By Lorraine Connelly
Recently, I was going through a box of old correspondence and came across a condolence letter my Aunt Sophie sent to me after my mother passed away in 1999. In her recollections of my mother, one anecdote stood out it — a memory from Christmas 1940 when many were barely “scraping by.” While the men were off fighting in the war (WW II), my mother, at age 27, was living at home and working in a factory during the day. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the minimum wage in 1940 was 30 cents per hour, or $7.08 in 2021 dollars. My mother made about $12 per week.
My mother had eight younger siblings. The stories of her generosity and her sharing, of the little she had, with others were legendary in our family. In 1940, her younger brother, my Uncle Mikey, was dating his fiancé Sophie. Aunt Sophie recollects: “Making a Christmas for her siblings during lean times, I was touched that your mother included a gift for me, a nightgown. That was my only present that Christmas.”
The cost of a cotton flannel nightgown in 1940 was about $2.94. The fact that my mother used a day’s wages to “make a Christmas” for another was both heart-warming and eye-opening for me. Yes, people had less back then, but less was more — and more meaningful. At the tail end of the Great Depression, that cotton flannel nightgown represented a symbol of security and warmth during a period of uncertainty and scarcity.
Today we live in a time of a significant surfeit for some, and an all too familiar scarcity for many others. I was disheartened to read about the recent rise of “smash-and-grab” robberies. In a brazenly coordinated attack, about a dozen thieves entered a Nordstrom’s in Walnut Creek, Calif., stealing high-end merchandise, perhaps with the thought of reselling these items during the Christmas holiday rush. Similar events have occurred in San Jose, Calif., where more than $40,000 of merchandise was stolen from a Lululemon store; and in Chicago, where 14 people rushed into a Louis Vuitton store running off with $100,000 in merchandise. Closer to home, three people stole thousands of dollars’ worth of televisions from BJ’s in Wallingford and assaulted an employee.
A recent New York Post editorial got it wrong when it opined: “Fueling these crimes is the same thing driving the spike in big-city murders: overreaching criminal-justice ‘reforms,’ police departments shrinking in the wake of the Defund the Police movement and progressives’ general anti-cop hostility.” In a fractured society, it is too easy to look to symptomatic causes as the source of phantom pain in the body politic. Instead, like the Good Samaritan of Biblical tradition, who also witnessed a “smash-and-grab” robbery at the hand of thieves, we, too, can choose to individually bind up the wounds of those in our community who are in need.
The Covid pandemic has exposed the increasing wealth gap in this country. According to The Washington Post, nearly 12 percent of the country lives in poverty, up 2.4 percentage points since June 2020, constituting the biggest spike in six decades, according to researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. Those at the other end of this lopsided income scale are actually better off financially than they were before the pandemic. Few should be surprised that this wealth calculus is destabilizing for society.
While most Americans would agree that a more equitable income distribution is a desirable goal for society, perhaps this Christmas the emphasis should be on spreading generosity, as well as wealth. Wallingford residents are familiar with the local nonprofit Master’s Manna, an organization that has addressed the food insecurity issues of low to moderate income families for more than a decade. The organization also has a clothing program. Says Vice Chair Ian Brooks, “Our goal is to find homes for all the good used clothing which is stored and sorted in a large, donated facility in Silversmith Park. Right now, we are focusing on collecting outdoor coats, gloves, scarves and unused socks for immediate distribution at our four regular weekday food pantries.” Another local organization, the Meriden-Wallingford Chrysalis Center located in Meriden, has a shelter wish list of items most urgently needed.
In honor of my mother and Aunt Sophie, and those who have struggled to “make a Christmas” out of the spun gold of their generosity, I am donating some new flannel nightgowns, a simple gift, and perhaps the only gift someone will receive this Christmas.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.