What My Mother Taught Me About Social Security
Mama (Eugenia G. "Bonnie Gene" Gobel Peay 1920-2004) knew all about what it meant to be without income when you were old. Her maternal grandmother was a frequent guest for months at a time, though Granny Allison preferred to stay with her oldest daughter nearer Nashville. But she was not the only poor relation who came for long stays.
Mama's family lived in what was then the country (1102 South Graycroft, Madison, TN). They lived in a wooden house of six cavernous rooms with an outhouse and a farm. Nobody had much during the Depression, but they always had food, so poorer relatives came and went. I asked Mama how in the world the family managed to live like that. "We just fed whoever turned up," she replied.
The relative who impressed her most was her Aunt Ellen (actually the daughter of her great-grandfather). Aunt Ellen Elmore would come with her trunk, stay a few months, and then go around the rest of the rota of relatives. She had been born in Eagleville in Rutherford County and had never married. All the Elmore family possessed sewing skills, and Aunt Ellen had worked as a dressmaker for as long as she could work. There was no pension. She was, not unnaturally, a cross and snappish old lady, and Mama was the only person to pay her much mind. Mama loved to listen to her stories.
In the mid 1930s, Congressman Jo Byrns managed to steer into law a measure that gave Aunt Ellen a small pension, about $7 a month. When the Congressman came to Nashville, Mama was one of the schoolchildren taken to meet him. She shook his hand. When Aunt Ellen found out, she said, "Let me shake the hand that shook the hand of the man that got me my pension."
I still have among the family papers the opened out envelope Aunt Ellen used to write a note to congratulate Mama on her sixth grade graduation. The note had $1 in it - a touching sum.
Now, imagine being left like that in your declining years, and go call your congressperson.