Ask Ruth Jensen whether the current time is anything like the Great Depression from the 1930’s and you will hear a belly laugh come from deep within this woman so short it seems impossible such a sound escapes her.
Living through the Depression was a scary time. There were days when the Jensen’s family didn’t know if there would be supper on the table. Maybe some thin, water, vegetable “soup” her mom would make, and Ruth and her four sisters and two brothers would go to bed hungry. “No one dared complain, though. Complaining would get you at worse a beating, at best a sad look from our Mother who would push away her bowl to us. Many a night I heard her crying herself to sleep, unable to provide for her babies.”
Ruth’s brother, Jeb, caught dysentery and died when he was 14. The doctor came by, although there was no money to pay him, and told their mama to call the priest. My mother slipped a sliver of dried beef into his hand and Ruth remembers watching him jealously.
The Depression brought on a sense of community that had always been present, but became a necessity during these difficult times. People simply lost EVERYTHING. Their bank savings, their livelihoods, their land and houses. They poured into the streets looking for work. Crossing the dehydrated lands in the west in the great dust bowl compounded problems were natural resources were more plentiful, but with the influx of displaced families, jobs were not.
“One thing that people don’t talk about much is that the employers really took advantage of their employees during this time. Oh sure there were plenty of good, hardworking and fair bosses, but just as many mean as snakes on the hot pavement who’d skin you as soon as look at you. No one complained at work either. You were just darned tootin’ lucky if you had a job!”
The community, though, was key. People would pitch in with whatever they could spare, which was nothing really, and help their neighbors out. If someone got sick, they’d bring by extra bits of food. If someone went crazy (which many people did) the community banned together to make sure the person got some help. If, heaven forbid, someone committed suicide because of the losses and strains, the community would ban together to help the bereft family members left behind.
“During the killing season, folks moved from farm to farm to help slaughter and cure the meats. During the summer we spent hours helping each other in hot kitchens pouring batches of canned goods to keep for the winter months. In the fall we chopped wood for the winter. And so on.”
“When young people today say, ‘I want that or else, and no one can tell me no because I won't take no!’ I have to laugh. Today’s children have grown up with so much, they truly cannot understand the concept of living hand to mouth.”
If someone was having problems, people were supposed to be over there helping, take their horses and machinery and go and help them put in their crops, or whatever needed to be done they did. ”We were neighbors; and if you went to town, you yelled at your neighbor or stopped and asked them if there was anything they needed and you would get it while you were over there or whatever you could do to help them, much more than we are now. We are too self-centered now days.”
There were days when there wasn’t much to do. Not much in the way of chores. Schools were intermittent as there was no money to pay the teachers and no money to buy supplies. Families were needed on the farms but as the dry earth sucked all life from her hide, families turned together to pass the time. Cards, crafts, fixing things - skills were adapted and passed on to the younger generations. Sewing, knitting, wood-making - everyone became an expert in something.
Ruth’s father turned to religion, while her mother kept order in the house. Every morning they’d get up before dawn to have family prayer services, led by their father. They’d kneel in the kitchen, in the dark and the cold, while their father read from the Bible and prayed. He had a deep voice and the strength of his voice bringing soothing words of comfort from the religious overtures would give the family hope and strength to carry on through the day. Ruth loved listening to her father tell stories; he was a great storyteller. As the economic situation become more dire, his stories become more righteously focused and morally fixated, with “justice” being a theme throughout most.
“Over time, we had heard his favorite stories so often that we’d learned their small but significant changes over the years. Like the story of how he and his grandfather went hunting for deer one winter to bring a meat supply to the family. Well a few years later it was a moose (in Vermont?) and then later it was a bear! I don’t know if he believed the stories or just liked telling them, but either way they were entertaining.”
Stories are what often kept the darkness, the loneliness, the fear at bay when nothing else seemed to. Stories of childhood, stories from the bible, stories about the local colorful folk that made up their small community. Ruth loved those stories more than anything, and when she took off at age 18 to go to New York to become a secretary she took one dress, two pairs of stockings, and a whole head full of stories.
“The other thing I have to bring up about surviving the Depression is ingenuity. Folks had to get by, so they did what they had to do. Old buildings were ripped down - old eyesores! - to make use of their materials. You didn’t see no rotting old buildings around - they’d be reused. Anything that could be done with would have to do. I remember my papa rigging our well once with pieces of the local maple syrup factory that had shut down. He left a long note with his signature on it telling them exactly what he’d taken and that he planned to pay it back. I don’t know if he did, but knowing him, he probably did. People had real pride back then. Not like today - they’d steal the building dry and not think twice.”
Ruth doesn’t have much sympathy for the “softies” of today’s youth. “When young people today say, ‘I want that or else, and no one can tell me no because I won't take no!’ I have to laugh. Today’s children have grown up with so much, they truly cannot understand the concept of living hand to mouth.”
Again her deep belly laugh that defies her short stature bursts out and you don’t know for sure if she’s joking or not, but something inside tells us she’s not….
Thank you Ruth, for sharing your Story with us.
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