Even when I was a child, my Aunt Bessie seemed impossibly old.
She was actually my great aunt, but I knew her better than either of my actual aunts. After we moved to Jasper, Ala., so my father could take care of his aging parents, I spent a lot of time at her house. Her husband, Uncle Larkin, had been sick and somewhat cranky all my life, so I spent far more time with her than with him.
Aunt Bessie seemed like the cheapest woman on Earth. She shopped at stores that sold goods with some sort of flaw, because she said it was the only way to get a bargain. She ate the cheapest cuts of meat imaginable. She was incredibly frugal.
Most of all, though, she almost never threw anything away. It didn’t matter whether it was a rubber band or a scrap of fabric or a piece of string. She would store such junk away and say quietly, “I might need it someday.”
Aunt Bessie was only 24 years old when the Great Depression started, but it left an imprint on her which I never understood — and I fear we’re all about to learn what fear taught her.
Aunt Bessie and Uncle Larkin had lived a very simple life.
He had been a house painter until he hurt his back in a fall from a ladder long before I was born. He had been in pain ever since then and wasn’t capable of doing any other work.
Aunt Bessie had no special skills that were worth much on the market, but she was a hard worker. She worked long hours at a retail job — mostly at a store called Engel’s for the years I knew her — but she couldn’t have made much.
My sisters and I made fun of how cheap she was about everything. My father explained to us that she had never gotten over the “Depression mentality” that had left her afraid of not having the things she needed — but I didn’t really understand what that meant.
The words made sense. I could sort of sympathize. But I couldn’t imagine being so ridiculously cheap myself.
Her life centered around her simple faith, maybe more than any person I’ve ever known. She didn’t understand complex theology and she struggled to make sense at times of the King James Bible, but she knew God in a very simple way that was real to her. After she confessed to me — while I was in college — with a sense of shame that she couldn’t understand the Bible, I bought a modern translation for her, but I don’t think she really used it much.
I still have the “Certificate of Church Membership” which she was given on Aug. 12, 1923 — when she was 18 years ago — and it recognizes her “confession of faith and baptism” into the Mountain Grove Congregational Church of Hanceville, Ala.
Aunt Bessie was the sister of my grandfather, Leland McElroy, on my father’s side. Uncle Larkin was the brother of my grandmother, Luda Waldrep, also on my father’s side. So Bessie and Leland McElroy were brother and sister who married another brother and sister, Larkin and Luda Waldrep.
Aunt Bessie never had children. She had a couple of miscarriages, but that wasn’t something that was discussed in those days. She loved my sisters and me as though we were her own grandchildren. But no matter how close I was to her, I couldn’t quite understand that part of her that was afraid of being poor and hungry again.
She didn’t like to talk about the Depression, but every now and then, she did anyway. It was like listening to someone describe a horrifying experience he or she had had during a war — something which sounded unpleasant but not as bad as it seemed to her. I just couldn’t relate to it.
She once told me about being hungry at times and having to go to bed with the hope of finding something to eat the next day. She talked about having to repair everything, because there was no money to buy new clothes — or pretty much anything — which is why she never wanted to throw anything away during the years I knew her.
She still remembered the terror of needing to repair something and not having a piece of cloth or a piece of string.
Aunt Bessie was 21 years old — and Uncle Larkin was 23 — when they got married in 1926. The Depression hit three years later. The photo above is from their 50th wedding anniversary in 1976. Uncle Larkin died a few years later and Aunt Bessie made it until about 1985.
I loved Aunt Bessie, but I didn’t really understand her. I joked about her frugal ways. I laughed about her fears about various things. I rolled my eyes at her ridiculous habits of saving things which I knew she would never need. After her death, I helped clean out her garage — and it was filled with junk that she “might need someday.”
As I’ve told you, I have genuine fears that we are about to face something which might be worse than the Great Depression. It might happen this year or next year. It might not be for another 10 years. I can’t predict the timing with certainty. But I know this financial collapse has to come — and it has to potential to be far more chaotic and dangerous than even what Aunt Bessie faced as a young married woman.
If I could talk with Aunt Bessie today, I would apologize for my lack of understanding then. I never said a disrespectful thing to her or laughed or rolled my eyes openly, but I wonder whether she knew. I wish I had understood then what I understand now — both about what she went through and about how something similar might afflict us soon.
Because she lived like a pauper, I assumed that she died without a penny, but I was wrong. She certainly wasn’t wealthy, but she somehow had saved enough from her meager earnings in retail to leave $10,000 each to my sisters and me. I was stunned at the time.
I don’t know how long we have until things get ugly for us, but I do know that I want to learn the lesson that Aunt Bessie tried to teach me. Bad times can come again — and I owe it to myself and to my future family to live in such a way that I set aside enough to help me make it through whatever is coming for us.
I wish I had had the wisdom to learn this lesson from Aunt Bessie when I was a child or when I was a young adult. I didn’t, though, so I just have to finally take her fears seriously in 2020.
I don’t want to live as frugally as Aunt Bessie did. I hope I won’t have to. But I appreciate the fact that she tried to teach me — because the lessons which left their imprint on her generation are coming to all of us very soon.