The “D” word

schaeffer_graduation.jpgThe economic meltdown is bad. Most of us are pretty scared, more than a little angry, and our ears perk up when we hear people throw the “D” word around pretty loosely.

Earlier this week, a poll showed that almost 60% of those surveyed think a depression is likely. “Most of those people don’t know their history,” a guest said Wednesday on MPR’s Midmorning.

Elizabeth Schaefer, 86, of Shoreview is as good a history book as any of the thousands she probably touched in her career as a librarian. She was born seven years before the stock market crash of 1929 and grew up during the Great Depression.

Elizabeth was born in Chicago. Her mother took care of the kids and kept an eye on the money. Her father worked as a railroad engineer when the railroad had work.

“They didn’t talk about their financial problems with us, but they must have saved their money, because my father wanted a place where we could walk to school without crossing the street, so he went out for a loaf of bread one day and came back with a house (See photo),” she told me during my visit at her retirement community in Shoreview.

schaeffer_house.jpg Her parents were strict and kept the kids in the yard and sent them to a Catholic school. “My mother refused to buy the school uniforms so she made them for us. But, of course, it didn’t look like everyone else’s.”

“Mom was always saving,” Elizabeth said. “She’d make a little bit of meat and a lot of noodles to go with the soup. You were supposed to add one can of water and she’d add two.” In the evenings, men would knock on the door looking for food. Her mother would share the supper. They’d eat it out on the porch and then move along. “We were fortunate we had a house to live in,” she said.

Her mother kept strict track of what it took for her to go to college. “It was $800 and I paid it all back my first year.” She worked as a librarian for 25 cents an hour. She tried to get a job in a library in Chicago, but didn’t realize when she submitted an application to the alderman, she was supposed to include a bribe.

After getting married, she says she never had any arguments with her husband over money. “He’d cash his check and put it on the dresser, after putting some in the bank.”

She never stopped “saving things that possibly had another life.” At her retirement home, people put things they don’t want anymore in a cart. She pulls things out of the cart and offers it to others. How often do they take it? “Not too often,” she says.

She, too, made her childrens’ clothes when they were small. Her kids have grown up to be frugal, but also generous with others through food drives and other charity.

How does she view the panic of the last few weeks?

“It’s out of my hands and you just have to trust that God’s gonna… whatever happens happens and hope somehow you have what it takes to cope with it,” she said.

She says she always talked to her daughters about saving for tough times. “People didn’t do that because they didn’t believe that. They’d make fun of you for being frugal. You never know what’s going to come. I see so many people that… when people get married, they think they have to start out with a house and everything in it, stuff that people worked for years to save for…I’d die before I’d pay finance charges on credit cards. It seems like if you don’t have the money for it, you go without it until you do have it.”

Things are bad. Things may get worse. But there’s plenty of evidence that says it’s no Great Depression.

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