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Octogenarian recalls the First Great Depression

Rowena was six years old when the stock market crashed in 1929. Her family had moved to southern California from British Columbia only four years before. Her father got occasional work in construction. The family scraped by.

Soon thereafter her parents separated, and her mother had to find a livelihood. Raised on a farm, she turned to baking chicken pies for restaurants, with chickens raised in their backyard. Rowena and her two younger siblings helped pluck and clean the harvested chickens.

From their father the children learned to work with wood and mechanical tools. In time he garnered skills to build a house. Her mother did their household plumbing, electrical and structural fix-its herself, along with cooking, canning, sewing, and knitting. And everything was on a cash basis. There was no credit. “If the money wasn’t there,” Rowena said, “we didn’t buy anything.”

Rowena spoke about people giving them hand-me-down clothes and a bag of groceries from time to time. “But we never felt deprived,” she told me. “And having hand-me-downs is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I think we’re in the Second Great Depression now,” she said. Rowena feels that some of what she learned could be instructive for all of us going forward. As do we, which is why we taped this conversation with her.

Those formative years shaped the values and skills she relayed to her children in the early 1950s: frugality, self-reliance, resourcefulness, initiative. And how to make and fix things themselves.

Perhaps because of what she learned in the First Great Depression, Rowena is living to the fullest right now, with a sparkling pulse of self-determination and vitality. She’s 88 going on 68, a breast cancer survivor who sings and dances every week, and is active in her church, including their new church community garden.

The person you just met is Rowena Donaldson. My Mother.
You go, mom!


Editorial Notes: I'm looking forward to seeing the video of the interview with Rowena Donaldson. The best people to listen to about hard times are those who made it through them. I find many of them calmer, more cheerful and accepting than younger people. I think about the English woman in our Transition Group who lived through the London Blitz and who is confident that we can make it. Or the 78-year-old woman whose response to "End of Suburbia" was excitement at the prospect of having walkable cities again. Jeffrey J. Brown ("westexas") also urges us to look to the Depression for advice on getting by. He recommends the book We Had Everything But Money: Priceless Memories of the Great Depression. He posted excerpts here. -BA

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