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Then and Now

Ninety-nine years ago today my maternal grandfather, Edward Christian (“Eddie”) Gerding, was born in New Orleans.  When he was a young man he kept chickens in his yard – a yard within the city limits of New Orleans.  He kept chickens until years after my mother was born (in 1938).  He did so not because he was in to free-range organic locovorism; he did so because he and his family were relatively poor and keeping your own chickens back then saved money on poultry and eggs.

By the time I was born (1958) America had become wealthy enough that very few working-class denizens of urban areas kept their own chickens.  (Present a live chicken today to a twentysomething American urbanite or suburbanite and that person is as likely to think the bird to be a rare and exotic creature that should immediately be put on the endangered-species list as to recognize the animal for what it is.)

My grandfather’s mother died when he was two years old.  She died from giving birth to my great Uncle Charles Gerding, my grandfather’s only sibling.

A man with great natural intelligence, my grandfather did graduate from high school, but he never set foot in a college classroom.  Very few people from his background in his generation did so.  (My maternal grandfather was alone among my four grandparents to graduate from high school.)

My grandfather (and grandmother) suffered the death of their fourth and final child, Phillip, within days of Phillip’s birth in (I believe) 1943.  I do not recall learning why Phillip died, but infant mortality back then was much higher than it is today.

Although always a hard worker and (I’m told) never unemployed – not even during the Great Depression – my grandfather did not own a new car until he was almost 47 years old.  He and my grandmother bought their first new car, a brown Rambler station wagon, in 1961.  I remember that car well.  It did not have air-conditioning.

I believe that my grandfather travelled by air three times in his life.  Just three.  As is true for two of my three other grandparents, he was never outside of the continental United States.  My maternal grandmother, I thinkonce went with my parents by car on a trip to Canada.

My grandfather worked for most of his life, as did my dad, as a pipefitter (then later as a pipefitters’ foreman) at Avondale Shipyards, just outside of New Orleans.  My grandfather retired in 1977.  He died in July 1991, having lived for a few years with a transplanted heart valve, that valve having come from a pig.  Like all three of my other grandparents, my maternal grandfather wore dentures for the entire time that I knew him.  None of my grandparents reached the age of 80 and none died with any of their real teeth.

Middle-class Americans’ living standards skyrocketed during my grandfather’s lifetime.