Before I went to bed last night, sales I watched a special on CNN called Heroes Everyday People Changing the world . This morning I awoke at 5 a.m. Maybe for a reason. I found myself thinking about that show. I could not get back to sleep, cure so I went downstairs to put a pot of coffee on. I flipped on the TV, which is never on that early, but I wanted to break the dark morning silence. I turned to the c-span 3, American history channel. There was an author on by the name Ted Gup. He was telling all about his Great Depression era book titled “A Secret Gift”, and I found myself completely immersed in one of those genuine American holiday stories, so heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
“A Secret Gift” is the story of author Ted Gup’s grandfather. He was a generous man who set out to help anonymous neighbors in Canton, Ohio during the hard luck Christmas season of 1933. The unemployment rate was 25% back then. There was no safety net. People starved. Begged. Died in the cold. The story is told mainly by letters written by strangers seeking help from a generous stranger.
Mr. Gup ran a modest ad in the Canton, Ohio newspaper promising to help those most needy during the holiday season. The book, A Secret Gift, is based on a treasure trove of these Depression Era letters that poured in to Mr. Gup asking for help. Yellowed letters unearthed years later in an old suitcase. The tales they tell are heartbreaking, for times were far worse for so many more back then. These are stories of shoeless children, starving families, hard working able bodied men, and women, broken by extreme and unexpected poverty.
One letter, an exception, was from a formerly wealthy Ford dealer who lost it all in 1930. A man with three houses, a yacht, and a socialite wife. All the trappings of the American dream reduced to begging in the streets in just one single year. His bank accounts, insurance policies, and real estate, were all just swept away. Back then, of course, before bank accounts were insured, people lost all their money when a bank failed. There was no FDIC, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and no unemployment benefits. No Social Security. No food assistance. It was what we would now consider Third World poverty.
The most touching letters, sadly came from the children. Many asking for food for their brothers and sisters. They asked for shoes, and coats to keep them warm. One man tells the tale of how he and his wife were reduced to selling dandelions door to door. Also picking, and selling seasonal fruit. He tells of his wife climbing to the upper reaches of fruit trees, something he was unable to do as he was “lame”. Yet still, with all the effort. they found themselves in the bitter cold with cardboard lining the bottom of their shoes.
These stories give real meaning to the word poverty. They are touching stories of the Great Depression, stories that can easily slip from our memories. They are touching stories, stories that I think are perfect in spirit for this particular holiday season.
After watching this show I ordered the book. I can not wait to get it. It made me look at the early antiques we all love, with an even greater appreciation. I thought about these early American treasures. They are not just things, they carry with them our link to generations past. The true grit, and determination, and all of the suffering of Americans who were here before us. The hands that touched the objects. The souls that remain within them. I am so thankful for our wonderful young men and woman coming up, who work hard to make sure each generation has a brighter life. After listening to this show, I am reminded of the great progress we have made since then, and I truly believe we will continue to do so, but we must remember our fellow man.
Maybe there was a reason I woke up so early this morning, and turned the TV on.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday, everyone. May you also have a healthy, happy, and prosperous new 2012!