Wednesday, February 24, 2016

How My Grandparents Survived THE Depression and the Silver Lining

The Great Depression happened when the stock market crashed in October 1929. From then until WWII the economy was depressed. There were emergencies like bank failures, heavy unemployment, business stagnation, decline in farm income, and more. My mother and her parents, that is, my grandparents, were hit hard. I heard some stories from my Gramma Lucas and my mother throughout my youth about the effects the Depression had on them. What they didn't talk about I surmised.

Gramma and Grampa Lucas owned two homes before the crash. The one on Kolmar was where they lived. They owned another home, which they rented out, in the Edison Park neighborhood. My mother, oldest of three children, would have been 11 in 1929. Uncle Ed was a year or so younger, while Uncle Jim was a little guy, maybe 3 years of age.

Life was reasonably good for Gramma and Grampa Lucas before the crash, all things considered. Neither had much formal education. Gramma, who was from a family with 11 children, went only to the 3rd grade in school. But she always told me she went to "the school of hard knocks."

I have no idea about Grampa's educational attainment. Grampa died when I was 6 months old, so I never really knew him. But I do know that he and my great Aunt Nora were sent to live in an orphanage because their parents were too poor to support them. This would have been around the turn of the century. Orphanages were not nice places to live then, and I don't know the duration of their stay. I knew Aunt Nora very well. She lived two blocks from our house and she visited Gramma Lucas frequently and vice-versa.

Gramma Lucas' parents died before all the children in the family were grown. Gramma took on the maternal role in the home, cooking, cleaning and raising her younger brothers and sisters, while the boys old enough went out to work or already had jobs to help put food on the table. To hear Gramma tell it, being the surrogate mother was hard work for her. She was at an age that she might have preferred to socialize with young people her age. Gramma was definitely a fun-loving person. One thing I noted when I was little is that Gramma was well-loved by her siblings, in particular Uncle Matt and Uncle Patty. Uncle Patty visited often. Uncle Matt actually lived upstairs with Gramma during his final years.

But despite such disadvantages Gramma and Grampa worked hard and made some sensible decisions. Grampa Lucas, according to my mother, was a mild-mannered, quiet and very kind man. I could tell she was very fond of him. He worked in construction until he developed heart problems. Then he became a bridge-tender, a less physical type of work.

Like all families my mother's family struggled when the depression hit. I don't know the exact time line for when all the following events happened. Grampa Lucas, a city worker, eventually lost his job. Unable to make the mortgage payments on both homes, they lost the one in Edison Park. Maybe it was foreclosed. Maybe they were able to sell it. I know this was a huge disappoint for them as I heard this story told many times in my childhood. They didn't want to lose the house on Kolmar. The solution seemed to be to rent out both flats and use the income to make the mortgage payments. But where would they live?

Uncle Bill Lawler came to the rescue. Who was Uncle Bill? He was the youngest of Gramma Lucas' siblings. He is an example of how family helps one another. The older siblings didn't have much education, but they pooled their resources to get Uncle Bill an education. Uncle Bill not only completed high school, he went to college with his family's support and of course with his own efforts.

Uncle Bill was a scientist and among the first chemists hired to work at The Johnson Wax facility in Racine, Wisconsin. (I think it's now called S.C. Johnson.) He developed one of the formulas for the wax. Needless to say he was doing well and apparently was not too negatively affected by the depression. Uncle Bill invited my grandparents and the whole family to come and live with him and his wife Aunt Irene and their children. By this time I believe that my mother was out of high school. So this move may have happened the summer after she graduated from Alvernia, the mid 1930s.

Through Uncle Bill's infuence my grandfather got a job working at Johnson Wax. In addition there was income from the house on Kolmar.

I know that the Racine years were, for my mother, very happy years. Mother met a lot of people whom she liked. One woman who influenced her was a professional golfer, and she taught that sport to my mother. Mother also played tennis. She made a lot of friends and did things that for her were fun.

More important Aunt Irene and Uncle Bill were very kind to my mother and took a great interest in her. Both of them recognized qualities of intelligence and interest in learning. Mother was an avid reader. So Uncle Bill encouraged mother to go to college and he helped her get in to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I think that was his alma mater. Mother did go to the University and majored in English literature and minored in chemistry. Mother worked in chemistry after college.
My mother, Mary Alice, working in a lab.

Gramma and Grampa were eventually able to return to Chicago with Uncle Ed and Jim. The house on Kolmar remained in the family. Mother bought the house from her brothers after Gramma Lucas died. She sold the house to my cousin Danny Lucas, and he lives there now.

When I think of how everything turned out well for my grandparents and mother, it inspires me to believe all will be well and that we will survive this current economic crisis in our country. It may take a long time. There may be disappointments, sacrifices, and surprises. But we will survive. And, yes, all WILL be well!!!

Top: Our Family Home on Kolmar c. 1940s.

Middle: My Grandparents, Mary and Michael Lucas, c. mid 1940s, about a year before Grampa died.

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