The writer's mother's family during the Great Depression
by Colleen Donahue
When News anchor and journalist Tom Brokaw wrote his famous book, “The Greatest Generation” he was talking about my parents’ generation – those who had been born in the 1920’s. They were only children when they lived with their families through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
Mom’s family had a small farm in Northern Minnesota that for all practical purposes fed their family of 12. They were a community unto themselves and mom told imaginative stories of playing in the barn amidst the haystacks with her sisters and brothers.
My dad’s family was a bit more “fortunate” during the Depression -- if you could call it that. His father had been badly wounded in World War 1. From his military discharge, he lived the rest of his life with one lung but also with a steady government paycheck that kept his family with food and clothing.
Mom and dad had both been through a baptism of poverty without its devastating effects because they had been surrounded by the love of their families, community and churches. They had learned to work hard in company with their brothers and sisters. Mom said “every hand was needed”.
Mom left school after 8th grade because she was needed on the farm. I think to this day that if she had been in my generation, she would have been a CEO of a company. She was pretty, and smart and a hard worker. Dad started work in high school delivering milk. He would be up around 2AM to pack his little truck and make the rounds. As I think about Minnesota in the winter it still makes me shutter. Then he was off to school around 7AM.
Opportunities during the Depression were there but you had to look for them and then jump for the chance. You couldn’t be passive or lazy if you were going to do more than just survive. My mom and dad were both “sharp” --- ready to “go and do” when the chance came. And that is what finally brought them together when they collided in the small town of Sauk Center – mom working at the drug store soda fountain and dad on a work crew for Western Electric.
When America decided to enter World War 2 another opportunity came knocking. Many young men like my dad, in need of a job and money headed off to the other side of the world. Little did they realize they would be heading off an evil aggression that was moving faster than anyone could have thought. But for dad, it was an economic necessity and an adventure as well. He would end up doing his turn in the Navy and then with the Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force).
Mom and dad had married before dad left for the Navy. Mom with a new set of twins headed back to her family to live and wait for dad’s return. Neither one had it easy but I dare say mom had it hardest. Tim and Tom were about as active as they come and always in some kind of mischief. It had to have been exhausting. But mom told me later it was the “hand she was dealt” and she never questioned her duty.
When the men came home from World War 2 and later the Korean War, folks like my mom and dad settled down to raise a family and improve their lives. Without even knowing it they were fulfilling God’s mandate to us, “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.”
I guess we were considered a middle-class family but we did not acquire a lot of “things”. Dad put his money into land where eventually he built a cabin where we could all do things together. Mom made many of our clothes, kept the freezer stocked and watched every penny. She and dad were truly partners. He worked hard and she carefully spent and guarded the money.
As life went on I remember both of them always at some night class during the week learning things. Mom learned painting, carpentry, upholstery, flower arranging and a host of other things. Dad focused on fixing cars, refrigerators and plumbing. They were always improving themselves in some way and their example did not go unnoticed by us kids.
The writer's parents' 50th wedding anniversary
The new rally cry in America is to “make America great again”. We all know what that refers to: getting back to manufacturing products again in the USA so that we can have good paying jobs and can afford again all the good things that we deserve. But as I think of what made my parents’ generation so great it was their character formed by growing up in families and communities that looked out for each other. It was using their minds and ingenuity to make up for what they lacked in material things. It was a willingness to see opportunities and jump to get them. It was constant learning and trying to make things better.
Dad and mom were not particularly religious but they knew God was the reason for everything and they made sure we went to church and learned about right and wrong. All through his life dad credited God for everything that had come his way. He had no illusion that he had done it all on his own.
So, as we think about making America great again I think we need to look back on the “greatest generation” and see that character was at the heart of what made America great in the first place and that is something each and every one of us can take a stand on today. We can be people of integrity – people who walk by truth—people who are concerned for our neighbors. Jesus made it simple for all of us. He said that there were only two things to remember. We should love God with all of our heart and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. The opportunities of economy and well-being will all flow from having our priorities straight.