They made their way to the cemetery in silence, the young Jane wrestling with thoughts most adults can’t make sense of. Three funerals in six months. She'd done her very best. If God was real, how could this happen again?
"Momma, Ben's not hungry anymore." She searched futilely for words of comfort. "There's lot's of applesauce in heaven, that's Ben's favorite. I'll bet Jesus is eating applesauce with him right now."
Her mother looked up with hollow eyes. "I know, Jane, thank you." She tenderly patted her oldest daughter on the arm, meekly attempting to return the gesture of comfort. "God has ways we don't understand, don't ever forget that. Life is His, He gives it and He takes it...we can only do our best with what we have."
I sat with my eyes glued to the dinner plate afraid to look up as my aunt wove a vivid and horrifying true life tale of five children and two parents trapped in a nightmare of poverty.
"They called it 'The Great Depression'. I was twelve", my Aunt Jane recounted, choking back the emotion that she'd held in check for over thirty years. "My sisters, Susan and Sarah died a few months before Ben. Daddy couldn't make enough money to feed us.
In the eighth grade, I quit school to work in a factory. Anne went to work too, she was ten. By that time, Ben was already sick. He'd just lie there, never making a sound."
My aunt seemed lost in a world of sorrow and suffering that I, at the age of nine found terrifying. "We watched Susan, Sarah and Ben die slowly of starvation. There was nothing we could do."
"Even with me and Anne and daddy all working as hard as we could, there still wasn't enough food. We went two or three days with just a little milk water. The little ones got bread, but they needed more. We watched momma hold them as they died, she was nearly gone herself. One by one God received them. It was a hard thing to understand. Still is. Daddy hardly spoke a good word to anyone for years after that. He never got over it; watching his babies laid to rest for lack of food.
Momma found a way not to blame God, and taught us the same. 'He didn't make the suffering', she'd say, 'but He is here to help us find our way back from it'."
Aunt Jane took a deep breath. "Now...eat what's on your plate."
I stared at the offering in front of me: Tuna mixed with spinach; a child's worst nightmare. I lifted my fork, mustering the courage to eat what Susan, Sarah and Ben might have been glad to have. I learned never to question anything on my plate that summer at Aunt Jane's and to find gratitude for small, even terrible things like tuna spinach casserole.
We have struggled through lean times, but my children have never known hunger. They've often eaten for the sake of Susan, Sarah and Ben, things they'd rather not have eaten in memory of children who would have eaten anything just to live. They have learned, as I did that summer, we might not have the things we like; but we do our best with what we have and God takes us through the rest.
My aunt is elderly now, but her lessons of appreciation for the simple things and for everything have taken root in our family. Lessons bourn on the wings of abject poverty and tragic loss are worth remembering; timeless wisdom, purchased with a price too dear to let go of.
By the end of 1930 some 3 million children had abandoned school. Thousands of schools had closed or were operating on reduced hours. At least 200,000 children took to the roads on their own. (Source: Library of Congress, American Memory) Susan, Sarah and Ben all under the age of five died in Texas in 1931-1932, victims of the terrible poverty that Americans suffered as a result of the sustained drought and the tenuous financial infrastructure that combined to create The Great Depression, one of America's most haunting tragedies.
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