It starts with the documentary about the Roosevelts that Ken Burns did for PBS—this overwhelming nostalgia that comes over me. I streamed the program on Netflix last week, and once it hit 1910, the year of my mother’s birth, I began to use the timeline to mark the progression of my parents’ lives.
The Great Depression especially roused my interest. My father would have been sixteen in 1929, a farm boy who had to travel ten miles to town to go to high school. How early did he have to rise to do his chores? Did he have money for a hot lunch? Were the seats of his trousers and the elbows of his sweaters shiny from wear?
My mother would have been eighteen, just starting her teaching career at a two-room country school. Her parents would eventually lose their farm and travel north to look for work, finding it, finally, in the State Hospital in Dixon, Illinois. My grandfather was an orderly; my grandmother was a cook. Two of my aunts went north as well, both to work as maids for upper-crust families in the suburbs of Chicago.
Before the Depression was over, my father would go north, too, to work at Inland Steel. It was a time of want, a time of fears that lingered the rest of my parents’ lives. My father was constantly on guard against waste. I knew I’d be in trouble if I left a light burning in my room when I wasn’t there. “You think money grows on trees?” he often asked me.
My mother canned and froze and preserved the vegetables and fruits we grew in our garden. When she died in 1988, there were more jars than I knew what to do with. I’d heard the stories over and over as I was growing up. The way one day there was money, and then one day there wasn’t. My parents always thought that such a day might come again. They’d do everything they could to make sure we had something put by.
The images on the screen in the Roosevelt documentary opened up my parents’ lives to me and shed light on my own. I’m the child of children of the Depression. Although I never felt the lack that they did, I picked up from them the need to be wary, to save, to preserve, to protect. And suddenly I was moving back through the years to the farmhouse where I first lived, the one my great-grandfather built and then passed down to my grandfather, and finally to my father. That house is a pile of ruin now. I’ve been there and seen the roof and walls fallen. I’ve stood where the front door would have been and seen an old couch, a fuel-oil stove, bedsprings. I’ve seen the pieces of a life lived in that place.
But in my memory, all is whole again. It’s late in the year—November—and my mother is in the kitchen, rolling out the dough for noodles, for tomorrow is Thanksgiving. There will be turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy and noodles and hot rolls and pies. It’s 1960, and the Great Depression is long past. Early that November, John Kennedy was elected President. We have no way of knowing that in 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald will assassinate him in Dallas. By that time, we’ll be living in an apartment near Chicago, where my mother has gone to teach school. The assassination will one day form a doorway to another time, another set of memories, another way of looking at my parents’ lives.
But for now, my father and I are in the front room, listening to a high school basketball game on the radio. I’m standing in front of the fuel oil stove to keep warm as I dribble my basketball on the linoleum. “It’s a real barn burner,” the radio announcer says, and I hear the cheers of the crowd.
I remember the door casings of that house, the plaster walls, the pump at the sink, the pie safes in the kitchen, the wringer washer and deep freeze and Hoosier cabinet on the wash porch, the Philco television with the rotor that turned the outside antenna, the heat of the radio tubes. My mother’s pies—pumpkin and pecan—are in the oven, and our house smells so rich, so full.
My father winks at me. He has the most contented look on his face. I remember it fifty-five years later as I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, as I urge you to hold on to the memories that matter, to pay attention to history and the way its events can illuminate our lives.
I remember the way my father winked at me, as if to say, Remember this. Remember this night, this moment. Remember how at least for a while, we swore we had it made.