She is 92 years old and she has seen everything. Today she lives in an upscale nursing facility. I called her this morning for a brief phone interview and after a few moments of conversation, I realized this old woman really had seen everything.
She was born the same year the Great Depression began. She experienced hard times, world war, the death of children, abject poverty, prohibition.
I asked how her family got through such difficult years. She laughed and said, “We just kept telling ourselves that good times were around the corner.”
Good times. Ironically, one year ago today I was wondering what would become of America’s good times. Because at exactly this time last year I was standing in a rural Mississippi gas station when first I saw a newspaper bearing the headline “COVID-19.”
I had never seen this term before. I remember feeling a sudden chill sweep over me when I saw the word “EPIDEMIC” printed in huge letters.
When I reached the cashier she was wearing a surgical mask and gloves. I’d never known anyone to dress this way except for maybe Michael Jackson.
Within the following weeks the whole world shut down, everyone was socially distant, TV news channels were delivering round-the-clock updates on the unfolding toilet paper crisis.
“This pandemic is a lot like the Depression,” says the old woman. “All this uncertainty, all the fear in the air. Brings back a lotta bad memories.”
Of course, she’s not suggesting that the pandemic is on the same scale as the Depression. No way. Our ancestors suffered in ways that we could never understand. We are a fortunate generation, we can order instant takeout via smartphone apps. During the Depression, families were so hungry they resorted to eating shoe leather.
I once heard an elderly man say that his family survived on ketchup and creek-water soup.
I have interviewed dozens of Depression survivors. The stories our ancestors could tell would turn most grown men into puddles. There is no doubt that what our forebears endured makes our pandemic look like a day at Magic Kingdom.
But I’ve noticed something else during these interviews: few survivors can recall exactly when the Depression officially ended.
I find this astounding. Especially since most survivors can remember precisely when the Depression began, who was President, where they lived, what grade they were in. But they can’t remember the end?
The reason, I guess, is because the Depression didn’t end all at once. Even though America’s Hard Times were officially over in ‘39, it’s laughable to think everything went back to being hunky-dory. People were still starving. The world was still a mess. And only two years later the U.S. entered a war that would kill 75 million.
So why am I telling you this? Why the boring ninth-grade history review? Because here’s the thing, eventually the Great Depression DID end. And so will this pandemic.
For those who endured the Great Depression, life got a LOT better during the 1950s. Any elderly survivor will tell you the ‘50s were a sacred decade of backyard barbecues, neighborhood cocktail parties, front yard croquet, Jackie Gleason, whiskey sours, all-American road trips, and Perry Como.
Compared to the previous decades, the 1950s were pants-off-dance-off. The war was over. Jobs were everywhere. Businesses were flourishing. Young couples were popping out babies like broken slot machines. There were 4.3 million U.S. births in 1957 alone—a record breaking year for America.
People were glad to be normal again. Young folks were getting married right and left. For crying out loud, nearly 80 percent of American households were married couples (today only 48 percent of Americans are married).
And Lord, the cars. Average Americans were buying new cars like crazy in the ‘50s. The whole nation went nuts over automobiles. A total of 58 million cars were cranked out by the end of the decade.
Amazingly, in case you forgot what my point was, all the marvelous things I just described happened directly AFTER the worst disasters in the industrialized world.
So what does this mean for you and me? It means that we have survived a lot within these last 365 days. And it’s not over. These are our Hard Times. This is our big test.
I’ve known people who lost everything. I have friends who died. I know too many who have lost jobs, homes, businesses, their mental health, and money. This has been the most difficult period in my own personal history.
But just look at us. We are still here. We have survived this godawful year, and we will survive the other years too. We still have each other. And we can still fog up a mirror.
Someday, years from now, long after this mess is over, you will be older, with a head of white, maybe living in a nursing facility. Maybe one day some young writer will call you and ask for an interview. Maybe you’ll oblige him, answer the phone, humor him, and listen to his questions graciously.
And when you hear the uncertainty in his voice, and the twinges of fear, you will gently remind this young man that no matter how bad things look, good times truly are around the corner.
You will say this to him with conviction, not because you are hopeful. But because you are 92 years old.
And you really have seen everything.