My mother was a child of the Great Depression. She was the oldest in her family of four children and was raised in northwest Arkansas. Times were tough and families were hungry during the 1929-1939 famine in America. Recently at a family reunion on Mt. Petit Jean in Arkansas, I was told a story of how my mother dealt with hunger; more shockingly, I was told of how her father dealt with hunger on that day. My 8-year-old mother sat crying on her front porch one evening when her father came home from work. Seeing that she was upset, he asked her what was wrong. When she told him that she was hungry, he responded by slapping her across the face, and then he walked into the house.
As a child my mother learned some tough lessons, but she was smart and devised a plan, a way that she would feed and provide for her own family one day, despite the thinness of her last dime.
My mother was a child of, and I am a grandchild of, the Great Depression. I drank the lemonades that resulted from my mother’s lemon childhood. And sour, they were not. My mother knew how to feed our family of 6 on one can of Spam; she knew how to make a full meal on 5-for-one-dollar frozen chicken potpies. She read the newspaper and knew when to buy certain specials at the grocery store. More than once I saw her divide a portion in half so it would last longer. She would make roast for Sunday after church with so many vegetables we could eat on it for 3 days, then she would use those leftovers to make a beef stew, adding a side of cornbread that was better than what we can now find at Cracker Barrel. She knew how to portion servings to stretch them further, including her gum: she tore each stick in half and said it was enough.
My mother had a keen eye to search for bugs in cornmeal or grits. More than once I saw her open a bag of goods and quickly close it back up. Wanting to see what was in those bags, she would show me, but I could never see anything more than a random few, still, dark grains. I saw her return cream of wheat for the same reason, tiny bugs…and when I asked her if cooking wouldn’t kill any bugs, her answer was, “we don’t eat bugs.”
Almost every morning for nearly 10 years I was awakened by the sound of folding waxed paper, as she made and wrapped my father’s to-go lunch. She made our clothes, and I wore a few hand-me-downs. She waited for sales to buy us shoes and made us polish them every Saturday night before Sunday morning church.
Many years have passed since the great depression, but the impacts or impressions of it are alive and well in my life. My mother’s frugal ways are ingrained in me. I bake a chicken for dinner and sandwiches later. Then I boil the bones for broth, and make chicken and noodles for my husband, which feeds us for at least 2 more meals. A pound of hamburger meat can feed us 3 to 4 meals, and if I serve toast with oatmeal I can make half as much. I water down laundry detergent, shampoo, and lotion, tear dryer sheets in half, and slide a chip of soap into a bath sponge. I dry my razors off after use, and I add a little water on my cold cereal to save on milk. My BFF was at my house one day and we were about to fix lunch. When she turned on the faucet to wash her hands, I told her the liquid hand soap smelled really good, but she only needed one drop to do the job. Spitting her half piece of gum into my trashcan and never looking at me, she said she knew what should one day be written on my headstone:
Here Lies Gwendolyn Siegrist
Who Lived by
One Drop of Soap
Half a Piece of Gum
Living in such prudent ways are proof that I am my mother’s child, a grandchild of the Great Depression.