Images Showing Pride and Resilience

My mother told family lore, illustrated by family photographs stored in an old cardboard suitcase. Covered in worn brown fabric with stripes of gold and dark brown, it contained family photos ranging from the late 1800s through the Great Depression, World War II, and finally the 1950s. Mom told the best stories from her childhood and youth in the Depression. My mother’s mid-life baby relished hearing the tales again and again. It’s a good thing, because I am the one family member who remembers the stories, however selective my hearing and memory might be.

My Great Depression legacy

Lester Owen was born in Atlanta, deep in East Texas.

This is my father, Lester Owen dressed in the knickers and cap typical of young boys. If this photo were in color, you would see Oklahoma red dirt coating his bare feet and ankles. In the 1960s, such knickers and caps, along with knit shirts called “poor boys” were a fashion statement for young women. My father felt as though they were making fun of Depression-era folks. However, the Boomer generation simply had no context for the struggle and shame of poverty.

In his rambunctious childhood, my dad once thought he had made a boy bite off his tongue. The boy pestered my father one too many times, and Lester took off chasing him. What Dad did not know was the kid had a bite of plum in his mouth. The boy tripped and bit his tongue, and when he spit out the bloody plum, my dad feared the worst.

My grandfather at far left, my grandmother second from the right.

My grandfather attended Normal school as a young man and taught some years. He was also a singing master, most likely teaching Sacred Harp a cappella music. During the Great Depression, he worked as a foreman for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A known prankster, he left the carcass of a rattle snake among tools and sent workers back for them. A neighbor in horrible dental pain, repeatedly begged my grandfather to pull a bad tooth. Reluctantly, my grandfather yanked the tooth with a pair of pliers with the guy imploring him to stop.

My father looking dapper in his fedora.

Dad, always a sharp dresser, attended a play party, when my mother met him. At these events, people would gather at a home from which all furniture was moved to accommodate square dancers. My father was the caller.

Mom and Uncle Ray Great Depression photo
Center, my mother Iris Marie Erwin. On her right my Uncle Ray.

My mother and her brother weathered poverty and family tragedy together. Although Ray was prone to teasing her unmercifully, they were devoted to each other. When pressed, Mom knew how to draw boundaries. For example, once a month, their father would give them each a dime to spend on the periodic trips to town. Shortly, Ray would squander his dime on ice cream and then beg Mom to spend hers on penny candy and share it. Mom would have none of it. She would buy and read the latest edition of The Saturday Evening Post from cover to cover.

Adventuresome Ray hung around airfields during flight’s early days and became a pilot. Later my uncle trained pilots during World War II. During my childhood, he was president and part owner of a company that manufactured aircraft instruments.

I forever connected Mom and Ray and their childhood adventures with those of Jem and Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.

My mother and horse Tony

Normally nervous around animals, Mom seemed to do just fine riding and otherwise managing Tony. A high school salutatorian, she longed to become a nurse, but her father declared that was no fit employment for a decent woman. Instead, he offered to send her to college to become a teacher. Mom flatly declined. However, She raised two English teachers.

My newlywed parents, married on February 11, 1937, not quite a month before the New London School Explosion.

My parents traveled by bus from tiny Roff, Oklahoma and married at a Phillips 66 filling station in nearby Ada. Their pastor, by necessity bi-vocational during the Great Depression, worked there. I suppose he wiped his hands free of grease and oil and did the deed. The lovely bride wore a trim brown suit and a green blouse, but my father was so shy, he waited until they were back on the bus to kiss her and give her a slim gold wedding band. Mom feared he was younger than she was, only to find he was six years older according to the wedding license. Their union lasted thirty-four years, until she passed in 1971.

Great Depression truth in photography

I conclude with Paulette Jiles‘s description of Great Depression-era grit and resilience found in old fading sepia family photographs. I treasure our family photos and the stories behind them. Her description of such pictures in her novel Stormy Weather is also true of those archived in my home.

“They were photographs that people took of one another with their box cameras, the old Kodaks, not the documentary photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration. People appeared at their best and kept their secrets to themselves.”

“This is how people wanted to appear to the world and to later generations. It is how they wished to be remembered no matter how hard life might have become. They framed themselves in their best clothes and with their most valuable possessions and smiled. Hard times and collapsing marriages and heavy labor was nobody’s business but their own.”

from Stormy Weather

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