In the fall of 1996, I started a year-long class on personal identity. It was a mix of sociology and psychology, and explored the ways things like race, family, gender and environment impact who we are. One of the assignments was to interview someone who had an outsized impact on our own identity.
I interviewed my grandmother, Phyllis Longo. She was always just “Grandma Longo” to me. She was humble, selfless, grateful, patient, deeply kind, and empathetic in ways I had never seen. Like many of our grandparents, she was raised in the Great Depression and I wanted to understand how that experience affected who she became as an adult, and how it translated into some of the values I hold most dear.
People like Grandma Longo often don’t have their story told. They’re in the background helping to make things work for the rest of us. They leave their mark through their actions, and the choices they make in how they treat others, how they raise their kids, and the traditions they pass on at home or at work.
When my grandma retired as a nursery school teacher, kids she taught decades earlier showed up with stories about the impact she had. This was not a surprise. We don’t always talk about people like Grandma Longo, but we know who they are. And we remember them.
Grandma Longo passed away in the summer of 2001, just weeks before the September 11th attacks. If we’re old enough, we all remember where we were that day. One of the things I remember most is a profound gratitude that she didn’t have to watch that happen. She cared so much, and I knew how much it would have hurt.
The tape of my interview is long gone, as are the questions I asked, but I found the transcription in an old box in my parent’s basement. It’s basic as the good lessons often are.
Grandma Longo. November, 1996. Ithaca, NY.
I was born on January 9th, 1927. What I remember most from the Great Depression is really being poor, and not having the proper clothing. Sometimes I’d wear shoes with the sole loose and floppy and we’d have to fasten them with jar rubbers and rubber bands. We didn’t have warm clothing like hats and mittens, and wore a lot of hand-me-downs that my parents could get from cousins and friends.
My grandparents didn’t have good jobs, if they had jobs at all, but when I visited it didn’t seem as if there was a depression because they had a farm. They always had plenty of food and fresh fruits and vegetables, things we didn’t have at our home. Our father was lucky if he could put one good meal a day on the table, which was usually a pot of soup or beans with maybe a little bit of meat. That type of meal; a one pot meal where they could throw in the ingredients and hopefully make it nourishing.
There weren’t buses that take you to school unless you lived long distances away. If you lived within a mile or two you’d have to walk, and I remember many of times just freezing, especially when I lived in the country cause school was further away.
My father managed a farm for Cornell University in the early early thirties bottling milk for delivery, but then from ‘33 on he did laundries for several years. When he did those laundries he had to heat the water on kerosene stoves — there was no water heater in the house — and then try to get them dry overnight so they could iron the shirts and things the next day. My father would deliver them in an old car back to the students. That’s how he fed us mostly through the thirties. My stepmother did the ironing for the laundries and then later when the second World War broke out they all had jobs and things got better. But during the Depression not many women worked outside the home.
We moved many times — about 10 or 12. It seemed like every year we moved once or twice. We had eight children by that time including my own brothers and sisters and my half brothers and sisters. A lot of people wouldn’t rent to people with eight children, and we couldn’t pay the rent, so we were asked — in not such good terms — to leave. We’d have to find another house.
The Depression didn’t seem to affect my education because school at that time was mostly the basics — reading, math, history, writing. If you moved school to school they were basically the same.
We were happy children, and we didn’t have many toys but we always had a deck of cards to play card games. We played hopscotch a little and sometimes we didn’t even have a ball — we just played with a stone. We played kick the can and we cut paper dolls out of catalogs. I remember making furniture for the paper dolls out of burdocks; we’d go out in the surrounding area and get them and stick ‘em all together and make couches, tables and chairs. We played in sand piles and dirt piles. And with roller skates and orange crate scooters.
Not really until I got up into junior high school did I realize there was a depression because then a lot of the kids had better clothes and things; their parents probably worked at Cornell.
The Depression influenced who I am because we don’t need as much to make us happy as some of the younger people. And we don’t put a lot of value on the material things. We’re happy to be with family — to have a good family and good relationships and we try to instill that in our kids and grandkids. Money isn’t the most important thing — if you have good relationships and a happy family and love, that’s the most important thing. It’s good to strive for better things but they don’t always bring happiness.
“If you have good relationships and a happy family and love, that’s the most important thing. It’s good to strive for better things but they don’t always bring happiness.” — Phyllis Longo
Also published on Medium.