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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Steele Agosta

Dad, the Depression, and Nasturtium Sandwiches

(Dad, in a moment of repose)

Back in the 1980’s, my parents began making regular cross-country trips with a series of campers and RVs (gradually graduating in size), most often to visit his brothers on the west coast, but seeing sights along the way. They enjoyed these trips and usually took their time on the way west, but there could be some long, boring stretches where my dad worried about getting sleepy behind the wheel.

So, as a way to combat this, he began making a series of ‘talks’, in which he described various things from his youth, into a cassette player. Dad grew up near Port Huron, Michigan, “up in the thumb”, a country kid from a huge family. Every single person in his family was a natural-born storyteller, and Dad was no exception, so his stories of his life back then, very different from Mom’s childhood, or ours, are colorful and fascinating and usually funny.

My late brother, Greg, eventually put these cassettes onto DVDs and I downloaded them to my computer. Later, when I was uploading some music to my I-pod, Dad’s stories accidentally got caught up among the songs, so now, when I listen to my I-pod (yes, I still do), I’ll suddenly get one of his monologues in-between the Monkees “Saturday Child” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”. His so-familiar voice will strike out, telling about the time he and his brother created a cannon in their basement, or about the German children with whom he went to school, and catch me by surprise. By pleasant surprise.

(Mom and Dad on one of those western trips)

So today I got a chance to listen to some stories I hadn’t heard in a while. About how sometimes when money was tight (almost all the time – there were 13 children in the family), their lunch would consist of bread-and-butter and whatever they could glean from the fields on their walk to school – cucumbers, “rant” onions, tomatoes, various greens, even nasturtiums. Dad learned from an early age to carry a pocket knife on him and a ‘twist’ of salt. He also talked about how when the family ran out of coal or wood for the furnace, he and his brother would walk all over town locating worn-out (very bald) tires that other people had abandoned, and bring them home and slice them up to feed into the furnace. These worked to heat the house, after a fashion, but they smoked so badly and filled the smokepipe with carbon black, that eventually they’d have to go find some hardwood to burn, for the greater heat would burn out that muck. He talked, too, about how the whole family could gather around the big dining room table at mealtime – all 15 of them. There was enough elbow space, but there weren’t enough chairs, so the kids who were between the ages of about 5 and 11, had to stand because they were at a convenient height to do so. They had enough plates and silverware, but the daily tablecloth was a spread of newspapers. Easy to clean up afterward.

My dad worked several jobs after college, but eventually began his own business, back in 1958. He raised his family on that, we all worked for Dad at some point – some still are – and now his grandchildren work there. When you think of all the whining we do nowadays about how hard our lives are, sometimes you just gotta look at how our parents lived. My mom’s family had hardships too, just different ones, and yet they all went on to have good lives and raise families – who then also went on to have good lives and raise families. He lived through the Depression and World War II and the Recession of the 1970s and he started over again in North Carolina at the age of 55 and built a legacy. He didn’t tell these stories to make anyone feel sorry for him – he told them because he had good memories of his childhood, partly despite the hard times, and partly because of them. He was proud of how they managed to live a good life on very little resources, and he had close bonds with his siblings, especially his brother Jerry out in California.

(Dad on the right, with five of his seven brothers)

Dad’s gone now, passed away nearly thirty years ago, and Jerry’s gone, too, but they had a zest for living, they lived interesting lives, and left behind lots of interesting sons, daughters, and grandchildren. I’m so thankful he made those tapes, and that I get to hear his voice again. Here’s a tip of the hat to you, Dad. I love you.

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Richele Thwing
Richele Thwing
Jan 11, 2023

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