A few hours in the company of the new film “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” brought me back to memories of my own childhood.
In “Kit Kittredge,” Dad loses his job during the Great Depression, after which Kit and her mother (Julia Ormond) take in boarders. Either that or you lose the house.
Fortunately for my economic welfare, the Depression preceded my existence, and I must confess that long before I opened the gates of adolescence, I grew wary of stories about how tough times were before the war.
Children cannot relate with any kind of depth to hardships they did not experience. Lectures about the past bore them. Only later do memories and stories begin to take shape, often helping them to understand why, for instance, Mom and Dad got “really angry” when you forgot to turn off the lights when you left a room or why, even today, people like Uncle Sid still fear that he will lose his pension and end up in the poorhouse.
A real place
My father told me all about the poorhouse, which I saw as a rectangular brick building with no windows. His was not an old-wives’ tale but a reality. You lost your job and that’s where you ended up. Inside, I envisioned masses of inhabitants huddled in a surrender of quiet despair. It could happen, it could really happen, but with food on the table and a stacked fridge, I did not live in fear.
Stories trickled down — some sad, others humorous. When Grandpa was out of work, meat was an unaffordable luxury. But spaghetti sauce without meat was an unaffordable denial. That’s when Gramps set up a contraption to trap sparrows in the backyard. Once they were caught, a simple snap did them in. That’s when the girls plucked the feathers and, cooked in oil and garlic, into the sauce they went.
I retrieved the 1930 census, and proving my mom did not tell a lie, there are the names of two boarders that lived with them. Two guys, eventual friends of the family, became “uncles” to my aunts, who lost their mother when they were 13 and 11.
Some boarders, recall my aunts, skipped out in the middle of the night, owing a few weeks’ rent. Not all were as nice as Old Sam, who had the best handwriting ever, was incredibly bright, and according to everyone in the family, would have amounted to something really big if it were not for his friendly bouts with the bottle. He didn’t care all that much about money; as a girl, my aunt waited for the times Sam would come home from a job and throw pennies in the air for her to catch.
Sam was never the same after the trolley car smacked into him. Somewhere in the environs of Schenectady his remains reside in a pauper’s grave, but this one boarder lives in the memory of a little girl who retrieved his pennies and remembers the day in 1930 when Sam the boarder predicted that a world war would begin in 1939.
You can romanticize tough times to the point of gooiness; some critics scream foul whenever any artist depicts hard times with affection. But considered with the equanimity of hindsight, hard times can summon up pleasantly enduring memories just as bitter memories can accompany times of plenty.
Because my father knew bad times could come with unexpected fury, he waited until they could afford their house by laying down cool cash. I disappointed them because rather than regarding the move to a brand new brick home in an upscale section of town with excitement, I bemoaned the loss of action that surrounded me in an apartment house.
Even then, in the early ’50s, the landlord took in boarders like Pete, the GE draftsman, who took my friend Chuck and me fishing each night, and Pearl with the bright red lipstick who, on summer nights, sat on the front porch, often breaking into song accompanied by Mr. Amerio, the accordionist, who owned the house next door.
The depression was long over, hearty economic times were around the corner, but in those brief years of apartment house existence, I felt more life than I experienced in a new brick home in a sterile, upscale section of town.
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Categories: Life and Arts