scrap quilts, made by patching things together, which I always loved and continue to love to this day. Scrap quilts are a storybook of history and we always talked about the “life story” of the piece of fabric we were sewing – the pieces of clothing the fabric used to be, who wore it, how it wound up in the rag bag and so forth. Some of those fabrics were decades and literally generations old. How I wish I had written those stories down – but they didn’t seem remarkable at the time. Everyone had a rag bag. We were just making small talk, after all.
This quilt, made originally during the Depression by my great-grandmother, Nora Kirsch, used on my grandmother and then mother’s bed, has been patched now using my grandmother’s handkerchiefs. It had literal holes, but the thought of cutting that quilt traumatized my kids, so like my ancestors, I found a way to preserve it, one more time. By the time one of my granddaughters inherits it, such as it is, it will be connected through 6 generations over more than a century.
The Depression wasn’t just a defining event, it formed the culture in which my mother grew up. Frugality was ingrained by some combination of fear and guilt-induced obligation.
Eventually, I inherited the rag bag and used the items in that bag, along with the rag rugs, the bread bag Christmas wreath which eventually deteriorated and fell apart, along with decades worth of glass jars and things too “good” to throw away or pass on to someone else just yet. Of course, part of the “problem” was that as the economy improved, the need to obtain hand-me-down items from someone else to “set up housekeeping” was greatly diminished. Looking back, I’m not convinced that was a good thing, because I still have items from my mother and grandmother’s houses gifted to me when I moved to my first apartment. They aren’t “used,” simply accepted as second rate undesirables, but were and are cherished treasures infused with memories of a time, place and people long gone now.
You can take the child out of the Depression, but you can never take the Depression out of the child.
Those behaviors become generational. If you are the child of someone who lived through the Depression, I’m sure you have stories of your own just like these.
And just like me, those legendary stories might all have come rushing back during these past couple of weeks.
I used to think to myself when Mom did one of her “Depression Era” things that I understood. While I understood the genesis of the behavior, never until these past few weeks did I understand the fear that accompanied the scarcity and subsequent rationing that occurred during WWII.
The Depression hit Mom’s family with the same suddenness that the pandemic has struck our generation. We don’t know, as they didn’t know, what’s coming. How bad is bad? What businesses will be left? What will happen to all of those people? Can we hold on? For how long? How will we eat?
And what about toilet paper?
Toilet paper at that time consisted of the Sears catalog located strategically in the outhouse. I’m beginning to size up the different kinds of junk mail for “texture.” Obviously, something glossy isn’t good and neither is stiff and crunchy. Thank goodness I saved those old phone books – they look just about right! Mother would be proud!
Just 14 weeks ago, when this pandemic was still an illness in China that no one had heard about anyplace else in the world, my husband and I were leaving for a trip to Australia and New Zealand in the midst of their searing heat and bush fires. We purchased and took 4 boxes of face masks with us to protect ourselves from the smoke. We opened one box and put a couple of masks in our backpacks, but we never used any of them. I wanted to bring the masks home, because I am my mother’s daughter and we might need them someday.
However, I had purchased fabric and my bag was both full and heavy. My husband convinced me to leave the masks in the cabin. I told myself that the crew might need them to protect themselves from the bush fire smoke. I certainly hope someone got some use out of them and they didn’t just get thrown away. It pains me to even think about that – especially NOW that I desperately want those face masks.
Do you know how valuable 4 boxes of face masks would be? Not just monetarily, but for the medical professionals and others. It’s amazing now how valuable TP and face masks have become. We would have been RICH!
Mom’s vindicated. I’m vindicated. My husband is wearing a cloth mask instead of a stylish blue paper mask that we left behind😊 – and hopefully a crew member someplace is safer for those masks.
Ironically, I’m not sweating TP, because as a result of being raised by a Depression Era mother, I have years worth of lone socks that, in a pinch, will suffice as TP sock-mits. Just wipe and deposit in the washing machine. And NO, you cannot JUST THROW THEM AWAY, because you have no idea how long you might need them.
Before saying “ewwww” too loudly, remember when we used cloth diapers on babies because pampers didn’t yet exist? We washed those diapers every day and thought nothing of it.
I’ve also stopped using paper towels because who knows how long they will be manufactured. We might need paper towels for TP, you know, before we break out those orphan socks that I knew, just knew, I’d find a use for eventually if I just kept them long enough.
Soon enough, lone stray socks will be just as valuable as TP. Find yours now wherever they’ve been congregating for years, waiting for their new purpose in life redeployed as TP sock-warriors.
It’s All a Matter of Perspective
I’ve been sorting through things in the closets and put several items with rips in a bag in the laundry room already, but I’m trying NOT to call it a rag bag. I may last another day or two before I give in on that one.
Of course, jeans with rips are quite popular right now, so I’m wearing those again and am now quite the fashionista:) I even patched one of the jeans, strategically, with matching fabric from a face mask. A coordinated pandemic outfit! Everyone is going to want one!
Not only that, but I’ve sewn phone pockets onto my PJs and leggings. I’m referring to them as holsters for face-mask sewing warriors instead of PJ pockets. It’s all in perspective and marketing, right???
