September 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The hunger

By |2018-03-21T18:34:22+01:00October 11th, 2008|"American Girl"|
Walker Evans' "Allie Mae Burroughs": Akron, Alabama, 1936.

n most conversations I’ve had lately, the economy becomes the major topic. Underneath the talk of recession lies the unspoken question. Are we really headed for a depression and no one wants to say it?

For me, it brings back memories.

My parents were raised during the Great Depression. My mother was one of eight on an Ohio farm. She told stories of eating breakfast of stale bread and milk with a sprinkle of sugar. When she was only nine she walked miles from farm to farm to sell flower seeds. My father had it better. His dad sold insurance. Still they had a garden and kept chickens so they could have fresh eggs. No one had it easy.

This experience defined them long after things got better. Growing up, I often called my parents “the product of the depression” with a derogatory tone. My mother still kept every piece of foil and plastic wrap, washed it, dried it and used it again. I was embarrassed with my school lunch sandwich, wrapped in well-worn foil. My friends used “baggies” that they tossed in the trash.

At the dinner table, there was no throwing away of leftovers and cleaning your plate was the only option. Any sighs of “I’m too full” were met with “eat for the hunger that’s coming” and we stayed at the table until we found a way to get it down.

My father fixed everything around the house from plumbing to pitching a new roof. If it was broken, he’d fix it — and we grabbed a hammer to pitch in. But I longed for the day we could pick up the phone and call someone else to do the work. Then we’d be rich, I thought. That’s what other people did.

And, there was the sharing. Anyone who was hungry was welcome at the table. Anyone without a place to sleep could have the couch. New clothes meant getting an older sister’s outgrown rags. This is what we did. This is how it was. But I longed for my own clothes, my own room, my own stuff — things that I liked that fit only me.

My parents never grew into the age of affluence. It chaffed against the basic notion to take care of what you had and use only what you needed. It made giving gifts difficult, as my mother would often say, “Thank you but I don’t need another blouse. I have plenty.” Countless gifts I’ve given her I’ve gotten back with a note, “It’ll look better on you, dear.”

And they never understood debt. If you didn’t have the money, you didn’t buy it. Being in debt was shameful and irresponsible. If you had debt, you paid it off before you took a vacation or bought another new dress.

The Visa and MasterCard way of living made for long conversations about how it would be the downfall of the country. “How can people ever pay it all back?” my mother would lament. “And how can they afford that new house?”

But more importantly than their frugality, was my parents’ contentment with what they had. Life was enough, the family was enough, and another day was enough. Who really needed more?

I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to get beyond this way of thinking. I’ve wanted more than “enough.” I’ve nurtured a striving for nice things, worked to get ahead. I like designer label clothes and ordering a filet mignon with a glass of Cabernet. I have the “more” I wanted.

But I am surprised. In the conversations and the silent unspoken word of “depression” I feel strangely relieved. I’m relaxed, content even. It’s like falling into a familiar chair without springs.

It’s territory I know. It’s my parents, my upbringing and the values of my home: share, use less, do without, do it yourself.

And just be happy. You have enough.

About the Author:

Madeline Klosterman wrote the "American Girl" column from 2008 through 2019.