Six Immortal Lessons My Depression-Era Parents Taught Me

Mama and Daddy have been gone many years now. I miss them every day. They grew up during America’s “Great Depression” of the 1930’s and were part of what we now call “the Greatest Generation.” Daddy was born in 1924 near Birmingham, Ala. Mama was born in 1928 in Greenville, Miss. From the time I could remember, I knew they were “Depression babies” (as Mama called herself). They didn’t tell me their stories to nag me or to exalt themselves. They just wanted to teach me valuable lessons that books could never tell. And they wanted me to pass these lessons on to my family in due time.

Here are a few things I learned from them:

1. Be frugal.

Not cheap. Not a tightwad. There is a huge difference. My parents taught me that money does not grow on trees, because they grew up poor. My father was probably a lot more poor than my mother; he had only one pair of shoes for the whole year (he wore them in the winter) and his mother made his underwear out of a flour sack a time or two. Mama was more of a “city girl” and actually had indoor plumbing. But her mother made ALL of her dresses and playclothes for her, too. (My mother did not have a store-bought dress until she was a teenager.)

Daddy’s mother became an elementary school teacher at the age of 19, and went to college at night to get her degree so she could continue to be a school teacher. His mother earned the only income for him and his brother and her elderly and sickly parents. (She had divorced her husband at age 19 and was a single parent.) So, you learned how to stretch a dollar. No one “gave” you any money.

My mother’s father drove a truck for the Amour Star Meat Company for years, even though he had a degree from Mississippi State. And sometimes he was a deputy sheriff. Everyone in town loved him and thought highly of him. When he would come home from work, he would take whatever spare change he had in his pocket that day and lay it on the counter.

Mama’s mother had to “make do” with whatever amount of change was on the counter. My mother told me that her mother was a miracle worker. She and her sister marveled that every day at supper time their mother had somehow bought and cooked a meat, a vegetable, and either rice or potatoes for the family. Nobody got fat in either family, but nobody starved either. They learned how to make every penny count, and to waste nothing on frivolous things.

As I was growing up, I would watch Mama actually wash aluminum foil after we used it for something! And she would save all the yogurt cups and fill them with the bacon drippings or chicken fat from her cooking. “Why are you doing THAT, Mama?” “Because, doll baby (that’s what Southern mothers would call their Southern sons) I grew up in the Depression, and we save everything! The bacon grease and chicken fat are good to cook with!”

(Of course some people go overboard with saving everything and become hoarders. My parents had common sense and were not hoarders.)

My mother was a financial wizard just like her mother. I honestly don’t know how she made ends meet on her teacher’s salary. Especially after my father’s dry cleaning business went bankrupt in 1974 (the Vietnam War ended and they temporarily closed the military base which accounted for half our business). Mama was also an excellent seamstress and made a whole bunch of our clothes. And they looked just as good (or better) than anything you’d find in the stores!

Mama and Daddy had to talk themselves INTO buying something for themselves. They were both “savers” and hated to waste money. Daddy would tell me, “Son make the credit card companies work for you, you don’t work for them! Pay off your debt at the end of every month.” Mama taught me to use coupons, watch for sales, and stay out of debt. But you get what you pay for; when you do buy, go for quality.

2. Be generous.

Be frugal on yourself … so you could have enough money to be generous to others in need. Mama was generous with her time and her counsel. Many times I remember her students (she taught high school math for 30 years) over at our house to pick my mother’s brain on various issues of life. She made clothes for people in need.

At my mother’s funeral, I remember one lady who told everyone how Mama made maternity clothes for her when she was an unwed mother. Mama would also send my wife and I “gifts” in the form of a check when we were newly-weds. She would include a note to my wife saying, “Now don’t go pay the bills with this! Go out to eat or go buy yourself a new dress!” She would often write checks to other families in need. Most people never knew this, but I knew.

3. Work hard.

Daddy would often tell me, “Son, do your job and half of someone else’s. Make yourself indispensable. When you get a job, thank God every day you have a job. And make sure the boss is happy they hired you, and sad when you have to leave. And give the boss at least a two-week notice before you leave.” (The idea of simply not showing up or just walking out on a job was unthinkable to my parents!)

When Daddy ran his dry-cleaning business, I would watch him for years leave the house at 6:30 in the morning and not come home until 7 p.m., absolutely exhausted. In later years he was a salesman (he could sell snow to an Eskimo and coax a turtle out of its shell — he had that kind of charm). Daddy would never think of retiring — that was just blasphemous to him. “Son, you work until you die.” (And he did, dying at work of a heart attack, right after he sold a piece of furniture.)

