STORIES OF THE DEPRESSION #3

When I asked my daddy to tell me some stories about growing up in Kentucky during the 1930s, I asked him to include details about the games he played as a child, what he did for fun.

Family Legacies
Willie and Veda Johnson, my grandparents

(See previous stories in this series under Family Legacies)

FAMILY LIFE AND ENTERTAINMENT

“Mama always had a piano of some kind, never a real good one. Daddy never went to church with us, but he would sing with us. After supper was over on winter nights he’d holler, “Veedy, let’s play the piano.” She could play the piano by ear, and Daddy played the guitar and the violin. He didn’t play often, but he also had a beautiful bass voice.  During long winter nights we’d gather around that piano; we’d get us a song book, the paper-back books from V.O. Stamps and James Vaughn. That’s the way we entertained ourselves, especially in the winter.”

Editorial note: I remember visiting Grandma Johnson in Paducah, usually on summer vacations, and she nearly always had an old pump organ to play. When I was growing up, Mama and Daddy found a way to borrow and eventually buy a used piano for me. Once I learned to read music, I’d play the hymns from those brown paper-back books that Daddy sang from as a kid. We’d often sing together as a family. I learned to sing alto playing those old gospel songs, and we eventually had all the parts – like the old song: “Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor”. In our case, Mama sang soprano, Daddy and Steve sang bass, I sang alto and eventually David was old enough to sing tenor. Paul was still young enough to sing soprano. Those song books have now been passed down to David, the real musician in the family.

“In the summer there was no entertainment because we were so tired at night. We just wanted to go to bed; I don’t remember playing games. John Andy (younger brother) and I would play in the barns in the summertime. We invented with whatever we had at hand. All we ever thought about was work because there was always something to be done.

We lived about a mile from a Methodist church; that was the closest church to us at the time. When Sundays came as far, as Mama was concerned, it was time for church. I remember when G.L., the oldest of the four children, was in his teens, he didn’t want to go to church, and Mama didn’t make him. She always played the piano at that Methodist church. By the time I was ten or eleven I was singing in the choir. I always wondered if I was really a bona fide member of the choir or if she had me where she could keep an eye on me to see that I was behaving!

The closest store to us was also about a mile away — just an old country grocery store. Paducah was 8 miles away. Sometime around 1937 we got our first vehicle, a Ford pickup truck, painted red. I shall never forget it. It was the most beautiful truck — the greatest truck ever was! We thought we had really gotten somewhere when we got that truck.

Seemed like our house always had a bunch of people living together. Papa Phipps, Mama’s daddy, lived with us as long as I can remember; Mama took care of him long after all the kids were grown with families of our own. My older sister married very young, and she and her husband lived with us for many years. Then before long there’d be some other relative who was down on their luck, and they’d move in. When we sat down to the table to eat, we could count on the six of us, Papa Phipps, and whoever else was living with us at the time. I guess that’s why I still like big family gatherings.

Grandma (Veda) Johnson in dark dress, her daughter, Arnetta, holding flowers, Grandma’s sisters, and mother

Even though we were poor, I never felt more secure anywhere. I don’t know how old I was, but I vaguely remember one house that was very open. In winter time Mama would put up quilts and newspaper to close the cracks in the walls; paper was stuffed into cracks in the floor as well. But we always managed to wear enough clothes to stay warm. Most of these years were the Depression years, felt for most of the 1930s. There were the times I heard the older people talking about folks losing their farms and land and how sad it was. We didn’t lose anything because we didn’t have anything. 

I remember in World War II my older brother, G.L., had to register for the draft. He had to go get his physical, so they transported him to Louisville. The night he returned we picked him up in Paducah; the first thing he said when he got in the truck was, ‘I report for duty on Aug. 8.’ This was probably around 1942. After GL left for the army, the country was swept up with new factories that made munitions. That’s when Daddy decided to quit farming and start working in an ammunition plant.We soon left the farm life for good.“

John Andy, Willie, Arnetta, G.L. Johnson

The legacy of family stories leaves an imprint on us that shapes our values, our beliefs, our insights, sometimes even our response to tragedy or disasters. Daddy’s stories of hard work and ‘making do’ continue to influence me.

Family stories this Thanksgiving included one about me that “the boys” (my three brothers) love to laugh about. After graduation from college out in Oklahoma, Daddy packed up all my stuff in the family car. No doubt he was out of room for “one more thing”, when I came out of the dorm with an armful of wire coat hangers. He just grabbed them and stuffed every one of them into the nearest trash can. I couldn’t believe it! They were still good hangers! I always hate to throw things away – I blame that on their legacy of frugality! But Daddy was able to move beyond those memories of the Depression when it came to coat hangers. Lucky for me, my brothers love to retell that story!

Counting these blessings from my Family Legacies:

  • 3250. the love of church hymns from Stamps-Baxter
  • 3251. piano lessons when I was a child
  • 3252. parents who scraped enough money together to buy a piano when I was in high school
  • 3253. family singing together around the piano
  • 3254. one of the strongest women I ever knew, Veda Johnson, a grandmother who quilted, sewed, cooked, canned, washed clothes by hand, fed her family plus others, cared for her father for years and years, faithfully went to church every Sunday and sang a strong alto as she played the piano by ear

JoyMartell

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