Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More

Both of my parents were Great Depression babies – born 1935 and 1937. For that fact alone, it isn’t a wonder they both ended up adopted, though the reasons are much more complicated than that. But certainly, financial hardship in the lives of my two original grandmothers is the key factor.

So this is on my mind this morning after watching Angela’s Ashes on dvd last night and being reminded of the song – Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More written by Stephen Foster and published in 1854. Some of the lyrics – While we all sup sorrow with the poor, Many a days you have lingered around my cabin door, There are frail forms fainting at the door, Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say, There’s a pale weeping maiden who toils her life away, With a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day, Oh! Hard times come again no more.

So what was it like in the 1930s ?, was a question on my mind this morning. The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in modern history at the time it occurred. It profoundly affected the daily life of American families in ways large and small. The bleakest point was about 1933 or 34.

The life of a child in the 1930s was very different than a child’s life today. With the Great Depression, children and their families were greatly impacted—millions lived in poverty and had very little to eat, let alone money to spare for entertainment. Times were tough everywhere, and an additional mouth to feed was a burden. Certainly, I believe that both of my grandmothers encountered this mind set when they were seeking aid with their newborn babies.

Food was scarce for a lot of families and many children suffered from malnutrition. As we were watching children die in Angela’s Ashes my husband said, it is the lack of nutrition that makes it impossible for them to fight off diseases.

My maternal grandmother’s childhood family did live on a farm that was not ravaged by the Dust Bowl being west of Memphis in the rural countryside. They probably did grow a variety of crops and raised small amounts of livestock to survive. During the Depression, casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast, chili, macaroni and cheese, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular. Jello was actually considered a cheap protein source (had to believe it would be viewed as that – one serving only has 1.6 grams of protein and the equivalent of 4-1/2 tsp of sugar !!) But Jello still found its way into many cookbooks during the Depression. Potlucks were often organized by churches to share food and provide a cheap form of social entertainment. The board games Scrabble and Monopoly were introduced during the 1930s. Both of which my own family has played recently.

Economic struggle caused mothers to leave the home for work and children to leave school for work as a breakdown in child labor law enforcement occurred. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC to help support her family. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed. Those that were lucky enough to have steady employment often saw their wages cut or their hours reduced to part-time. With record unemployment, children competed for jobs with their elders to help contribute to their family’s income, often forgoing further schooling. Many children were technically self-employed, collecting junk to sell or doing odd jobs for neighbors.

The stress of financial strain took a psychological toll—especially on men who were suddenly unable to provide for their families. The national suicide rate rose to an all-time high in 1933. Marriages became strained, though many couples could not afford to separate. Some men deserted their families out of embarrassment or frustration: This was sometimes called a “poor man’s divorce.” So, was this what my paternal grandfather chose when faced with yet another child on the way ? Is this why he failed to show up for my grandmother and mom when they returned to Memphis after her birth in Virginia (where she was sent away to avoid embarrassment for her father, even though she really was a married woman).

Disadvantaged families couldn’t afford much for their children, so most of their clothes were cast offs and children often went barefoot. Most middle-income boys wore t-shirts with overalls and girls wore blouses and plain dresses. Both would have one pair of shoes and an outfit for special occasions. The Depression-era motto was: “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.” I definitely saw these effects in the lives of my in-laws (both born in 1921) and on my dad’s adoptive parents.

Unless I Truly Try

Persistence really does make all the difference in some situations. On Sunday night, my family had a lesson in persistence. We’ve been playing Scrabble on Sunday nights and are finding while it causes our night to run late, the whole family becomes engaged and some of the problematic issues we were encountering trying to watch videos as a family are now gone. We’ve been playing with the tiny board with lock in pieces meant for traveling rather than the large, more traditional board. That small footprint works out well on our cluttered dining room table.

But on Sunday night, my youngest son dropped his piece holder. Most of the pieces stayed on the floor but improbably one piece went bouncing down the stairs to the basement. We looked forever, everywhere, and discussed giving up and playing with one piece missing. However, my son could not accept that. He suggested sending another piece down the stairs to try and determine what happened with the missing piece. I thought for certain we’d end up with two pieces missing. We didn’t lose the second piece but it did show us the missing piece probably didn’t go very far from the stairs. It was then my youngest son, who was definitely the cause of this crazy situation and very upset by knowing that, saw the piece on the floor right under the lowest stair. How we all missed that is something to wonder at. His persistence made all the difference. That word has been on my mind as a writer and I even have a book in our library with that title that I haven’t read.

Today’s story involves the persistent effort of a transracial, internationally sourced adoptee.

I have paperwork from my closed international adoption. The thing is, for many of us, we don’t know how accurate or truthful our information is. I have names of both birth parents and in 2017, I searched my birth mom’s name on Facebook out of curiosity. It was a little tricky because her name is in English but I needed to translate and search it in Hangul. A couple profiles popped up and one of them had pictures. The woman and I share so many physical similarities. So I debated and agonized over whether or not I message or friend request her. I did both. Nothing.

4 years later, I decide to try again. I messaged her this time in Hangul hoping it would help. I’ve been learning Korean since February this year in hopes of being able to communicate. I also changed my profile name to include my Korean birth name in Hangul. This was in March, still nothing. I don’t have the option to friend request her again. I know I can go through other channels to find my birth mom but I’m so discouraged already. It takes so much out of me just to even make the choice to take action. Plus, if this woman is my birth mom and I contact her through other channels, she may deny me anyway.

I know I’ll never know unless I truly try. I know I can’t and shouldn’t assume anything. I know it’ll eat away at me if I don’t eventually do this. I just wish it wasn’t this hard, scary, expensive, confusing, terrifying, and frustrating. My reality is that right now, I wish I wasn’t adopted.

One very good suggestion was this – Have you joined any Facebook groups for ex-pats in Korea? I live in Korea right now and I see people posting in the ex-pat groups looking for information about original families or unknown fathers, there’s enough people in those groups that maybe some information can turn up.

I know that in my own adoption search efforts (both parents were adopted) it did take some degree of persistence and I did not have the international complications to deal with. However, my paternal grandmother was unwed and went to a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers to give birth to my dad. His original birth certificate does not name the father. Thankfully, my grandmother left me breadcrumbs – both in the name she gave my dad and in a little headshot photo with his father’s name on the back. And I did go into some dead ends. My breakthrough came through Find A Grave and his second marriage step-daughter. She confirmed the headshot was the man she knew.

Then, DNA matching really completed the task, even connecting me to Danish relatives still living in that country who had no idea my paternal grandfather had any children. So, a task that seemed unlikely to succeed at first, eventually brought me knowledge of all 4 original grandparents – even against what seemed like daunting odds at first.