by Elena Santangelo


We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.
The poor-house is vanishing from among us.

                                                                                                —President Herbert Hoover, 1928

1933 – East Main Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania

      What I recall of the Depression was everyone saying we didn’t have enough to eat. And they always said the coal had so many rocks in it we couldn’t make it last a week. Bootleg coal was all we could afford—the small slaggy bits left over after the good coal was shipped out.
      Do I remember feeling hungry? No more than usual. What I got to eat was how much I’d eaten every day as long as I could remember. Same with feeling cold in the winter, I guess. I wore flannel underwear beneath my dress. Over it I wore a heavy sweater, with thick stockings below, hand-me-downs from my cousins, knit in better times by my grandmother. We all called her Nonna.
      At night Aunt Gina would put a hot water bottle under the sheets of the bed I shared with my cousin Delphina. After we were tucked in, my aunt would throw the rug from the floor over us. We couldn’t move from the weight. Then our cat would jump up to nestle under the rug between our feet and the hot water bottle. She’d lick her fur for maybe twenty minutes, making the whole bed rock. With the bottle, the rug and the cat, we kept warm enough.
      That’s what a child remembers. Not the cold, but the way we kept warm. Not the hunger, but the days when we didn’t eat macaroni for dinner. Or ate it, but with something besides beans or split peas or onions in tomato sauce. Sundays we had ravioli, or once in a while Uncle Ennio brought home a chicken. After he wrung its neck and Aunt Gina cut it up, we got the feet to play with. We’d pull the tendons to make the claws move.
      I can’t picture the hand-me-downs we wore so much as when one of us got new clothes, like the brown oxford shoes Del put on when she started junior high, and the white knickers Aunt Gina sewed for my brother Salvatore for his First Holy Communion the next spring.
      It’s the out-of-ordinary things that stick. That’s why I can remember that one week in 1933 so vividly. Roosevelt became our new president right after Lent started. We listened to him on Mr. D’Abruzzo’s radio. But that was also the week a rich man got deathly ill on our front steps, and when I heard voices in a room with no people, and when our black cat Crisi helped me and Del uncover a secret best left alone.

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