Parenting with Strength and Dignity Through the Depression
Russell Baker wrote the book, Growing Up, about how his family survived through The Great Depression, so the struggles his mother prevailed against would be remembered. Mrs. Baker survived immense hardships during the Great Depression as a single mother after her husband died, yet provided for her family in a time when many went hungry and lost hope. Russell Baker depicts his mother as an admirable, necessarily tough woman who did what was necessary to keep her family together and triumphant despite tremendous obstacles. Through hard work, resourcefulness, and sacrifice, Lucy Elizabeth Baker was an extraordinary mother who had a positive impact on her son, Russell, who although a good son, conversely had no influence over his mother’s unbending will as they helped each other survive through the depression by each taking menial jobs and refusing to accept defeat.
According to Mr. Baker’s account of his mother, Lucy Elizabeth was an excellent mother who provided for her family through hard work and sacrifice, and instilled drive and gumption in her son, Russell, to help him succeed in life. First of all, she always put her son, Russell’s and her daughter’s needs before her own and did whatever was necessary to survive and keep her family together. After her husband’s death, she made the decision to take the children out of Morrisonville and moved them to her younger brother’s house in New Jersey in order to avoid having her children placed in new homes (Baker 84). Secondly, she did whatever menial jobs were necessary to support her family. She got a job in a five-and-dime store and —–(other menial jobs)—- to make ends meet (Baker 98). Furthermore, She taught her son the basic skills he would need to survive and provide for himself in his future. She decided to acquaint him early on with work and got him a job at the Saturday Evening Post. She opened a bank account for him to start saving his money. Finally, she sacrificed for her children’s best interests. She used her hard earned money to purchase professional clothes for her son to dress the part (Baker123). She would put the “treasure” of her earnings on the table and ask her children what they would like to buy with it (Baker 126). Although she was a product of nineteenth century thinking trying to purify society, Baker gives homage to his mother in his book, depicting her as more than just an opinionated fierce individual, but also a modern feminist fighting for equality.
Overall, Mrs. Baker imposed a positive influence over her son by maintaining a positive outlook on life and drive to succeed and move forward regardless of circumstances. She was Russell’s symbol of strength, a pillar of confidence. She instilled in him for life the will to succeed and be the best. She wanted Russell to make something of himself, so she taught him how to read so well he was able to skip second grade (Baker 117). Also, she supported Russell in all his endeavors, praying for him and helping him improve his math skills for his college entrance exam to Johns Hopkins (Baker 244). Russell was exposed to all the ups and downs of his mother’s life during those times, which shaped and influenced his own. She also taught him how to approach and talk to people and instructed him on how to be a great salesman (Baker 250). Mrs. Baker wanted to give her son the same drive and gumption she had for being successful in life even through hard times.
Although he was rebellious at times, Russell was a good son because he was supportive and devoted to his mother. They were often at odds with each other because they share a certain amount of competitiveness. When she would spank him they were “two wills of iron” (Baker 125). However, Russell contributed financially early on in life by taking a job delivering newspapers. Then later in life, Russell took care of his mother after she had several falls. Furthermore he continued to care for her with tenderness and compassion after her last fall at age 80 when she was feeble and her mind began to wander from dementia (Baker 346). Finally Russell Baker wrote a book to honor the memory of his ambitious and determined mother. The impact of these efforts certainly indicates that Russell was a good son.
Russell did not influence his mother because he did not have an influential nature as she did, and she was too strong-willed to be influenced by others. Baker’s mother was more of an influence on him than he was to her. Elizabeth Baker was too stubborn to accept anyone else’s ideas. For example, she refused to accept Russell’s girlfriend, Mimi, who he later married (Baker 293). Russell met and married Mimi the girl of his dreams, a good girl, but one that his mother did not approve of because she had tinted hair and didn’t dress the way Lucy Elizabeth felt a decent woman should dress and act. But this did not deter Russell and as usual his perseverance paid off, he found in Mimi the right partner for life. He wasn’t about to give in to his mother’s disapproval of this lovely woman he chose for his wife. Mrs. Baker imposed her will on others, but would not bend to any other will. Therefore Russell did not have any great influence on his mother other than to carry on her legacy.
Russell and his mother helped each other survive the hard times of the depression by taking menial jobs as necessary, moving to find better opportunities, and discovering free or low cost methods of entertaiment. Mrs. Baker moved Russell and Doris to Baltimore, another move that equaled more stress, less money, and more struggling to get by. With what seemed the world against her, she made it. Lucy Elizabeth worked as a laundress to make ends meet. Lucy remarried, bought a house, and became the success she demanded of herself. Russell Baker became a newspaper delivery boy and magazine salesman to help his family. After the war, Baker also worked as a night reporter on the police beat to gain experience. In this book, Baker illustrates how during the Great Depression people learned to use simple things in life to sustain themselves. People had no money and therefore couldn’t go very many places or do much. They sat at the table and had conversations sometimes inventing tall tales just to keep themselves entertained. Through their combined effort, Lucy and Russell Baker survived.
Evidence from this book proves Lucy Elizabeth Baker to be an inspirational figure who not only instilled gumption in her own son, Russell, but now through this text can motivate anyone willing to learn from her example. If Mrs. Baker can press forward as she did with all the adversity she was faced with during the Great Depression, then anyone can feel empowered to overcome circumstances that may seem formidable. In this book, Lucy Elizabeth was Russell’s idol even when he took care of her years later during her senility. His love for his mother is eternalized in this wonderful book, an homage to his mother.
Baker, Russell. Growing Up. Penguin Group Inc. New York. 1982.