Recently, I heard two pieces on the radio that resonated with me for completely different reasons. Interestingly enough, both of them had something to do with our floundering economy.
Eleanor Beardsley, foreign correspondent for NPR, filed a report entitled “Europe Balks at Helping US Dig Out of Fiscal Hole”. The leaders and newspapers she cited showed little sympathy for our vast economic disarray. They roundly chastised Wall Street for its unchecked greed, which they find morally repugnant. In their view, payback is both overdue and well deserved.
Wall Street first reaped and enjoyed huge rewards for itself, and then, when the bottom fell out, spread its losses across the globe, threatening a domino effect on foreign economies. What ever happened to the concept of America, the good neighbor? German Chancellor Angela Merkel had proposed tighter regulation and more transparency in our economic affairs. Their own policy of governmental involvement coupled with more regulation has been vindicated by our precipitous downfall amid their own relative stability. I can clearly picture that collective smirk.
I was also struck by Dick Gordon’s interview with Mary Jane Young, who was born one year before the stock crash of 1929 (“The Story” from American Public Media, September 22, 2008). She tells how her Rochester, New York family went from comfortable circumstances to homelessness, virtually overnight. At age 5, she looked on as all their worldly possessions were auctioned off. She and her parents walked away with only the clothes they wore and Mary Jane’s pink piggy bank, smuggled out beneath her coat. That little bank would play a big role in their new life, buying them a week’s worth of bread and sandwich meat.
For the next six months, the three of them lived in a park not far from their old neighborhood. She and her mother spent the days window-shopping if the weather was good, or hanging out in a nearby church until closing time, if it was cold or rainy. The toughest part, she recalls, was trying to keep clean. If they could spare the 18 cents for a ticket, they would hang out all day at the movies and wash up in the theatre’s restroom. In all, they spent seven years either homeless or in truly deplorable housing. In time, they graduated from that park bench to a back porch in a long-abandoned apartment building. This upgrade had plenty of rats but no heating, electricity, or plumbing. It was there that Mary Jane’s little sister was born and almost died soon after, from a high fever. The doctor performed a blood transfusion in that drafty, rat-infested “apartment”. Luckily, it did the trick and the baby survived.
While the details of Mary Jane’s life are grim, her tone in recounting them is surprisingly upbeat – without a hint of self-pity. She recalls her childhood with humor and great affection. She marvels at how her mother made a game out of everything – living in the park was Camping, washing up in the fountain Fun, hanging out all day at the movies, an Adventure. Her parents often went hungry but made sure that she and her sister always had something to eat. Mary Jane was greatly affected by her childhood experiences. As an adult, she takes nothing for granted; she makes sure that she always has enough food in the house. And she maintains good relationships with others because, as she learned the hard way, we all need one another. When Gordon asked what was the hardest thing to leave behind the day of their eviction, she immediately mentioned her sense of security. Her only moment of terror during that long, dark period was when they visited a convent and she mistakenly thought that her parents were arranging to give her up. As long as the family stuck together, she felt loved and could remain hopeful.
This poignant story struck a chord with me on numerous levels. Mary Jane’s experiences during the Great Depression have so many echoes today. We have foreclosures and evictions – a million this year. Then, there is the proposed $700 billion Wall Street bailout. While, thankfully, there are no stories of businessmen jumping out of office windows yet, there is a huge well of despair out there. As a mother, my heart ached for that youngster clutching her pink piggy bank, her dreams tattered but miraculously intact.
Hats off to Mary Jane’s mom for keeping her cool during those difficult years. Nowadays, I often find myself overwhelmed by stress. I find her mother’s behavior astounding. Mary Jane lovingly recalls the make-believe games they played, the songs and lullabies her mother sang to her. She is able to recount with humor her own attempts to creatively stretch her two outfits by constantly mixing and matching the sweaters and skirts. Despite the deprivation, hunger and uncertainty, her mother's spirits never flagged. And through sheer force of will, she was able to create a cocoon of love and stability that allowed her young children to weather this stormy period. What a daunting task! And yet Mary Jane is the undeniable proof of her mother’s success.
This family proved to be resourceful and optimistic. Dick Gordon asks Mary Jane whether she feels cheated of her childhood. Mary Jane insists, on the contrary, that she feels very lucky. And, listening to her story, I found myself agreeing with her.
I see a connection between these two very different stories. We as individuals often find ourselves powerless in the face of larger forces – the economy, war, politics, ill health, bureaucracy, governmental indifference, or extreme weather conditions. What makes all the difference is how we meet these challenges. No matter what happens with Treasury Secretary Paulson’s proposal, we as a nation face an uncertain future. We will have to reach inside ourselves for strength. Mary Jane’s mother provides an excellent role model for grace in adversity. What we learn from her example could prove extremely useful in the days and years to come.