A Baby Boomer Daughter’s Conversation with Her Depression Era Father
By Anna Daniels
I am sitting with my eighty-two year old father in the back yard of the house I had grown up in. It is summertime and we are sitting in lawn chairs talking and drinking sweet tea.
“Dad, are you happy?” I ask. He sits silently for a while, as if he were carefully pondering something he had never considered before.
“Well, yes, I’m happy,” he finally responds. “I put a roof over my family’s head and food on the table. You are all educated and have your own homes and families. You bet I’m a happy man.”
It was now my turn to fall silent. I am a baby boomer, born in 1950 after the end of WWII. Of course I had a roof over my head. And of course there was food on the table and I was often reminded that there were children starving in India who would be grateful for my succotash. I lived an utterly normal life in my working class suburban neighborhood. And yes, I was the first one in my family to go to college and then on to a lifelong search for “meaning” and “fulfillment.”
I was lucky to have many decades as an adult to spend time with my parents. Most of the tensions and resentments of the growing up years were well behind us which presented different possibilities for understanding each other as adults.
As an adult I came to realize how much my own parents would have been grateful for a scoop of succotash during their own childhoods in the Great Depression. My father grew up on a small family farm in West Virginia and my mother grew up in the shadow of steel mills that had gone dark during the Depression. Both of my parents lost their teeth in their early thirties, a result of both poor diets and poor dental hygiene. My mother had a number of miscarriages and my siblings and myself all had low birth weights, all normal occurrences in our neighborhood.
My parents never lost their anxiety about losing that roof and the food on the table, despite my father’s steady employment for forty-eight years in a chemical plant. They stocked up on canned food and bought an extra freezer; my mother saved string and cut the buttons and zippers off of clothes that were no longer serviceable.
The worst pronouncements that my father would make of another human being were that he was “lazy” or she was “ungrateful.” When Dad was seventeen years old, he left his recently widowed mother and four younger sisters behind in town and assumed the sole responsibility for the family farm. He lived in the farm house with his dog. There were no locks on the door. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing. He had to chop wood for the wood stove and fireplaces, pump water from the well, milk sixteen cows twice a day, seven days a week and oversee the planting of feed for the animals and maintain the huge house garden and chickens. I doubt that my father ever spent a lazy afternoon let alone a weekend during his childhood and can well understand his contempt for sloth.
My father hated the farm. He hated the cows who hated him back by constantly stepping on his feet; he was never comfortable on a horse. He hated the loneliness and the never ending back breaking work. Dad never came straight out and told me those things–he didn’t have time for complainers and would often simply shrug his shoulders and say “Well, that was just the way things were then.”
He was able to escape the farm one day and headed north to Western Pennsylvania. He slept on a relative’s couch until he found work and could begin life on his own. For much of his life he worked as a laborer and field technician in a chemical plant. It was dangerous work in a heavily polluted environment, although the extent and gravity of the pollution weren’t recognized for decades.
Dad only had a high school education, but he was smart and a hard worker. I cannot ever remember him missing a day of work because of illness. He knew the plant inside and out. He had a reputation for being able to find buried water lines by using dowsing rods. He knew the river that often flooded the plant in the springtime. He could gauge the last possible moment of production before needing to close the plant against the rising waters. And Dad loved and learned the chemistry. A self-made and self-educated man, he spent his last decades of employment as a plant manager.
I returned home in September of 2000 after much urging from my father and siblings. I sat in the living room with Dad discussing some of the options he and my mother had for finding a smaller, maintenance free place to live. They had to hire people now to cut the grass in the summer and shovel snow in the winter. He looked old, emaciated– and defeated.
Dad told me that it was terrible thing that he could no longer pull his own weight in the world. Then he told me it was a terrible thing to have to leave the house you lived in for over fifty years. He kissed me goodnight. He was hospitalized the next day and died a few days later.
There are times when my own happiness is elusive. More and more often in those moments I remember my father, who may be the happiest person I have ever known. I am grateful for that memory.