I know it was called the Great Depression, but from all the stories I heard about that time when I was growing up, it sounded like it was the happiest time this country ever experienced. Sure, money was tight. Jobs were scarce. But people looked out for each other. They worked together. People tolerated more quirkiness and took in people who were not their relatives as if they were, just because they were fellow human beings. “Whose brother was Uncle Wynne?” No one could quite make the connection. It didn’t matter. He was family now.
My dad grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. His parents were Mae Wise Coulter and Joseph Coulter. Except no one ever called my grandfather Joseph. They always called him Freeman or just “Free”. You see, he was an atheist, who in those days liked to style themselves as “free thinkers”, so he took the moniker “Freeman.” Mae was a devout, Holiness Methodist. Freeman owned his own service station and worked on cars. He loved his work. He was good at it. My uncle Howard raced at Daytona Beach and Bonneville and my dad, Charlie, was in his pit crew, when he was just 13 or 14. That would be about 1938. Of course, Howard paid his way to those races. He was 11 years older than my dad. But I digress.
All during the Depression, Freeman and Mae were, at any given time, supporting four to six other households in one way or another. If Free was aware of it, he never let on. He worked long hours. He was happy if he had clean clothes and hearty meals, good scotch on the weekends and some cheap beer during the week. He had good friends. He let tabs go long at the shop. Sometimes he got paid with vegetables or chickens or plumbing or electrical work. It all worked out. He handled the books at the shop and gave Mae the profits. Mae handled the household finances. Mae always had a large garden. She was always cooking and baking, and canning. She would send one or more of her four children with packages of meals, fresh produce, canned veggies or fruit and envelopes of money to various neighbors, after school, before their dad came home for dinner. The children all wore handmade clothes or hand-me-downs. She made her own clothes, nothing fancy, always floral, but not too many. She kept weekday shoes and Sunday shoes. Occasionally Free would ask her why they couldn’t get something nicer for the house or some nicer clothes. She would just say, “Times are tough. We need to watch what we spend.” And that was the end of it.
All four of Mae and Freeman’s children grew up to be hard working members of society. They all carried with them those lessons and memories and I heard them tell various stories, each one of them, with smiles and tears, of the quiet generosity, through the Great Depression. This is not unique to my family. I have interviewed many folks born between 1880 and 1920, and their stories are much alike.
Back then, people recognized themselves in any other human being. I know that is what my dad took away from the experience and what he drilled into his four kids. I met Vice-Presidents and plumbers, bishops and florists, and was told, “Don’t sweat it. Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. People are people.” There is even a social theory that says that the Great Depression was the great equalizer that laid the groundwork in the national psyche for the civil rights movement. It seems to be slipping away. I hope we haven’t lost that.
I never met my Grandpa Coulter, though I am named for him. My middle name is Joseph. He died of his first heart attack in 1953. Mae passed away at age 82 in 1972.
So my dad synthesized both his parents’ positions, his dad’s ‘freethinking’ atheism and the quiet, practical generosity of his mother. Whenever he saw a need, if he had the means to meet it, he met it. A general appeal letter came from an old family friend’s daughter and son-in-law who were serving with Wickliffe Bible Translators as medical missionaries in Peru. They had transferred all of their money into the Peruvian currency for the year. Then there was hyperinflation, so it was not going to last. They needed X thousands dollars to make up the shortfall. Charlie acted as if the letter was to him alone. These are family. She helped pull my first loose tooth when she babysat me. He wired the whole amount that day. One example. I could only give you a half dozen. I only know the ones that he was careless about laying around or that people told me about later.
So when the Pope talked about atheists possibly going to heaven according to Matthew 25, and the cardinals got all nervous and had to walk it back or somehow make that not covered by papal infallibility, because we wouldn’t want to not be able to hold hell over atheists heads, instead of just letting them be surprised by grace, I think Jesus wept.
Don’t get me wrong. My dad was an ornery cuss and impossible to live with. We got along like oil and water. He probably had the same congenital brain defect that I have that is making me tend to the ornery side. But his example and his stories are responsible for a lot of who I am today. So for Mae & Joseph and Charles: may their memory be eternal!
May we each recognize the humanity and the image of God in each person we encounter.