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March 19, 2009

This Wonderful Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Great Depression. I know I am not alone.

Sure, news media have been making comparisons since last year, but you can’t listen to them. But when the front-line, realtime, down-home media (that would be you and me) start examining the ways that our current downturn/ recession/collapse/meltdown is similar to what happened in the 1930s in the U.S and Europe, it’s time to listen. When layoffs are no longer something that happened to a friend of a friend or your cousin’s ex-husband, but rather a reality for your friends and neighbors, it’s time to listen. When great, big things are being tried and the economy still seems to be sinking, it’s time to listen.

The problem is, we don’t have anything but numbers to help us compare what has happened/is happening and to project how it will ultimately affect all of us. Unfortunately, numbers and economic theory are best at telling you about numbers and economic theory. They have less to say about individual human beings.

And to even try to extrapolate Depression-era history and make a forecast for the Millennial Meltdown is to invite gross miscalculations. Yes, we care about the economics of it. We want to keep our jobs or find good ones. We want to keep our 3,000-square-foot homes. We want to send our children to high quality schools that are well staffed and fully equipped. We want to ``cut back’’ by eating out fewer times per week, doing less reckless and impulsive clothes shopping, buying a more fuel-efficient car.

In short, the average American is approaching this broad economic crisis like a bunch of Herbert Hoovers. We can’t possibly give up the gym memberships, yoga classes or personal trainers because, without them, we worry about being too fat. Friends, that’s not deprivation. One pair of shoes My grandmother, Stormy, was born in 1912, in Pensacola, Florida. She passed away late last year, living proof that all the things that won’t kill you actually do make you stronger. And maybe meaner.

Certainly more neurotic.

But no less loved.

The Deep South, and Pensacola in particular, began experiencing harsh economic tides around the time my grandmother was 5. The next year, a massive flu epidemic swept the globe, and didn’t do a thing to make matters in Pensacola any better. They made things in Stormy’s world a whole lot worse. She and her 26-year-old mother, Mollie, both fell ill with the disease. Stormy survived, as many children did. And like many adults in the prime of life, Mollie did not survive. She died, seven months pregnant, on her 27th birthday.

Stormy was classic Greatest Generation (Great Depression) material. She and her siblings owned one pair of shoes each, and in order to keep them looking good for school and not wear them out prematurely, they walked to school barefoot, then cleaned their feet and put on their shoes before class. Every recipe she learned to cook could feed a whole family on half a pound of meat. (And that’s a Catholic family, mind you.) To the day she died, she believed that the deadliest sin of all was not envy, lust or pride but waste.

Much farther to fall Most of us aren’t living anywhere close to the kind of sustainable life that people were already living before the Great Depression. Many families were already living with multiple generations in a single household.

What were a few extra cousins and aunts and uncles? Throwing away left-over food? Only if you were giving it to an animal who would repay you in milk or cheese or meat.

Even the very definition of need was different. My grandmother didn’t need a new pair of shoes until another round of repairs was just not possible. And when she did get ``new’’ shoes, they came from her older sister, who had gotten them from a cousin or neighbor, who had gotten them from an older sister. I’m no mathematician, but according to my calculations, only 27 pairs of girls’ shoes were manufactured between 1929 and 1940. They were passed around the country, from sister to sister to cousin to friend.

My calculations also tell me that, even if the Millennial Meltdown takes only a fraction of the economic toll of the Great Depression, the day-to-day social toll could be much, much greater.

Elizabeth Trever Buchinger is fully diversified.

You can connect with her at www.moremindfulfamily.