Octogenarian recalls The First Great Depression

Rowena was six years old when the stock market crashed in 1929. Her family had moved to southern California from British Columbia only four years before. Her father got occasional work in construction. The family scraped by.

Soon thereafter her parents separated, and her mother had to find a livelihood. Raised on a farm, she turned to baking chicken pies for restaurants, with chickens raised in their backyard. Rowena and her two younger siblings helped pluck and clean the harvested chickens.

From their father the children learned to work with wood and mechanical tools. In time he garnered skills to build a house. Her mother did their household plumbing, electrical and structural fix-its herself, along with cooking, canning, sewing, and knitting. And everything was on a cash basis. There was no credit.”If the money wasn’t there,” Rowena said, “we didn’t buy anything.”Rowena spoke about people giving them hand-me-down clothes and a bag of groceries from time to time. “But we never felt deprived,” she told me. “And having hand-me-downs is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I think we’re in the Second Great Depression now,” she said. Rowena feels that some of what she learned could be instructive for all of us going forward. As do we, which is why we taped this conversation with her.

Those formative years shaped the values and skills she relayed to her children in the early 1950s: frugality, self-reliance, resourcefulness, initiative. And how to make and fix things themselves.Perhaps because of what she learned in the First Great Depression, Rowena is living to the fullest right now, with a sparkling pulse of self-determination and vitality. She’s 88 going on 68, a breast cancer survivor who sings and dances every week, and is active in her church, including their new church community garden.

The person you just met is Rowena Donaldson. My Mother.

You go, mom!

Watch Growing Up in the First Great Depression (episode 209).110403_rowenaj_500.jpg


  1. Rowena, I had the great pleasure and honor of having conversations with you during the years you had the print shop in S.F! As much of a gracious lady then, as you look now! Peace to you and my gratitude to have known you then as such an engaging, witty, delightful and robust woman!

    Victor (AKA April)

  2. Oh, my! She is beautiful! Those eyes! What a wonderful story. I have been looking up experiences like these to teach my son to value hard work and appreciate the small things in life, I will certainly use this during our next conversation.

    Thank you so much, I am so in love with your blog and your work!

  3. What a great story! Now I know why you operate as you do. You have a wonderful role model. I especially appreciated Johnny’s time line. I’m right in there with your mother. Kudos all around!
    Anita (aka Maude)

  4. Janaia,

    Excellent! Now I see where you get your good looks! Your mom is a very pretty lady.

    Rowena made me think of William Stauss and Neil Howe’s book ” The Fourth Turning” about the regular cycles of history and how generations are formed by (and form) history. The cycle runs the length of a long human life with four stages that last about twenty years or so. A High is followed by an Awakening, then an Unraveling, then a Crisis, followed by a new High.

    The American Revolution (Crisis of the 1770’s)
    The Era of Good Feelings (High of early 1800’s)
    Transcendentalism (Awakening of the 1830’s)
    Mexican War and Sectionalism (Unraveling of 1840’s)

    The Civil War (Crisis of the 1860’s)
    Reconstruction and Gilded Age (High of 1870’s-80’s)
    Third Great Awakening (Awakening of 1890’s)
    World War I and Prohibition (Unraveling of the 1920’s)

    The Great Depression/World War II (Crisis of the 1930’s-40’s)
    American High (High of 1950’s)
    Consciousness Revolution (Awakening of the 1960’s-70’s)
    Culture Wars (Unraveling of the 1980’s-90’s)

    Current undefined situation (Crisis likely to play out until 2025-30)

    Your mom is a classic example of Strauss and Howe’s Hero generation which was born during an Unraveling, rose to the challenge of a great Crisis, enjoyed the resulting prosperous High, saw her children come of age during a cultural Awakening, and later observed an Unraveling. She has now lived long enough to see the complete cycle as we enter a new Crisis. She has so much to teach us!

    – Johnny in San Francisco

  5. Everett says:

    I’m happy she’s part of my life; and that she’s introduced me to two fine young daughter-women!

  6. Roger Winkler says:

    She is one of the loveliest, inspirational women we know. Thanks for the nice illumination!

  7. Terry Donaldson says:

    Nice blog, Janaia! I am eager to hear and see Mom’s videographed interview!

Speak Your Mind