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Monday, April 1, 2013

A Single Mother During The Great Depression: My Memaw

My mother's father was shot in 1920, six months before my mother was born. My grandmother was left with a three-year-old girl, a five-year-old boy, and a baby yet to be born (my mother).  The year before, my grandmother had a four-month-old boy die.

When my grandfather was killed, my grandmother moved in with her mother, "Maw," as my mother called her own grandmother. Maw lived on the "Old Home Place," ninety acres that her grandfather had bought when he came over the mountains from North Carolina into Mississippi. (By the way, my great-grandmother was a college-educated woman.) My pregnant grandmother had security and a place in the fabric of the times.

So, there were two women (one pregnant), two toddlers, and a farm, all alone. As it turned out, their security was short-lived. My grandmother's sister married a horrid, violent man who managed to cheat my ggmother out of the property on which she had lived all her life, all they had in this world. By this time, the five-year-old boy was a teen, helpless against a ruthless man.

Mama told me with much bitterness, sorrow, and shame of seeing her teen brother guiding the plow while her mother pulled it... like a mule. Her eyes filled with tears and her chin trembled because of this painful childhood memory. I was a teen when she told me. Later, I learned as an adult that my uncle, aunt, and my mother laid all the problems squarely at the feet of their uncle who took over the property and put them off the land.

When Mama wanted a short coat, my grandmother showed her how to shorten a long coat. When Mama needed a new dress in high school, my grandmother went to a store in a larger town and asked for credit, something not done in that time, not for a store bought dress. The store owner was a lifelong friend of my grandmother. Mama got her dress and my grandmother sewed for people to pay the store owner. My grandmother could sew, but Mama was probably like many young girls, wanted a new, store-bought dress to wear for a fancy occasion. Besides, I remember it was something my grandmother could not make, maybe a sweater knit.

When Mama was in school, her mother worked at the school cafeteria. The school or the cafeteria allowed my grandmother (Memaw) to take food home that was cooked and not served that day. Mama said that there were days that was all they had to eat at home for their dinner. "I don't know what we would have done if she could not have brought home food." By this time, they were off their ninety acres of land and my great-grandmother had died. The widow was alone.

Mama, with pride in her voice, told me that the only thing they ever took from the government was one pair of shoes. They had it hard, she said; they were not poor, she said. They managed. I took this conversation with my mother at face value, but now, almost sixty-years later, I wonder. Maybe Mama did not want a young child, me, to worry and fear the past might reassert itself.

Mama's sister, my aunt, said everyone was poor, and they were poor before the Depression, so it was sort of a nothing event to them. My aunt said they suffered no more when the Depression hit. It's funny how two daughters raised four years apart in the same home could view such a watershed event and come to different conclusions.

My grandmother never remarried. I often wonder why. Mama played it like devotion to her own father. Maybe that is a child's fantasy held onto into adulthood. It is possible the security of my ggmother's home made it unnecessary to find a husband. Plus, her own mother was getting old enough to need someone with her since my ggmother's own husband was dead.

They always had a cow to milk and chickens for eggs and meat. They raised some food, not sure what. Of course, they had an outhouse. They heated and cooked with wood. Mama told me about going to the spring for water and being bitten by a Water Moccasin, also called a Cottonmouth.

Since I am older and single, I think about the fact that my grandmother and great grandmother did not have utility bills or rent/mortgage to be paid every month. They did not even have a reliable car for many years after the father was shot. Will I be able to survive?

My uncle volunteered during WWII, leaving three women to fend for themselves. However, when he went to boot camp, he returned with one of the last new cars manufactured until after the war. He had gone to boot camp and returned with a pocketful of money and surprised my grandmother. He wanted them to have a safe car with no repair problems while he was gone to Germany and could not help them.

A few years ago, I talked to my cousin, the son of my uncle in WWII.

"How did he manage to afford a new car?"

My cousin knew. "He gambled."

What did he play?

"Craps and poker."

"Did he cheat?!"

"Of course, he did!"

Okay, now, no tsk-tsk from anyone. My uncle provided for his mother when he was still a boy/young man going off to war. Since he would be gone for four years, he could not be available for car repair or even advice. He did not trust anyone to help his mother.

This story extended a bit beyond the Depression, but it was my grandmother's hard life. My mother joined the WACs (Women's Army Corp) and my uncle joined the Army. Both sent money home to their mother. My uncle cared for his mother the rest of her life, along with some help from my mother and aunt.

I don't think a single, older woman like myself with no support system will fare as well as she did as things get harder now.

Your turn
Do you have tales of single mothers during the Great Depression? How do you think a single, older woman today would fare in the future.


  1. My great grandmother Matilda Jane, lost her husband suddenly and was thrust out to work to support her young son and daughter. She sent my grandmother to live with an aunt and uncle and her son to live with relatives nearby. When she remarried, she brought her son home, but thought that my grandmother was doing well with the surly aunt and uncle. My grandmother married, had a son, and then divorced her husband when no one else did, and moved across the country with her son, in time for the Depression. During this time, she married my grandfather and had my father. Her husband, a civil engineer did not work at all during the Depression, although she did. Much of what I know about how to live I learned from her, and from my father. Interestingly, I share a number of her medical problems, as well.
    How do I feel a single older woman would fare in hard times ? Generally better than a woman supporting a husband or children who do not or cannot work. Many of them have economizing to a science, and I'll bet you do too.

  2. Jane,
    That is an interesting story. Divorce was highly in that time. I would never support a husband who would not work. Being single would be better. I do have economizing down to a science. Still...two is better in my mind.

    That is interesting that you share medical problems with your grandmother. Maybe you can share all about that, either here or on your blog.

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  4. That was an amazing, inspirational story. Now I know where your strength comes from.

  5. Anon,
    Thanks for the great compliment. I think I am tired of being strong! But, I do understand. Mentally, I am strong.


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