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The Earnheardts | How Grandma prepared me for a pandemic

"Like my grandma’s generation was defined by the Great Depression, I can't help but think that as the pandemic carries on, my family is being defined by the stresses of COVID-19," Mary Beth Earnheardt writes.
The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie and Ella.

I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, and my grandma, Clara Gearhart, was my best friend. When I tell people this, I worry they’ll think I’m being precious or that I didn’t have close friendships with people my own age. That’s not the case. 

I know what a best friend is, and this term aptly describes my relationship with my grandma. We helped each other, told each other secrets and worked out ways to understand the world together. She didn’t treat me like a kid. She treated me like someone she loved and, in many ways, like her emotional and intellectual equal.

In my youth, I lived with her and we spent our days together doing chores on the farm, and then hanging out, watching game shows and eating popcorn.

I've been thinking a lot about my grandma because many aspects of her personality were forged by the Great Depression. This historic event shaped her generation’s perception of the world. She understood how delicate society can be and was self-reliant in ways that I’ve rarely, if ever, seen in my modern contemporaries.

Like my grandma’s generation, I can't help but think that as the pandemic carries on, my family is being defined by the stresses of COVID-19. Even after a vaccine or treatment is found, the fabric of our society will remain altered. We’ll try to go back to the normal we had, but like the Great Depression, the coronavirus will have reshaped the very geography of life. There are behaviors and ideas that we’ll carry with us.

I’ve also been thinking about the way my grandma lived. The precautions she took, even when financially stable, were the scars of the time period that shaped her. 

One concrete way the Depression impacted my Grandma was the way she cooked. She baked bread each week, massive batches to feed the whole family. It's almost too easy to make the point that the pandemic has caused many of us to bake. In the early months, flour was as hard to buy because so many people felt a primal need to bake. I read story after story about sourdough bread and couldn’t help but think of Grams. When faced with an emergency, baking bread must represent some innate need in humans to be able to create this staple. 

But baking wasn't the only food habit my grandma developed in the Depression. She made many meals without meat and would carefully save food long after it had started to look a bit ragged. She cooked through her supplies until the refrigerator and freezer were totally empty. This was so impactful on me that I still feel like a failure when I throw out moldy bread or find leftovers at the back of the fridge. 

I’ve eaten more than one container of food that others wouldn’t even try. When I was little, Grams would say, “Give it a try, Mimi. I bet it hasn’t turned yet.” In some instances she was right, but when she was wrong, it wasn’t pleasant. But the deep sense of having a sustainable diet came from living with a woman who knew real hunger. She valued every morsel because she knew what life was like when food was scarce. 

I don’t even think my kids knew the word “scarce” before this year. They’ve grown up in a world where everything was easy to purchase. They’ve never worried about our ability to get what they needed. Even though it’s not nearly as severe as it was in the early 1930s, for the first time in their lives, I’ve had to tell my kids that I couldn’t get them something because the store was out of stock or because the price was too expensive. I feel blessed that our food supply chain in the U.S. has held up as well as it has, but living through this has shown us how fragile it can be. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to trust it, or take it for granted, the same way again.

My grandma was an expert in building community and maintaining interpersonal relationships. We lived in a rural town, where everyone knew her, and mentioning the name Clara Gearhart held a lot of status for my entire family. My grandma’s willingness to engage with others was a resource everyone in the family could call on. 

Grandma often turned to her church family for support and to offer support in return. They met several times a week in a small building along the banks of the Susquehanna River. When things got especially bad, the church was a lifeline. It was a community of people who relied on each other in times of need. Grams remained active in her church her entire life, embracing the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her Depression-era friends. 

The Earnheardts attend our local church occasionally, but it’s not the center of our lives the way it was for Grandma. Instead, I see my kids turning to YouTube. They find a sense of connection through online communities. No, the computer isn’t raising my children. Yes, Adam and I need to do a better job of limiting screen time. But I also appreciate the role these online communities have played in making my children feel connected at a time when they are isolated from the rest of the world. Human beings are social creatures, and we need to feel a sense of belonging. I wonder if the kids will go through life connecting this way, or if they will eventually look for more from their relationships IRL (in real life). 

LIke most of her generation, Grandma didn’t have the money to do many activities we usually associate with life, but she used her free time in ways that allowed her to express her creativity. She crocheted hot pads and afghans and quilted blankets to keep her children warm during the cold Pennsylvania winters. Her craftsmanship was impeccable, and we still have many of the items she created. 

During the pandemic, we don't need to create our own clothing or blankets, but the slower schedule has made us all a little more imaginative. Our kids have been painting and drawing and writing. My kids have the time to spend being free to create. Ella, 14, painted a bear using nothing more than instant coffee grounds for paint, and entered it in the YWCA 17 under 17 art show. Would she have done this in nonpandemic times? I don’t know, but I do know that while our kids might not be working to develop a specific skill or product, they’re finding other outlets to feed their souls. For them, art has a therapeutic effect.

Just like with any childhood friendship, I spent hours talking to my Grandma and listening to her stories. I suppose the biggest advantage of having a senior citizen as a best friend was an ability to access her wisdom. I could ask questions, and she would give me honest, age-appropriate answers. It was through this back-and-forth that I learned about war and hardship. She told me about her husband, my grandfather who died before I was born, working for the Works Progress Administration. His day job was a coal miner (he got paid only for the coal he dug) and his side gig was running the farm, with the help of four children, four nieces and nephews and, of course, my grandma.

Ultimately, I am her legacy. Thus, I’m also a product of the Great Depression. This is because I’ve inherited Gram’s fundamental belief that people are good. When we are challenged, we come together in ways that hold the social contract together.

Someday I may have a granddaughter of my own, and then it’ll be my turn to tell stories about what it was like to live way back in 2020. I may tell her about how we all started to wear masks to keep us safe instead of as a fashion statement. She’ll be curious about the strange ritual of shaking hands that was a common greeting until 2020. 

The stories I tell could be nightmares, but I’m betting they’ll be stories of strength and resilience and working together with my community to make the best of the worst of times.

— Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.