Even though it’s been nearly a hundred years since the Great Depression, its effects still echo in some of us. My own parents were teenagers during that time and it shaped the way they thought about money. After the war and the GI benefits of the 1950s, the world opened up for them, but they never forgot those lean years.

I remember as a child riding in a wagon full of old newspapers and rags as my mother pulled it to the “rag man” to trade it in for pennies. This didn’t have to do with ecology or recycling. It had to do with those pennies, because every one of them counted. Later, she would save green stamps and collect perks from local stores: a set of encyclopedias from the grocery amassed one volume at a time, a box of glasses from the gas station.

My father had a more mixed reaction. When we moved from our apartment in Brooklyn to a new house on Long Island, we brought all our old furniture. Little by little this disappeared, replaced by new, modern furniture. My father wanted everything new. He couldn’t stand the old or worn, as if this was a reflection on who he was, on his inability to provide. At the same time, he couldn’t pass up a deal. Whether it was the bag of potatoes he got from someone at the bar or a table saw he discovered in a ditch, he brought it home, proud of his find.

I learned to be scrupulous about money from my parents, to plan meals a week ahead, to make careful shopping lists, to keep track of exactly how much I spent. I can’t stand spending more than $50 on any piece of clothing and generally shop at used clothing stores. My husband, too, has been affected by this attitude. He saves everything, in case he may need it someday. He works to get the last drop out of the container of cream or the bottle of maple syrup.

Wesley McNair has been called by poet Phillip Levine “one of the great storytellers of contemporary poetry.” He has won grants from the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations, two Rockefeller Fellowships, two NEA grants in creative writing, and an Emmy award. He has twice been invited to read his poetry by the Library of Congress. He was recently selected for a United States Artists Fellowship as one of America’s “finest living artists,” and in 2015 was named as the recipient of the PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence in Poetry. McNair is a former poet laureate of Maine, and his new book of poetry is “Late Wonders: New & Selected Poems.” You can read more about it here: https://godine.com/book/late-wonders/

The Book of A

Raised during the Depression, my stepfather

responded to the economic opportunity

of the 1950s by buying more

and more cheap, secondhand things

meant to transform his life.

“I got this for a hundred bucks,”

he said, patting the tractor that listed

to one side, or the dump truck that started

with a roar and wouldn’t dump.

Spreading the parts out on his tarp,

he’d make the strange whistle

he said he learned from the birds

for a whole morning

before the silence set in.

Who knows where he picked up

the complete A-Z encyclopedias,

embossed in gold and published

in 1921? “They were going to take these

to the dump,” he said. Night after night

he sat up, determined to understand

everything under the sun

worth knowing, and falling asleep

over the book of A. Meanwhile, as the weeks,

then the months, passed, the moon

went on rising over the junk machines

in the tall grass of the only

world my stepfather ever knew,

and nobody wrote to classify

his odd, beautiful whistle, formed,

somehow, in the back of his throat

when a new thing seemed just about to happen

and no words he could say expressed his hope.

“The Book of A” by Wesley McNair from Talking in the Dark. © 1998 by Wesley McNair. Reprinted by permission of Godine.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.