My Mother and The Great Depression

The Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s, was especially traumatic in the Texas Panhandle, because it was accompanied by the great Dust Bowl drought. Half of the region’s people fled, most of them heading to California. The classic movie, The Grapes of Wrath, documents the exodus and journey west of the “Okies”—economic refugees from Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and from the Texas Panhandle.

            I was born in 1941, when the Depression was already over. But my parents and my grandparents belonged to the generations directly affected by it. Even though it took place before I was born, it very much remained in the minds and memories of those who lived through it. I heard many many tales, especially from my mother, about that era.

            Every area has its collective memory—shared history. In the Texas Panhandle when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the shared memories of what happened during the Depression were always there—in the back of the minds of the people who had lived through those traumatic times, like my mother.

            Before the Depression, my maternal grandparents were very prosperous. Gran’dad Mac—Leo McDade, Sr.—had two thriving enterprises going: drilling windmills and house-moving. He drilled wells all over the Texas Panhandle, and moved houses in and around Amarillo. My mother, the oldest of five children, finished high school in 1929, and began her freshman year of college at a women’s college in Austin. She dreamed of becoming an archeologist.

            Then the Depression hit. Her father’s businesses collapsed. She could not continue her university studies after her freshman year. She had to stay home. She had to help her mother with caring for Pat, her baby sister, and for her three younger brothers. She did manage to finish one more year of college studies at Amarillo Junior College and obtained her AA degree. But that was the end of her higher education. In 1935, she married my father and began raising her own family.

            My mother’s stories about the Depression and Dust Bowl era were endless. They struggled to have enough to eat, never bought new clothes, never went anywhere, taped around windows and doors to keep out the dust from the dust storms that turned day into night. She said good-bye to many of her friends and their families, when they gave up and joined the endless procession of Okies going out West. Somehow, her family managed to survive and stay. But there was always fear: the dreaded thought that their time might too come, when they would have to leave and go to California.

            Economic fear, uncertainty about what might come next, a miserly attitude toward spending any money, worry that another economic crash would unexpectedly come down upon her and her family, worry that it might not rain and another drought would unexpectedly come upon the Panhandle, which was primarily dependent on agriculture—these thoughts were always on my mother’s mind as I was growing up. It was a form of PTSD.

            This affected me, just as the children of a soldier who returns from war with PTSD are affected by their father’s angry moods, nightmares, drinking to self-medicate. Strange, but I think that what most affected my mother was the crushing of her dream to become an archeologist and go off to some exotic place to study some ancient culture and people. She loved history. She had the imagination that an archeologist has to have: the gift of being able to read into artifacts the lives and loves of people who have long been gone.

            All my historical novels in the Once Upon a Time in the Texas Panhandle series include as part of their background these collective memories of the Great Depression. They are my memories too. I left Texas for California in 1971, but I brought them with me. In the back of the minds of all my characters are these collective memories—which are a kind of collective PTSD.

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