Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse sent me and millions of other people rushing to send anxious emails inquiring about our banks’ financial strength and asking if we should shuttle our savings to a more secure account or under the mattress.
In my case, cooler heads prevailed and I’ve mostly calmed down. But the Monday Mayhem reminded me of my grandparents’ stories about The Great Depression, and how they survived America’s financial meltdown 90 years ago.
It’s amazing to think that the country that built the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building and the Hoover Dam in an eight-year stretch in the 1930s was also the one where Americans stood in line for a bowl of soup and the government created entire agencies to put wages in people’s pockets.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, my dad’s father was a small-town businessman and my mother’s father was an eastern Colorado farmer.
My grandmothers were a couple of years away from becoming mothers and a careful reading between the lines of family lore suggests they were better prepared to meet financial collapse than their husbands.
My mother’s mother was a college-degree holder during a time when few people attained higher education. Formally trained in music, she could make money performing and teaching.
My dad’s mother was a hard-headed woman from a business family who didn’t say much but reminded you, more in her deeds than her words, that the only direction in life is forward.
Probably the most oft-told tale in my family’s history is the one that begins with my grandfather standing in his store doorway on West Yellowstone Street in Casper, Wyoming and looking down the street at other merchants doing the same thing.
They have been standing that way for hours, smoking, maybe conversing. They aren’t greeting or helping customers because there aren’t any.
A woman walked into my grandfather’s store one afternoon and became his first customer in weeks by purchasing a can of paint.
He rang up the sale and figured it signaled a modest but definite upturn in his fortunes until the woman walked into the store several hours later and returned the paint, explaining she couldn’t afford it.
My grandmother had a better idea than standing around waiting for customers. She told my grandfather to load up their car trunk with painting supplies and grabbed a notebook, a roll of coins, and told him to drive.
They crisscrossed the Western plains, stopping at phone booths where she called and arranged painting jobs. He drove at night while she tallied up their earnings and balanced their meager accounts.
My mother’s dad worked to keep the farms he shared with his brother surviving while he kept his community alive through service in his church and on town boards. My grandmother played piano in movie theaters and the organ on Sundays, and taught music students.
Every night before I go to bed, I place both hands on the radio my grandfather listened to in his basement and remember my grandparents for a few seconds.
On Monday night, I swear I heard Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s patrician voice wafting from the radio and assuring an anxious nation that we can stand tall in the face of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”
My grandparents proved him right.