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January 9, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Alianza Spartanburg, Fund to Support Immigrants, Unitarian Universalist Church, Post Office Box 1942, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304, 864-585-9230.

Over the telephone, I could tell she was weeping. “Nothing has been normal since March. From the time my husband got sick until after he died of this terrible virus, our family has struggled. We could not visit him in the hospital, and we were unable to have a proper funeral. My world has fallen apart.  I am not sure I can make it.”

Life is hard, and sooner or later, life is hard for everybody. These months of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have been difficult for many people. The surges in coronavirus cases have been matched by heightened anxiety, deeper depression, intense grief, and economic despair. How do we cope when life is hard?

At least one answer is to remember the family stories from past generations, especially those people that Tom Brokaw called the greatest generation.  

  Ed Neely and Mamie Lawton were married on September 2, 1914. Ed was from Middle Tennessee. Mamie was from the Lowcountry of South Carolina. They were my grandparents.

Mammy and Pappy started married life in Nashville, Tennessee. They moved to Greenville, South Carolina, in 1915 when Pappy had an opportunity to go into the lumber business with his brother-in-law.

In 1923, he decided to move to Spartanburg to start his own lumberyard on West Henry Street at the railway crossing. The family built a nice home on the Greenville Highway, where the pavement ended. By 1929, Mammy and Pappy had eight children.

Then came the Great Depression.

In an economic downturn, the construction industry is among the first to suffer, and it is the last to recover. During a depression, new construction and home building decline. People struggling to make ends meet will postpone even home repairs.

Pappy felt the burden of providing for his family. His fledging one-horse lumberyard was failing. In an attempt to save the business, he mortgaged the property. Politicians kept promising that prosperity was just around the corner.

Pappy then mortgaged his home, putting the money into his business. With a wife, eight children, and another on the way, Pappy was just trying to hang on.  Finally, he lost the lumberyard and their home.

Family stories about those years of hardship abound.

Now, more than ninety years later in this current pandemic and economic crisis, collective memories about how the family endured the Great Depression take on new meaning. Our family has learned much from the way Mammy and Pappy made it through hard times. May I share several principles that emerge from those memories?

1.  Face the reality instead of denying it.

One night, in the thick of it all, Pappy came home with alcohol on his breath. Mammy, true to her Baptist upbringing, was stern. “Ed, we can make it through this together with the good Lord’s help. But we can’t make it if you turn to strong drink.”

 According to family legend, that was his last drink.

 2. Hard work is required of everybody.

Having lost the business and their house, Pappy and Mammy rented a place that still stands today across from the School for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs. In that gray Victorian home trimmed with white gingerbread molding, their ninth child was born.  They farmed the land where Mountain View Nursing Home is now located. They raised turkeys. They grew sweet potatoes. They cultivated a large vegetable garden with the mule Pappy bought from the county chain gang. A cow and a goat provided dairy products. Everybody worked.

3. Sacrifice is a common denominator. 

My dad was the fourth of Mammy and Pappy’s nine children. He remembered his first new clothes. He was in the eleventh grade. “Before that, everything I wore was hand-me-down.”

As a red-dirt farmer, Pappy plowed with the chain-gang mule that he had nursed back to health.  He raised sweet potatoes in abundance. Mammy knew their nutritional value. Using the food at hand, she often served sweet potatoes three different ways at the same meal. Her concoctions included sweet potatoes, baked and candied, sweet potato casserole, sweet potato bread, muffins, biscuits, and pies. An after-school snack might be a cold, baked sweet potato.

After the hard times ended, one uncle absolutely refused to eat another sweet potato. “I had more than my share during the Depression,” he said.

4. Never give up.

When the Depression eased, Pappy started over. In 1937, the bank loaned him money on his word. He purchased a strip of land on Union Road.  On one end, he built a lumber shed next to a railroad siding. On the other end of the property, he constructed a house, the home Clare and I live in now. 

5.  Pay your debts.

Pappy always had a sheaf of banknotes stuffed in his shirt pocket.  At the first of every week, he would pull them out, identifying those that had to be paid that week.  He worked all week to pay off those due, trying to keep his head above water, trying to make ends meet. 

In 1960, when I was in the tenth grade, Pappy said, “Kirk, come here.  I want to show you something.” 

He had written a check for $500 to a lumber broker in Georgia.  He was putting the payment in the mail.  He said, “This is my last debt from the Depression.” 

Pappy finally got all the debts paid. For the last two years of his life, he was debt free.

6. Share with Others

Mammy and Pappy realized that many others were struggling just as they were. Because they lived on Highway 56, strangers often came to their door asking for food. Believing in the dignity of work, Mammy always gave them some small job to do before offering some of her delicious sweet potatoes.

Through it all, they gave faithfully to their church, firmly believing that everything they had was a gift from God.

7.  Faith and prayer will see you through.

Before bedtime every night, Mammy and Pappy gathered their children around them. Pappy read a passage from the Bible. The family knelt in prayer. Mammy’s wisdom prevailed, “With the good Lord’s help, we can make it through.”

This is a time in our country that calls for grit, determination, and sturdy resolve.  It calls for people of wisdom and faith who can remember that times have been hard in the past.

Find those people in your life who have lived through tough times. They have much to teach us. Listen to their stories and listen to each other.

A favorite Jewish proverb reminds us,

Blessed is the generation in which the old listen to the young, for it follows that in such a generation, the young will listen to the old.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at

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