Last year at this time I lost a night of sleep after my children grumbled about what they thought was a paltry Christmas. My 11-year-old son, for example, was irked that his younger sister got a slightly nicer cellphone than his. In the midst of a global recession that caused some families in our neighborhood to lose their homes to bank foreclosure, I felt my kids needed a better understanding of what was going on in the world and to temper their unseemly sense of entitlement to the latest $60 videogames, $10 first-run movie tickets and the latest stuff they see advertised on tv.
Following last Christmas, I arranged for them to make two phone calls. The first one to their 89-year-old great-grandfather in Denver and ask him about what Christmas was like for him in 1932 during the Great Depression. Then they talked to the local power company and got some stats on the number of families in and around our zip code who were having a cold, dark Christmas because they could not afford to pay their electric bill. They were instructed to ask questions and write down the answers. In the end, they actually kind of enjoyed the exercise, learned something, and understood why Daddy was making them do it. But would it stick with them? I didn’t know.
This is the second and third conversations between my 11, 10, and 8 year old children and their 89-year old great-grandpa about life during the Great Depression. In these episodes, the kids learn about trying to drown a rat that infested the house, an aborted 2,000-mile hitchhike to California, and picking onions in Moline, Iowa.
Tonight I sat down with the three older kids and read through 15 days worth of my grandfather’s journals from 1936 when he was 15 years old. Several things stuck out to the kids:
Their great-grandfather (my grandfather) drove his dad to his job as a janitor every day, including Saturdays and Sundays. They noted that Gramps often helped his Dad mop floors and empty trash during his Dad’s night shift, and then would go to school.
We also noticed that Gramps was only 15 when he was driving the family car. (Gramps would tell us that in fact he started driving a delivery truck in Iowa at about age 13.)
Gramps and his brother and sisters went to the movies 3-4 times a week. When I asked the kids to speculate why so often, Kien-Tam gave the right answer: “There was nothing else to do.”
The kids noted that Gramps often showered at the bank where his dad worked as a janitor. They speculated correctly that Gramps didn’t have a shower at home. They only had a wash basin and an outside toilet.
We compiled a list of six questions to ask Gramps and decided to give him a call in Denver. The kids did much of the talking, and Gramps gave his trademark detailed and funny answers. I tape recorded the conversation, which includes interesting stories about the time his mother found a turd in the wash basin and forced Gramps to bath in the dirty water, how he used to sneak into movie theaters, and what happened when Gramps’ father asked for a day off.
Here’s the taped phone conversation, just press the gray triangle on the button below:
One of my most-read posts at Rain Racer deals with the time I had my children talk on the telephone to their 89-year-old great-grandfather about what Christmas was like for him when he was 11-years old in 1931. His stories about growing up dirt poor in Davenport, Iowa during the Great Depression made an impression on them. He told them about how his father worked as a janitor and got only one day off of work per month. The family couldn’t afford to buy a Christmas tree and one Christmas when he was my kids’ age, he got from his parents a single orange.
With that in mind, I want to try out a new, regular feature at the Rain Racer in which my 2009 kids read through dusty old journals about life in the 1930s.
I first came up with this idea about two years ago. At that time, I pulled out their great-grandfather’s childhood journals from the 1930s which we have on the bookshelf. The journals are 183 pages long and cover exactly one year in my grandfather’s life. Each page covers two days and each daily entry has room for only a single paragraph. Every entry is, of course, handwritten. The binding is taped together and some of the pages fell out and have been stuffed back in. There are stories about the time my grandfather lost his ice skate in the river. Another time, he wrote about how his mother yelled at him to stop playing with the colored kids.
Here’s a sample entry I pulled at random:
June 3, 1936 — This eve I rode out to Bettendorf on my bike to see Carl. My poster I made for Centennial Contest won first prize over all the high school. It will be enlarged and put on a billboard.
I am going to start again reading a few entries a day to my kids before bed time and recording their reactions. It might be boring and elicit no real insightful reaction. Then again, sometimes the days when little or nothing happens might spark an interesting discussion. In any case, I am going to record the reactions of my three older children age 11, 10, and 8 at this blog and see what comes of it all. I will update the blog when something of note happens. And hopefully we will persist and finish the journal from 1936 and my kids will learn something about how one of their relatives lived more than seven decades ago, and we blog readers might find something of interest, humor, or nostalgia to brighten our day.
This is the report my 8-year-old wrote about her conversation with her 88-year-old great-grandfather about what the holidays were like for him during the Great Depression.
It really bothers me when my children simply assume they can have all the newest video games, see all the first-run movies, and buy toys they see advertised on Cartoon Network. Two years ago at Christmas time, I actually felt embarrassed at the obscenely large heap of opened boxes, crumpled wrapping paper and bows at the end of our driveway. The next year with the economy souring and millions of Americans losing their jobs, my wife and I informed the kids that Christmas, 2008 would be scaled back. Still on Christmas morning I heard some grumbling coming from their little mouths. That night I tossed and turned trying to figure out how to give my kids a much-needed dose of perspective and a greater ability to see a bigger picture. It cost me several hours of sleep but I managed to formulate a plan and — finally — to fall asleep. (more…)