My grandmother lived through the Great Depression. We loved hearing her reminisce about her difficult times, but always reverently wrapped in the love her father gave her 5 children. My great-grandfather lost his wife (my great-grandmother) two weeks after his youngest child was born due to scarlet fever. The great-grandfather was left with 5 children to raise ranging in age from 2 weeks to 7 years. My grandmother was the second after the eldest and the only daughter. I can still hear her tell us how they were quarantined at the time of her mother’s funeral due to scarlet fever in her home and watched from her living room window as her mother’s coffin passed in the procession funeral on the way to the cemetery.
My great-grandfather never remarried. My grandmother, being an only child, did much of the housework. If the children ever dared to complain about school, she would gently remind us how lucky they were to go to school. She cried when, in her sophomore year of high school, her father needed her home and she could no longer attend school.
Times were tough during the Great Depression, so skimping, saving, and reusing as much as possible was a way of life. Today, people still love to save money and reduce waste through clever DIY projects, but back in those days “do it yourself” wasn’t a trend; it was a necessity.
In those hard times, if women wanted to support their families, they had to be creative, especially when it came to clothing.
During the 1930s, sacks of flour featured colorful patterns for women to make dresses. Innovative and desperate, the women often emptied the sacks and used the cloth to make clothes. When flour makers saw women turning their sacks of flour into clothing, diapers, tea towels, and more, they began packaging their flour in pretty designs. And it wasn’t just the kids. The women also made dresses with the bags. Whether in the kitchen or helping my grandfather outdoors, my grandmother wore these dresses that she sewed from sacks of food!
When the clothes finally wore out, after being passed from older brother to younger brother, my grandmother cut up the salvageable pieces and turned them into quilts. There are stories and memories in each square. My mother can still look at some of the quilt pieces and see her mother wearing that particular dress or recognize pieces on the quilts from the clothes she wore as a child.
There are many ways to keep ancestors alive. Images speak volumes, stories, especially when recorded in the voice of an ancestor, are treasures, videos are priceless, and many other ways. However, the one that speaks to me every night is the comforter that covers my bed with warmth and memories in each lovingly sewn square. Great-grandchildren are told some amazing bedtime stories as they, too, snuggle up to their great-grandmother’s play.
My grandmother passed away in 2012, fittingly on the first day of spring. It was a beautiful bright day in Ghent, Minnesota, when we gathered around her grave. The wake at the funeral home was adorned with Grandma’s handmade jars of home-canned fruits and vegetables on a table covered with one of her prized quilts. A tribute to her life of giving and sharing.