“Grandma, why are you brushing your hand?”

I was about 4 or 5 years old and it was the first time I’d noticed something different about my grandmother. I was staying at her house as my parents went on some overnight junket required by Dad’s work and I walked in to the bathroom upon hearing the sound of brushing teeth. Instead of brush in mouth, she had teeth in hand, brushing them vigorously with well-worn pink and white toothbrush. In one of my earliest attempts at journalism, I of course asked:

“Grandma, why are you brushing your hand?”

She put her teeth back in, made up some story acceptable to a child and we went back about our day. It wasn’t time to explain to a 5-year-old the pain she’d endured.

If anything, my grandmother was the most positive woman on Earth. She never seemed angry, never seemed to be exasperated and always put herself at the disposal of other, especially if you were her grandchildren. In many ways, she was the stereotypical grandmother: a pan of brownies at the ready, a trip to your favorite fast-food restaurant was on the docket and if you were really good, there was always a quarter or two for the toy and gumball machines at K-mart. While she was so much nicer than almost everyone else I knew, it took a number of years for me to figure out how truly amazing this was.

The benefit of living in a town where your family had always lived was that you could see your grandparents whenever you wanted. I was often a guest at Grandma’s hotel. Grandpa had died when I was about 3, so she was always happy to have an overnight guest. In the dark of night, with me on the couch and her in her bedroom down the hall, I asked her this question once and I now wonder if I should have.

“Grandma, what was life like when you were a little girl?”

Either because I was 8 years old and she figured I was ready to know, or because she was near exhaustion and the truth tends to come out when you’re too tired to filter, she told me.

She grew up with two younger brothers in a factory town during The Great Depression. Her father was some sort of laborer and her mother was the traditional housewife. Money was tight, so she often went without. She explained that her teeth were gone because they had no money for dental care. She explained why her foot was deformed: hand-me-down shoes had almost crippled her. The large growth on her finger came from “an incident” and the family all had to hope would “just get better.” Christmas often yielded little or nothing. She talked about the one Christmas where there was a dime to spend on each child. She and her two brothers each got a little toy dog that they used to put on family puppet shows. The stories poured forth of something I’d never know nor could comprehend. She paused and said:

“I hope you never have to see anything like it.”

I remember asking another question but by then she had drifted off to sleep. We never spoke of it again. And yet, as I grew older and I learned more, I realized she was so scarred by what had befallen her that her pain and fear couldn’t help but seep out in the most subtle of ways.

She always had money in the house. A sugar bowl in the cabinet, a carton in the refrigerator and various other spots secreted wads of bills and pockets of change. She kept a giant purse filled with wheat pennies hidden behind a loose board in between a set of kitchen drawers. While settling her estate, my father and his siblings went through the house, lifting up mattresses, prying up loose baseboards and sifting through clothing pockets. Almost every instinct they had was right: money was squirreled everywhere, each with a note indicating the date stored and the amount present. For a woman who lived on nothing but Social Security in her final years, she had several thousand dollars in pennies, nickels and dimes ferreted away in her home.

Whenever we would go out to eat, she’d look at the prices on the menu first and always order the cheapest thing. My father would be infuriated with this, as he’d say, “Ma, I’m PAYING. If I couldn’t afford to buy you everything on this menu, I wouldn’t take you here.” She’d kind of lower her head a bit, her eyes would sadden and she’d say, “No, honey, it’s fine. I really just wanted the fish fry.”

She’d never eat the full fish fry, either. Half of it always made it home. If they didn’t have a box, she’d pull out a set of napkins from her purse and ferry it home that way. Rolls often made the trip as well. She’d do it quietly and without a fuss, but I always noticed. Whenever we’d eat dinner at home, Dad would pack up what was left and drive it over to her. She’d eat half and save half. It was her way of saying it’s always better to be a little hungry now and know you have some for later than to eat it all now and face starvation.

Gardens were planted in sparse patches and extras were frozen. Store fliers were scoured and sale items were bought in cautious bulk. She would mark when she bought them and use them oldest to newest. She often pretended she could hear you, even though we all knew she was almost deaf, simply because a hear aid would be expensive and what would people think?

