ESSAY- Despite crisis: It's a wonderful life... really

His last dime lay in the palm of his hand– what would he do with it? The year was 1935, and our country had been knocked flat by the Great Depression.

My grandfather, Pat Cassidy, had made his money in real estate, and lost every investment property he owned when the bottom fell out of the real estate market in 1928. 

The cash from the home equity loan he'd taken out on his own house was long gone, as was his ability to pay it back. The slim coin in his hand was all that remained.

Both he and his son were hunting for jobs, so he flipped the coin to see who would get to spend that dime to ride the streetcar into Boston to look for work.

Nobody remembers who won the coin toss. After all, who won is not the point of the story.

As I was growing up, I'd listen to these Depression tales my mother told me, and I envied her. It seemed to me that living in Arlington, Massachusetts in the 1930s must have been like inhabiting a Frank Capra movie: There were streetcars, and everyone wore hats; and drama was everywhere, what with hobos coming to the back door for a sandwich or whatever, and upper-class folks jumping out of windows. 

There's one story I've heard so many times that it plays in my imagination in black and white, as if I'd seen the movie:

In just a few hours, my grandfather would be boarding a train for Flint, Michigan, where he'd found a low-paying job in a factory, and where he'd live with two other men in a rented room. (Surely not what he would have foreseen earlier in his life: to be fifty years old, married, the father of four children, and starting over as a stranger in a distant city.)

The family had gathered in the living room. They were standing around the piano and listening as my grandfather played a plucky march– one of the few songs in his repertoire. Suddenly, he stopped playing. 

Elbows on the keys, he buried his face in his hands and wept.

I am tempted to say here that it's totally different when you are the one living through these dramas– that it's not romantic at all. But that hasn't been my own experience during tough times, and it's not what I believe.

Here's what I took away from my mother's stories: Every set of circumstances we find ourselves in is an opportunity to define ourselves. Until we've been challenged, how do we know what we're capable of? Who are we in the face of "not enough"? Are we fearful and selfish? Are we brave and generous?

I think of my grandmother watering down the soup to feed more people, and sheltering friends who needed a roof over their heads– until her house was auctioned out from under her because they couldn't repay the equity loan.

I think of my own rocky financial time when a friend would invite our kids to dinner regularly and feed them huge servings of beef because she knew our pantry was down to beans and rice.

Of course, it can feel like hell when we're going through it (and in the coming months, a great many of us may be going through it) but it helps to look ahead to a time when the economy will come roaring back– it always does– and we'll tell our children and grandchildren about how people were losing their jobs, losing their houses, but we never lost our sense of humor, or our sense of who we really are. 

And those children will grow up, as I did, knowing that life can hit you pretty hard, but you can take it, and live to tell the tale.


Sometimes, Janis Jaquith's essays appear on public radio airwaves, including National Public Radio.


1 comment

Uplifting and beautifully wrought. Thanks, Janis.