(Edit at the end of the post.)
On our way home from Texas last week, we had the opportunity to stop and visit with my husband’s Great Aunt Iva. Iva celebrated her 97th birthday a couple of weeks ago. She is frail and slow to get around, but still does get around and is mentally sharp.
Iva told us about being a young wife during the Great Depression. Her husband George was a hard-working, frugal young man who had managed to put $50,000 in the bank before the stock market crashed in 1929. After the crash and subsequent bank failures, he lost his grocery store and most of his savings. The bank eventually returned about $3,000 of his original $50,000.
George and Iva used the $3,000 to buy a large truck, hire a carpenter to customize the back and purchase small quantities of soft goods, household supplies and sandwich makings. Iva went into great detail about the shelves, counters and ingenious customized nooks and crannies George designed that allowed them to fit everything from socks to garden rakes, fabric to bologna, kerosene to candy in the back of the truck.
Back then, farmers hired itinerate workers to chop cotton. The workers were housed on the farm, and the farm owners chose large families with lots of boys to hire and house. The larger the family, the more workers. Once a week, the farmer would drive the men into town in the back of his truck. The men would purchase food and other necessities for their families. There was no room for women or children or frivolous purchases in the truck.
Iva and George knew if they could take the store to the farms, the women would buy pretty fabrics, mop buckets, cotton stockings for themselves and socks and candy for their children. So they drove the dirt farm roads around Texarkana, tootling their customized horn and parking outside farm entrances. They would open the back of the truck, pull down the steps George designed, and Iva would cut fabric, bag penny candy and collect the money while George dispensed lamp kerosene from the large tanks behind the wheels into one or two gallon cans, or made bologna and cheese sandwiches at the tiny lunch counter in the corner.
One day a preacher asked if he could ride on the back bumper as far as his church. They allowed it as long as he didn’t mind waiting through all their stops. He used each stop as an opportunity to invite shoppers to his church on Sunday and built up a good sized congregation. George and Iva parked their truck outside the church on Sundays and did good business when the service was over. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Both George and Iva were photographers and George developed their photos himself. One day George snapped a picture of a boy who came to their truck to buy candy. This is a picture of that picture; a glimpse of another era.
Second generation, dark room, no flash, bad angle,
and the greatness of the picture still shines through.
For nine months of the year, driving those dusty back roads was George and Iva’s life. In the summer, they drove to Yellowstone National Park and worked in a place that couldn’t be more different from Texarkana’s hot, dusty poverty. They loved Yellowstone. George took this picture of Iva enjoying a moment of serenity.
Listening to Iva talk about those long ago days was fascinating. She and George lost almost everything, but found a creative way to rebuild their lives. They eventually were able to open a real store in Texarkana, raise four children and put them all through college thanks to hard work and ingenuity.
Iva’s favorite part of the story, though, was telling us about the day a handsome, well-dressed young man walked into their store and introduced himself as the boy George had photographed. He had never forgotten the excitement of buying candy at the store that came to the people. Iva’s face lit up as she told this part.
George died in 1982. He and Iva had been planning a trip to Europe when he fell ill. He made her promise she would travel and continue to enjoy life. She kept her promise. It’s interesting, though, that her trips to Europe and China and exotic places around the world are not the stories she tells, but the stories about lean times, hard work and daily challenges. Those are the times that made her. Those are the times that make us all. May we all end up as resilient, creative and optimistic as Aunt Iva.
This was originally posted in February, 2011. Aunt Iva passed away peacefully Tuesday night, about an hour after going into hospice care. She was only a couple of months shy of her 100th birthday. She lived a long and full life and was the last of her generation in Brett’s family. Today I am thankful that I knew Aunt Iva when she was young and active, in her 60s, 70s and 80s. I’m thankful for her daughters who lovingly cared for her the past ten years or so. And I am so very thankful that Brett and I were able to stop and see her that last time in February, 2011 and hear this wonderful story from her own lips.