Remembering Courage Strength and Love- Linda Knight Seccaspina
By the 1930’s 90% of the urban population was dependent on a wage or salary, and most families you knew lived on the edge. Living in the city meant reliance on a male family member with a job to stay alive, and if you lived on the farm you counted on what you grew to feed everyone.
As a child, my Grandmother used to tell me all sorts of stories about the Depression. Each morning she made sandwiches for the hungry people knocking on her door, and her weathered screened verandah sometimes became a shelter for homeless people during rainy nights. The train station was just a few blocks down from where they lived on South Street in Cowansville, and those that rode the freight trains would get off daily to see if they could find work or food.
I was always told that we had a hobo mark on our side door, and Grammy Knight would also take in needy families until they got on their feet. Grampy once said that he never knew who would be sitting across from him nightly at the dinner table. Each time my Grandmother asked him to go to the grocery store to get another loaf of bread for someone in need he went without complaining.
One day Grammy hired a young homeless woman named Gladys who worked for her until she died. I was barely eight years old when Gladys passed, but I still remember her like yesterday. Gladys was an odd looking woman who tried to hide her chain smoking habit from my Grandmother. The manly-looking woman would talk up a storm while she cleaned with stories that young ears should have never heard– but I always did.
Gladys would tell me all about her days during the depression as a teenager, where she would hide along the tracks outside the train yards. She would run as fast as she could along the train as it gained speed and grab hold and jump into the open boxcars. Sometimes, she missed, and sometimes she watched some of her friends lose their legs, or their lives, as they jumped off as the train was reaching its destination.
There was nothing left at home for her during those horrible years of the Depression. One Sunday they were without money for the church collection plate and under one of the old rugs they finally found a dime which they proudly placed on the collection plate.
There were just too many mouths to feed and Gladys knew she wasn’t going anywhere if she remained at home. So she just rode the rails as it was free and she knew she would find food somewhere, which was more than she was going to do at home. She cut her hair, wore overalls and a cap, and survived life on the road until my Grandmother hired her.
Gladys ended up dying in her sleep in ‘the back room’ of my Grandparents home. After she died, my Grandmother promptly labelled it ‘Gladys’s room’. When I was older and came home on weekends, that very same room was where I slept. You have no idea how many times I thought I saw Gladys in the dark shadows scurrying around with her feather duster, and yes, still chain smoking.
When I was older my Grandparents would make a simple dinner for themselves. My Grandfather would cut up tomatoes, add mayo like a dressing with salt and pepper. While I watched him eat, I would say, “is that all you’re having !!?? He would reply to me,
“I’m from a time when you looked in the icebox and you put together what was in there and that’s what you had. Remember that “my birdie” … it isn’t always right there for you when you get home . Money was scarce and we had to survive on what we grew in the garden. We learned to use everything and had no waste”.
My Grandparents taught me a lot about life. I never thought I would be my Grandmother, but here I am now. They taught me to count my blessings, not my troubles, and to “show up” for people. Your ancestors that lived through those times were brave and they never judged a book by its cover. You just never know as they say, the things you take for granted might be something others are praying for.