Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 275th story of Our Life Logs |
At 100 years old, I’ve roamed the earth longer than many. I watched the Prohibition, Elvis Presley, and over a dozen presidents come and go. I’ve lived through The Great Depression, World War II, the assassination of John F. Kennedy—the list goes on and on. With this much time on earth, I’ve faced a lot of hardships, but if I’ve learned anything these last 10 decades, it’s that hardships are inevitable. Letting it break our spirit, however, is optional.
I was born in the small city of Rock Island, Illinois in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I. Coming from a large, poor family, I was the third of eight children. When I was three years old, we moved to Detroit, Michigan in hopes of a better life. Back then, nearly every product was horse-drawn, and I was a curious child that liked to explore the alley near our home. Sometimes, I could see the horses getting loaded up with milk to deliver.
Unfortunately, life wasn’t better for my family in Detroit. The Purple Gang, well-known thugs who made and sold alcohol during the Prohibition infested our neighborhood. One day, the gang kidnapped my father and threatened him, saying if he didn’t donate our home for their headquarters, he’d kill us all. We were terrified. Thankfully, my father was able to escape, but still, our house was taken over by the gang. After that, my father moved us to a smaller, safer town called Spring Arbor in Michigan.
The Great Depression hit by the time I was 10, keeping families all over the country from finding work or enough food to live. My father worked hard to keep us afloat. During the day, he would farm corn, wheat, or beans. He would then walk to the mill and have it all ground into flour or cereal. Fortunately, my father worked for a very understanding gentleman, who divided the work up between his many workers when The Great Depression came.
But with the little work he received, we still struggled, and so did many of the men he worked beside. One day, my father came home shaken up, because a man had died from starvation at his machine. When they opened his lunch box, they found only a potato peel. This was the reality of that time. People tried to get by on almost nothing, and sometimes it killed them. That was the cruelty many families faced.
To help our family, my brothers would walk the railroad tracks and pick up coal that hobos riding the carts would throw down. We used that coal to heat our home. My mother made all our clothes, but sometimes she’d have to unravel old clothes to make new ones because we couldn’t afford cloth. In the winter, we ate canned food of berries and other fruit that we had picked and preserved when they were in season. If we didn’t have our cow, chickens, and garden before the depression hit, we likely would have starved.
By high school, I had found a love for teaching, but I knew my family couldn’t afford to send me. Throughout the school years, I just helped our family make money. After class every day and on weekends, I swept floors, washed dishes, and did general kitchen work at a boarding house. I made 15 cents an hour. What can you get for 15 cents today? Maybe a piece of candy if you’re lucky. But back then, 15 cents could get you a loaf of bread, a movie ticket, or even a pack of three donuts. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to help us get by.
Just as it felt we’d gained our financial footing, my father died of pneumonia when I was 17. My mother was left alone to provide for the family, which was impossible since she didn’t have a job and she had young children to tend to. She had no choice but to depend on government aid, to feed herself and her children. I was determined to help ease the pressure off my mother, so I got a job at a radio factory when I turned 18. Once I was making a steady income, my mother’s state aid was dropped. For a few months, it felt like we’d find a way to survive. Then, I got laid off from work, unsurprisingly given that it was 1937, but losing the job still shook me to my core. How were we supposed to survive now?
I thought about college. I wouldn’t be able to work, but I could secure a better job if I had a certification to become a teacher. I’d always loved learning and had fond memories of teaching my younger siblings things when we were little. My mother agreed that going to college would be the best thing for the family, even if it meant we were hanging on the thinnest thread we’d ever had. My other siblings helped carry the weight while I finished my schooling. My first teaching job allowed me to pay the mortgage of my family’s house and get us back on our feet. A warm sense of pride filled my heart.
After I felt better about my family’s financial state, I started spending more time enjoying my youth. World War II had just begun, and young adults were making the most of their days, never knowing if their brother, friend, or father would get drafted. I’d often grab a pop with my girlfriends at a local eatery or go see a movie. It was from one of those movie outings that I met my husband, Elry. He was my friend’s brother, and the most handsome man I’d ever seen. After a few dates, I realized I loved everything about him, and knew I wanted to marry him.
Five months after meeting, we got married on October 18, 1941. With the war well underway, Elry was drafted to serve in the Air Force shortly after our wedding. I moved with him to the air base, quitting my teaching job. Then came our eldest child, Marvin in 1944, followed by our second, Barbara in 1946. I found a job on the base working with a telephone company, and when I had the chance, I was substituting to help provide for our family. It wasn’t all easy, but the hard work pulled us through the difficult times, and we stayed strong as a family.
Not long after Barbara was born and the war was over, Elry was discharged from the Air Force. By 1951, our family had grown and we had two more daughters. To properly care for them, I quit my job and stayed home while my husband worked two jobs. The country was experiencing a massive economic boom, which helped us put money aside for a house. We saved and saved and saved, and after a year and three months, we bought our first home.
Though, calling it a house might be an overstatement. We had no running water, the bathroom was outside, and it was heated with powdered coal (the dirtiest fuel made). Despite the boom around us, life was still hard. On top of that, Elry was hospitalized soon after we bought our home. I had no choice but to step in and go back to work to help us hang on.
After my husband recovered, I continued working because I loved it too much to quit again. Slowly, but surely, our life improved. I went on to have a thirty-year teaching career, and my husband and I both retired in 1979. Over the next decade we took trips together and enjoyed each other’s company until he unfortunately passed from heart failure in 1990. After Elry’s passing, I moved in with my eldest daughter, Barbara, with whom I still reside today.
There are days when I sit outside and look back on everything I’ve lived through. What I’ve come to see in my old age is that all the hardships I endured over the many decades were all worth it. I learned valuable lessons and the importance of hard work because of what I endured. The memories I made, good and bad, have morphed me into the strong-willed person I am today. If I had to credit anything for my long life, it would be my faith in God. Him and the duty to family is what got me through. I have been blessed to live a long life, allowing me the joy of seeing my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren grow up. It was all possible because of my determination to fight past the hard times to reach the good.