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My parents and grandparents all lived through the Depression. They never called it “The Great Depression.” It wasn’t so great, and it didn’t need any modifiers. It was singular. There was no need to compare it with anything else. It was “The Depression.” They also lived through World War II. It wasn’t the greatest time to be alive. Anyone who gets nostalgic for those days needs to do a bit more homework.
My parents and grandparents, in their own crazy way, and it could get crazy at times, were all very wise people. They were survivors. They succeeded in their lives. They died more or less in peace. I tried to learn what I could from them because I knew that they were wise, and I knew that I would never really understand them.
My maternal grandmother, Edna Brenton, died when my mother was nine years old, in 1936. That was a bad time for a little girl to be deprived of her mother. My grandfather was an honorable man and he did the best he could to raise his three daughters by himself. They all turned out to be great ladies, all with terrific senses of humor. When the sisters got together they laughed. They spent the whole time laughing. They were Methodists too, and didn’t drink. Stone cold sober the world struck them as funny. They loved their dad. He had sent them to live with an aunt for a while after grandmother died and he worked hard until he could get the family reestablished.
My grandfather had gone overseas and fought in WW I as a sergeant in the artillery, then come home, married his sweetheart and started his dream. Then the droughts came, and the Depression, and everyone went broke and lost their land and grandmother died. I only have a couple of photographs of her. There’s something in her eyes that says that she knew things were never going to be happy. My grandfather needed some time to get his soul together after that, and he did. He moved the family to Oklahoma and they did all right from there on.
These were hard times and they taught hard lessons.
These people were hard. They didn’t talk about their feelings. They didn’t have a lot of sympathy for weakness. Weakness would get you killed. Laziness, or the refusal to pull your own weight, was the supreme vice, right up there with infidelity. Even when they died, you hardly knew they were sick before they were gone. There were no teary conversations or awkward parties.
They weren’t hard, cold people by nature. It was the time that hardened them. It’s as if they had all memorized the scene in Casablanca where Rick tells Ilsa, “…it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world…” That’s how they lived. It wasn’t cruelty, just a matter of perspective. I have photos of all of them when they were young, before it all happened, before the wars, the drought and the Depression. They were just normal kids looking forward to lives very different from those that fate would bring them. There were no shadows in their smiles like those which would appear later in the grown-up pictures.
They are all gone now. Mom was the last to go. She died peacefully in her sleep in 2014 at the age of 87. When I turned sixty, she called me and said, “I’m not old enough to have a 60-year-old son.” Sometimes I forgot her birthday, but she never forgot mine. I miss them all terribly. The world was a better place when they were still here.
That brings me to the point of this epistle: lately, they have been coming back to me. I see them in my dreams, Mom the most but also my dad. In my waking reveries memories return of them and the stories they told. Sometimes I remember stories that I didn’t know that I knew; perhaps I heard them so long ago that I had forgotten. Perhaps their spirits still speak to me. I don’t know for sure. I try not to get too woo-woo about these things. The imagination is a powerful force. What I do know is that my psyche must be calling them. There is something in that awful cataclysm which formed the background of my childhood that I need to appropriate now.
The obvious resonances between now and then are the natural disaster that upended the lives and dreams of millions, the market crash, millions unemployed and unable to pay their bills, fear and existential insecurity. The resonances are strong (I could list many more) and that has ominous implications for the next few years of our collective life. Yet these things are obvious, objective comparisons that don’t speak to the why of my soul reaching out to the ancestors like a shaman.
To get at the why, I began to pry open the rusted door of memory to remember what they had taught me. It’s a funny good thing to me how vivid they still are in my memory.
My paternal grandfather, Mitt, taught me to hunt, more than anything. He taught me how to fish, how to use all the guns to bring down squirrel, birds and deer. He taught me how to skin and eat all that stuff. He was the apex hunter, not a terribly nice or warm man. He could be cruel. He taught me how to bait a hook and sharpen a knife. He taught me to smoke cigarettes.
My maternal grandfather, Brent, was a union carpenter his whole life after he came back from World War I. When he died, we had his funeral at Indahoma, OK. There were guys who were in his unit in WW I who showed up for his funeral to tell me stories about how he had saved their lives. He lost a lot of carpenter jobs because he would get in fights with guys who didn’t have his exacting standards for carpentry. He taught me, “Measure twice, cut once.” “Measure every cut with your tape; never use the last cut to measure the next one.” “If it’s not square and straight, you’re not finished.” Remember to laugh. Travel. Stay curious.
I never met my maternal grandmother, Edna. She had sad eyes. She taught me that things don’t always work out the way you hope. She taught me about pain.
My paternal grandmother, Ruby, taught me most of all about grief. Her firstborn, Doug, was killed in France in ’44. She never got over it. She sent him a birthday card, and it was returned to her, unopened with “DECEASED” stamped in red ink on the pink envelope. That was the first she knew of his death. To her, God in his mercy had given her her baby back in the form of me. As you might imagine, we had a weird relationship. She taught me to do something she was never able to do: to turn loose of the grief. I learned to tell myself, “You don’t have to keep suffering about this. Be thankful for the time you had.”
My mother was named “Radine” because my grandparents couldn’t settle on “Nadine” or “Roberta.” She taught me to be the best you can be. “If you get knocked down, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “Nobody owes you a favor.” “Take the bitter with the sweet.” “No good goes unpunished.” “This is so good, it must be sinful.”
My father, Ralph, taught me that the most important things in life are your relationships. It’s the people who love you who pull you through. He taught me that even the gods are wounded. He taught me that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. He was the most empathetic human I have ever met.
I’m not sure that this séance has really answered the question of why my favorite ghosts are returning to me now. I do feel that working through these ideas and memories, and preparing the photos has had a calming effect on me. My shoulders are often in knots, but for now they are relaxed and comfortable. My mind is fairly quiet (or as close to quiet as my head ever gets).
If I had to parse their message to me now, it would be, “Persevere. Choose hope. Life can be hard and damned unfair, but love it anyway. Tomorrow is another day.”