Mother and grandmother would BOTH be so proud, I’m telling you.
But that’s not all…
Another thing that has changed immensely in the last month is food.
Everyone likes to eat. My grandmother worked first for a chicken hatchery and then for the welfare office. In both cases, unlike other women of her era, she was not “at home” to cook, so she relied heavily on meals she would either make in advance or quickly in the evening.
I’m not quite sure why my grandfather didn’t cook when he wasn’t working during the Depression, but he didn’t and neither did my uncle. Back then, cooking was probably considered woman’s work. Mom began cooking as soon as she could reach the stove even though she was the youngest family member.
All things considered, it’s no wonder my grandmother was perpetually exasperated. Her husband lost the hardware store through no fault of his own, they were in debt, he next lost a sales job at the Ford dealership. She worked to support the entire family, AND performed all of the traditional “woman’s work” too.
No wonder she was chronically unhappy. While it wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” per se, it was still a fact that these unfortunate events had happened and for a decade, followed by a war, there was no way out except for sheer perseverance. That economic situation lasted for 15 or 16 years in total, almost a full generation – by which time my mother was grown, married and my brother had been born.
One of the favorite things that churchwomen did to liven up mealtime and to raise money for the church and charities was to publish a church cookbook.
True to form, the Methodist Church where my grandparents lived published a book in 1953 or 1954, and my grandmother is represented.
I think I might have found the source of my Mom’s favorite fudge!
Unlike the other women who contributed their “best recipe,” probably determined by how quickly it disappeared at pot-lucks or funeral lunches at the church – my grandmother’s recipe was how to make something called “Master Mix.”
Think of this as an early form of Bisquick which you made up in advance, dry, and used it as the base to make several dishes such as cookies, dumplings, pudding, griddle cakes and waffles.
All of a sudden, we too are suddenly stuck at home, without necessarily ready access to a grocery store – and if we can visit, they may likely be out of a large number of items.
We’re consigned to a type of “food challenge” which could reasonably be called Pandemic Cooking. You use whatever you have available, forgotten in the far corners of your pantry, and find some way to create something that results in an edible dish.
Everyone is getting quite creative.
I though it would be interesting to take a look at that cookbook published before I was born to see what my grandmother contributed. Hey, maybe something looks good. That cookbook was published before the days of exact measurements, which lends itself very well to “make do” cooking.
Next, I checked Mom’s recipe box where I knew goodies lurked.
Mom’s Recipe Box
Like all women of Mom’s generation, she had a recipe box that was a virtual goldmine of wonderful comfort-food with many recipes, finally committed to cards, that had been passed down for generations. Most of the time, Mom didn’t even have to look at the recipe when making our favorite dishes. Both of us knew that fudge recipe by heart, I guarantee.
There are references throughout my mother’s recipe box to a “pinch of” something and instructions to work the dough “until it feels right.” I learned to cook this way and always have – much to Jim’s chagrin.
“How much of that did you put in?”
“I don’t know, enough but not too much. Till it looks right.”
Yep, I’m my mother’s daughter alright.
The transition to mother’s double seems to be complete, because I pulled a spaghetti sauce jar out of the trash earlier this week and washed it, thinking “we might need this.” You never know what might happen and how long the ramifications of the pandemic might last. Who knows, spaghetti jars might be just as valuable for barter as TP one day.
The good news is that there’s only one bread bag in the house right now, and it’s holding bread. At least presently. Plus, I can’t crochet. There’s that. Don’t ask how I know, but you can’t use bread bags in quilts. (If you figure out how, please, just don’t tell me – OK?!)
I am however, jealously saving even the smallest scraps of fabric from making protective facial masks for medical workers because I might need those remnants for a scrap quilt.
Now, if I can just find the lids to all of the orphan Tupperware, or is that too much to ask?
Throwback Cooking and You!
You’re probably finding yourself in the process of attempting to cook with whatever you have on hand too. You may discover items in the back of the pantry that are older than your children.
Mom, like her mother, worked her entire life – so her recipe box also contained a plethora of yummy recipes, many of which were also quick. Most of Mom’s recipes, however, cater to her sweet tooth. It wasn’t until I was digitizing and creating an index that I realized that the recipes for chocolate and sweets far, far outnumbered everything else – put together.
Don’t believe me – check it out for yourself by clicking on the link below to download a cookbook of sorts that I created from Mom’s Recipe Box. Please download and enjoy.
A few years ago, for a family Christmas gift, I scanned the recipes in Mom’s recipe box. Perhaps you’ll find some new recipes to try, or a dish that perhaps you’ll recognize from a long-ago church carry-in.
If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find some comfort food from your childhood that you’ve forgotten about and you’ll have almost everything to make it!
Or, try Mom’s fudge!
Let me know if you find something fun here, or share a story.
By the time we exit out the other side of this pandemic, we’ll be cooking like our mothers and grandmothers, using whatever is on hand, not following any recipe exactly and “seasoning to taste.” 😊
Maybe this is a good time to scan your family recipes and document your memories. Seeing your ancestor’s handwriting and connecting with them as they survived trying times might just help you feel better.
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