While he was a salesman, he also threw a newspaper in the early morning hours. Daddy loved it! It was not embarrassing to him at all; it was good honest work and he loved the quiet morning hours. What he considered embarrassing was sitting around and looking for a handout.

Mama oftentimes worked three jobs. In the day, she taught at my high school. Twice a week, she went downtown to the night school to teach math to those who wanted to get their GED. And she also worked for H&R Block. She finally did retire, but only because of health reasons.

4. Be ambitious.

My parents highly valued a college education. They were born in a day and age when not that many people had one, and it was viewed as the “ticket” to upward mobility. After World War II, Daddy earned his degree from Auburn University (courtesy of the G.I. Bill), and Mama went to Ole Miss earn her degree in mathematics.

One day when I was 11 years old, I was sitting at the kitchen with my mother and I said, “Mama, what should I become when I grow up?” “Well doll baby, you are always studying World War II and the Civil War, and that’s history, and you love to tell people the stories about what you’ve learned. So, maybe you should become a history teacher!” “Oh. Well, what do I have to do to do that?” “You have to get your Bachelor’s in history from a college.”

“OK, is there anything higher than a Bachelor’s degree?” Mama: “Oh yes! There’s a Master’s degree, and only Uncle Andre’ has ever earned his Master’s degree!” (Uncle Andre’ was the sainted Uncle who seemed to know everything about everything. We almost felt like crossing ourselves whenever his name was mentioned.) “OK Mama, I’ll get a Master’s degree! Anything beyond that?” At this point my mother was so ecstatic at my question she almost became Pentecostal (she was Baptist). “Doll baby, the doctorate is the highest … no one in our family has EVER gotten a doctorate.” “OK Mama! I’ll do it! I’ll be the first! And I’ll do it for you!”

She was very proud and happy when — in May of 2001 — I did indeed earn my Doctor of Ministry degree. (And I dedicated my dissertation to her and Daddy.)

My parents always wanted me to achieve. They did EVERYTHING to encourage me. Whether it was an interest in art or history or karate or drama or the Bible or whatever … they were behind me 100 percent and wanted me to pursue my goals.

5. Love your heritage.

My parents instilled in me a love for my own personal heritage (it is English and French and maybe some Irish thrown in) and my nation’s history. From the first time I could remember, my mother told me stories of her family dating back to the early 1700s. How her French ancestors settled in Louisiana and made their way up the Mississippi River. How her English ancestors and French ancestors fought in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. She made a point to teach me the family tree and to show me all the family antiques that had been passed down through all the wars and hardships. And how it was our turn to take care of them and teach our children who we were.

When I was teenager, we started traveling during the summer. We would not go to amusement parks. My parents wanted to know the history of our country. They were proud of our country and our achievements! Yes, they knew the sordid side too, but they knew this was truly the greatest country on earth, warts and all.

So we went to Gettysburg and Manassas, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, and Jamestown. I’ll never forget the thrill of walking into the National Air and Space Museum for the first time and all three of us just stood in awe and amazement at the Wright Brothers’ flyer and Lindburgh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.” Mama loved Washington D.C., especially the Jefferson Memorial (Thomas Jefferson was her favorite American … Daddy loved Teddy Roosevelt, though). One of the last things my father ever did for us was pay for my wife and I and our little boys to go to Gettysburg (there he was, being generous again).

I can still see Daddy smiling as the boys and I reenacted Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top.

6. Love nature.

No, my parents were not “tree huggers.” But growing up in the Great Depression, you spent a lot of time with nature. One reason is because many people had to grow their own food. When my parents were growing up, their parents had vegetable gardens. These were not luxuries or hobbies. These were for survival. You grow your own food, or you don’t have much to eat later on. And everybody had to pitch in and help with the garden.

So, when I was a kid, Daddy had a beautiful garden. He grew the tomatoes (his favorite food) and okra and peppers (we made an awesome hot sauce with ’em!) and onions and snap beans and pole beans and collards (oh could my parents make the BEST collard greens!!!). Mama had flower gardens and trees. I think she knew the name of every flower and tree on earth.

Daddy’s outdoor love was bird-watching. When you’re a kid growing up in the Great Depression you don’t have store-bought toys; you learn to make your own entertainment. And out in the woods there is much to entertain. All you have to do is look up at the birds, or look down at the flowers. Daddy loved birds; I think he knew the name of every bird in Georgia, and most of the birds throughout the U.S., and often we would go out together with his “field glasses” to go find a new bird we had read about.

Of course my parents were not perfect. They had their flaws like anyone else. But they sure taught me some very valuable lessons that I hope I will never forget. They were great people. And I miss them every day.