How could soup, my grandmother Mary and The Great Depression be intertwined in my memory bank forever? Well, let me tell you about the life lessons I learned through soup my grandmother often made.
My grandmother was one of the best soup cooks I have ever known. Her soup could rival any restaurant soup I have ever eaten. Her soups were always savory, full of homegrown organic veggies, legumes and herbs. Her recipes were varied and some of her best and most wonderful soups were hearty types like her navy bean and ham soup or thick, rich split pea or ox-tail with barley. In all my childhood I never had a soup of hers that I didn’t love enough to eat for breakfast the next day and the next. Because we lived in a two generation household, one pot could feed all six of us, my brother, parents and grandma and grandpa. There were always leftovers. My grandmother’s house often smelled like one of her wonderful soups simmering on her stove. I could sometimes smell it wafting outside her kitchen window, onto her back patio as I played outside.
This is my grandmother’s high school graduation photo in a dress her mother made. She was born in 1909. She graduated from high school in Spanaway, WA in 1927. She attended beauty college after high school and opened her own hair salon. My grandfather was a client and she caught his eye and the rest is “history”. The stock market crashed in October of 1929. Now about the soup and hobo signs.
During the Great Depression, many men hopped freight trains, traveling from town to town, looking for work. Some of these men became known as “hobos”. Not all men looking for work lived as a hobo, but some did. The hobos developed signs they would mark to help out other men to find shelter and food. My grandfather worked for the Union Pacific Railroad as an engineer. The plight of the hobo and the desperate situation of many hungry men and families were front and center for both of my grandparents.
My grandparents were the kind of Americans that when they saw a need, they found a way to do their part to fill the need. My grandfather was a returned WW1 marine, earned the Purple Heart in the Battle of Belleau woods. He was an imposing man of large stature with powerful hands that could brake a steam engine. The same man had a heart as large as his stature. I recall their eyes filling with tears as they spoke about The Great Depression, as they chopped vegetables for their many pots of soup. My grandfather would say, while choking back tears, “I hope and pray that you will never know what it is like to have nothing and be hungry. I hope you’ll always have enough to eat and have a roof over your head. You’ll hopefully never know what it is like to really have nothing, God willing you never will know what desperation is really like.”
Now, back to soup. My grandmother was faced with owning her little beauty parlor, which she rented out a small corner of a drug store in Spanaway, WA. After the stock market crash, people could simply not afford hair cuts and hair styling, so she moved her haircutting to her home. Her morning routine was to wake up and start a pot of hearty soup. Soup can be made with the broth and left over meat from the bones. In those times, people didn’t buy canned broth. Nothing went to waste and you could purchase a ham bone, a beef tail or soup bones from your local butcher. So my grandmother made a daily pot of soup and offered free haircuts, hot shaves and a hot bowl of soup for hungry men who were out on foot looking for work. Some women made hand made signs like the one below and hung it out in front of their houses, indicating to hobos that the woman of the house was willing to offer a hot meal for hungry men who were out of work. The little smiling cat was the hobo symbol for “a kind hearted woman lives here”.
Just think about that for a moment. She opened her own house as a free soup kitchen and her back porch as a free barber shop for strange men. This was a day and time when a woman could do this and not worry about being a victim of violence to the extent we see today. I am sure there were crimes against women, but in her small Washington town, she felt called to do whatever she could to fill a need for those who were desperate. My grandfather’s shift on the railroad would take him away from home for days in a row. She was never afraid of being alone and boldly offered her free haircuts, shaves and hot soup until the need was over. Even in her 70s, she would cut the neighbor’s hair because he had 14 children and she knew she could help him in this small way. She frequently bought new shoes for a family we knew who had a large family and little income. I grew up with home haircuts and learned to cut my own boys hair by carefully and quietly watching her.
We learn life lessons through many ways. My most important lessons were through stories shared through teary eyes who had seen first hand what desperation looks like. Lessons were learned by listening to the stories about hobos, soup and haircuts. This morning I woke and started a pot of chicken noodle soup. I always make a lot more than we need so that we always have some to share. If I ever deliver a mason jar of homemade soup to your doorstep, remember this story and the spirit of my always generous grandparents, who helped me to understand how to fill a need when I see a need. All of my grandmother’s soup recipes I have memorized by heart. There I was, year after year, sitting at her kitchen bar, quietly watching her making her savory pots of love to share.