My mother, born April 14, 1917, came of age during the Great Depression, raised by a single Mom of two kids.

Colorful bars of soap on white towel

Colorful bars of soap on white towel (Photo credit: Horia Varlan)

She was 12 when the Stock Market Crash hit, starting with “Black Tuesday” on October 24, 1929.

My grandmother, Geraldine Stuart Notley, a graduate of the University of Kansas, had a good job as Principal of the in-hospital school for children at the University of Michigan’s medical center when they had prolonged stays that required schooling in the hospital so they wouldn’t fall too far behind.

And, as my mother pointed out, good, professional jobs for women were scarce in those days, with or without the stock market crash.

But, my grandmother’s life was stressed beyond supporting her two children alone. Her husband had been banished to a shed in the back yard, forbidden contact with his children, after he contracted syphilis.

In the days before penicillin, syphilis, in addition to the embarrassment of contracting a sexually-transmitted disease, punished its unfortunate victims with a slow death, ending in blindness and mental illness. My grandfather’s inevitable death took eight years, until he passed on February 21, 1927.

He would have contracted it around 1919, when my grandmother was pregnant with my mother’s younger brother. Penicillin, the treatment that ended syphillis’ hold as an invariably terminal disease, was not discovered until 1928 and not in widespread use until the 1940s.

My mother had always told me her father died when she was eight. When I discovered that she was actually 10, not understanding how she could misremember such a tragic event, she was vague.

Only later did I come to hear the circumstances and that she and my father exchanged the embarrassing stories of their parent’s death (my mother’s father’s syphilis and my father’s mother’s suicide) when they were children (she 10, he 14) before they married, in case either wanted to back out.

So, with a husband dying in the back yard, and two children to support, living with her mother-in-law who had bought her house for her and cared for her children while she worked, my grandmother’s life would have been stressed. But, there was more. Given that she was grateful for a good, steady job that perfectly fit her experience and skills, it was unfortunate that the job came with an extremely difficult boss.

My Mom blamed her Mom’s boss for her Mom’s ulcer. We know now that up to 60% of stomach ulcers are caused by helicobacter pylori, an infection that is easily treated with antibiotics. But, then, medical advice was to drink milk to coat the stomach and calm outbreaks. Eventually, my grandmother had surgery to remove half her stomach.

It was with this background, stress over her job, her ailing husband, raising her two children alone and painful ulcers, that Christmas came to the Notley household when my Mom was a child.

Money, understandably, was tight.

My Mom told of how she somehow earned the pennies necessary to buy her Mom a beautiful bar of soap and eagerly awaited Christmas morning.

As it happened, her younger brother had also found the pennies to buy a bar of soap.

As had her grandmother, who lived with them.

As had another relative and a friend.

My mother laughed when she told me the story that that year her mother received five bars of soap.

And, she was grateful for every one. As the bars of soap piled up, she sincerely thanked each one because she knew they had struggled to get her a gift.

It was one of my mother’s favorite Christmases.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru
Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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