She wasn’t cheap or stingy. Every overnight trip included the stop for a toy at the store. We always ate a restaurant meal after church. Money always went into the collection basket. The yard work my cousin or I had done was always rewarded with a $5 bill pulled from a hiding spot. She always argued with my dad that she should pay for something he had bought her. She was a kind and gentle woman who fit the moniker of The Greatest Generation.

Although she’s been gone for several years, I find myself thinking about her more and more these days as I sift through my Google reader and see jobs being slashed by the thousands. I somehow doubt that the people in her family had to wait for an “official” declaration that a recession or depression had set in to feel the full brunt of its fury.

I find myself wondering about her as I scan the fliers for sales on foodstuffs and eat leftovers more often than I used to. What was it like to know that each day was a struggle and that there isn’t a guarantee that the ending will come soon, if ever?

I recall the way I tightened the blanket around me on that velour brown and beige couch and let those final words she uttered soak in: “I hope you never have to see anything like it.”

Unfortunately, as much as I fend off the notion, I have this gnawing feeling that I am.

7 thoughts on ““Grandma, why are you brushing your hand?”

  1. Your grandma’s childhood lifestyle has been the lifestyle of millions for many years now. Now that there are a lot more people coming into it, many from what they had thought of as a secure perch on the socio-economic ladder, it seems like a revelation.
    It’s not.
    What’ll be a revelation is when — years, perhaps many years, from now — anyone who wants a decent-paying job can get one.
    Love the reminiscence, though. You write wonderfully.

  2. Beautiful story, Doc! In many ways it reminds me of my childhood. We lived in a small town, relying on a vegetable garden for at least half of what we ate, having meat twice a week, most of the time. No car at any time, my dad died without ever driving a car. And, the best part was that I always knew we were one of the richest families in town – I felt sorry for those who didn’t have nearly as much as we did. I still don’t know if we were on the bottom rung of the income ladder, the middle, or the top.

  3. I have a deep fear of going through another Great Depression, because of the stories my mother told me. My dad never mentioned it, but he didn’t talk about WWII either. So far, I haven’t had to make a garage serve as a home for a family of 7, haven’t lost a sibling because there was no money for a doctor, or been humiliated in a grocery store because I had to pick up a charity box. My mother’s scar from the depression wasn’t squirreling away money or making food last: it was a frightening sense of false pride which would not let her accept help from anyone. Under no circumstances could anyone know if she was struggling financially. I carry my own scars from that. Little ones, though – no comparison.

  4. Doc, that was great.
    One thing that I think about is WHO is telling the people who has caused their problems.
    The massive right wing noise machine has been working overtime to put the blame for problems at the feet of their usual suspects.
    Unions are the reason automakers are having problems
    Those poor people who took out loans for houses they couldn’t afford caused the banking crash.
    When the blame goes the wrong place then the fix will go wrong too.
    It’s easier to hate some person who got some house that they couldn’t afford as compared to some guy who traded in credit default swaps trading in some shadow investment industry whose name you have never heard of.

  5. Doc, as I’ve mentioned here prev., my folks grew up in the Depression. I think they were lucky to be young enough to have escaped much of the emotional strain their parents obviously dealt with (my mother: “We didn’t realize that everyone didn’t have to eat seagulls.” Yet the experience (and being raised by those parents)marked them for life. The behaviors and attitudes weren’t that unlike what you describe above.
    I remember reading about the adult children of Jews who had been imprisoned in WWII (many of whom were born years afterward) and how much their comments and behaviors reminded me of my parents.

  6. one grandpa’s father lost a lot of money in the stock market crash. grandma grew up with grandparents on a farm. at least they had food. my other grandparents had it harder. grandma a’s grandma died when she was young, and her crap ratism surely stems from the combo. no toilet brush is trash! i don’t think we will have it that bad, unless republikkkans insist THEY know we should just keep digging in the same direction.

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