First Words — 20 March 2020
Looking for answers in the faces of forebears

By Mark Gauert

City & Shore Magazine

These are some of my people – uncles, aunts, grandparents, great grandparents – and my dad, down in front on the left. The photo was shot in Kansas City, sometime during the Depression – probably around 1938. Times were hard – and about to get harder – for all of them then.

The experience changed them forever. My grandparents were the most frugal people I’ve ever known – always saving the paper and string we used to wrap the gifts we gave them, so they could use it again – because of the lessons they learned then. They grew their own gardens. They learned to pack and store fruit and vegetables in Mason jars. They watched out for their neighbors and their neighbors’ kids, and their neighbors did the same for them. They learned how to take care of their homes and their cars and their basic health needs themselves. They did things they never thought they’d be able to do – change spark plugs, cut hair, fix roofs – because they had to.

I’ve been looking at the photo a lot this week. We’re all working remotely these days, and it’s on the desk my grandmother (second from right) left me that I’m using in my home office now. I’ve had time to study the photo now, and to see them all with a fresh eye.

Only my dad’s left from the people in this photo. He made it through those hard times, my grandparents managed to scrape up enough to send him to the University of Kansas and he eventually earned a medical degree. He married his high school sweetheart, served in the U.S. Navy as ship’s doctor aboard an amphibious assault troop transport – and my mom and I followed him into base housing in San Diego while he was overseas. We eventually returned to Kansas City, where my dad first established his medical practice. But, a proud veteran, proud of our country, he went back to the service after he retired – screening young recruits for all branches of the military at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in New Mexico.

This week, as the coronavirus spread, a doctor from the MEPS unit showed up at his front door in a lab coat and mask, just as my dad was getting ready to go to work. He handed my dad a mask and said he didn’t think it was safe anymore for an 87-year-old to be doing recruit physicals.

I know he’s right, of course, and I admire and respect that he delivered the news in person. They’re calling it a two-week “vacation,” too – but, we all know what’s probably going to happen next.

Hard times.

So I’m looking at the old photo of my dad and our family. I can’t imagine what they went through then, or what they didn’t care to share in detail with those of us in generations to come.

But they all have one thing in common (except for my second cousin, cranky in my grandmother’s arms). Maybe it was just for the camera – the technology was still new to them then – but they were all smiling.

Smiling even though they knew they were in a Depression, or hard times or something worse to come that they couldn’t even imagine. Smiling, I think, because they knew life would go on. That things would get better. That the generations to come, who’d someday give them gifts wrapped in paper and string too precious to discard, would look back and see what it takes to get through hard times.

I can’t see my dad now – he doesn’t do Skype or Facetime, the technology is still new to him – and I probably won’t for a while.

But I imagine that he’s smiling now, too.

- mgauert@cityandshore.com

PHOTO: My uncles, aunts, grandparents, great grandparents – and my dad, down in front on the left. The photo was shot in Kansas City, sometime during the Depression – probably around 1938.

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