My Depression-Era Parents Glamorized Poverty… Sort of

My parents grew up during the depression. Sometimes my mother didn’t wish to talk about her childhood, like the time they had to burn the piano to keep warm. She grew up in a beautiful home her father and his brothers built. Her father built homes along the river in Atchison, Kansas and several times he didn’t get paid for his work. “Oh well,” he’d say, “at least they have a nice house to live in.” Looking at a picture of my mother when she was about nine, she said, “I remember that day. I was happy because I got a new pair of shoes. That was the last new pair of shoes I had for years because the depression hit.”

Before he was a teenager, on the streets of New Orleans, my father carried a freezer on his back and sold ice cream. He grew to be a fantastic salesman, helping his family by selling newspapers, shining shoes and selling bananas that fell off the boats. But there were a lot of hard times. Born in 1920, he remembers standing in line at Christmastime and getting oranges and a toy that the fire department gave to depression-era kids. As a young man my father hopped freight trains and headed west. He and my mother used to laugh about their hard times, like sharing an ice cream because they had only enough money for one. Or the time my mother let my father ride the trolley with a block of ice while she walked because they had only enough for one fare. And then there was the time their car was smoking and rattling as they drove it across the bridge while people laughed. “Let’em laugh,” my father is quoted as saying.

Because my father was such a good salesman and my mother a good bookkeeper, they made money over the years in furniture and antiques. But I always remembered their romantic stories about their adventures in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 1970’s I let go of most of my possessions and gave poverty a shot. I’m not sorry I took that path. I found the very core of my soul and like my parents; I’ve got a lot of great stories to tell.

Suellen Ocean is the author of Gold River. Available here:

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