During the depths of the Great Depression, across the street customers with overdue bills were coming to the door, bartering rugs, an entire dining room set, silverware, anything they could sell. Armand thought, Why not my sketches too? He recalled, “I started to go around from door to door trying to sell my pathetic, old, scabby, first attempts at painting for twenty-five or fifty cents. Yeah.” He grinned, “Well, the first thing I had to learn was to not go to the same house twice.”
One November evening he trudged up and down blocks further away from home. It was chilly and starting to get dark but he had had a good day, having earned a hard won dollar and a quarter. Encouraged, he thought he’d try one more door, knocked, and an elderly lady appeared.
“Instead of just slamming the door in my face, which was usual, she said, ‘I’ll take one.’ She handed me a dollar! I reached into my pocket for change but she told me to keep it. I thought, ‘Wow! A whole dollar for one! So I had two dollars and a quarter.’ It seemed like I just walked on air to get home. I was so elated. When I got there they were still sitting at the kitchen table. Right away they all scolded me, my parents and my two older sisters. ‘Where have you been? We were waiting, waiting.’” His father scowled down at him from the long end of the table. “Then I said, ‘I got two dollars and a quarter.’” Years later Armand recalled how his father slowly lowered his head over his plate and muttered, “‘Well, that's more than I've got.’ To me, that was the highlight of the Great Depression” (Dornbush/Zandstra Interview 7-10-02).
The sale of paintings, however primitive, fueled Armand’s determination to become an artist—full time. Even then he knew such a commitment would be trivialized by the meat and potatoes work ethic of his needy family and their indigent community. What good did art do for Mr. Andrews when he needed to put food on the table? The older Armand became, the harder it was to excuse his dreamer’s disposition. Even Josie, who had put up with her son’s dallying in art before he was ten, was now sharply critical of his apparent slothfulness.
Why couldn’t he be more like Frank? Fifteen years his senior, Frank stood over Armand as the formidable big brother, the family’s model son. After all, despite the grim economy in 1933, Frank held a job as a big city credit manager in Detroit earning an enviable $50 a week, enough to prop up the shaky finances of his family back home. As the family of five scraped through the Depression relatives and family members resented all the more Armand’s nickel and dime demands for art supplies. Why couldn’t he work at something that mattered and get a real job (VanderMey, 2012)? Armand recalled, “of the whole family, Beth is the only one that stood up for me (Dornbush/Zandstra Interview, 7-10-02).
Frank took a correspondence course in business from the University of Chicago, and that was fortunate. In spite of the bad times, Frank was never without a job and that was quite unusual. Ya! He was the norm. Frank was, as my father put it, a man like the relatives from Kalamazoo. Whereas Beth, Jeanne and myself, particularly, had the art from my father, my frustrated father.. . . And my mother and all her side of the relatives, they could be not only indifferent, but even negative toward anything that you call creative. The purpose of life is to work and make money. OK. (Armand laughs).
One of the most important things I’ve discovered about myself indirectly is the antithesis of the make-up of my father’s side versus my mother’s side. Though they both come from the same island in the North Sea, my mother was from down there out in the flat plateaus, the fields [of Friesland]. They were very different people. They met at school. Emigrated. I understand my father was nine years old when he became an accepted citizen of the United States. My mother would have been eleven then. They had to come here and go right to school. They completed eighth grade and from then on it was labor.
As the Great Depression deepened, more and more businesses were shutting down. Jasper Merizon had built a shop for refinishing and striping automobiles, but after the market crashed he lost the mortgage to a mounting pile of debts and was forced to sell his Chrysler for a meager $60. Across the street Mr. Andrews had lost his job and Armand noticed that night after night their dinner consisted of just beans and weenies, beans and weenies, beans and weenies.
Before long customers with overdue bills began bartering goods for services. Farmers would come with their rickety carts hoping to sell fresh eggs, one at a time, or a pint of milk, a round of butter, vegetables, perhaps an onion, a few carrots, a potato, enough for a thin soup. They sold anything marketable. Armand’s mother managed to obtain coffee at wholesale prices from Armand’s Uncle John, in Kalamazoo. She repackaged the rich coffee and enlisted her younger son to deliver the parcels door to door at retail rates ranging from twenty-one to thirty-one cents per pound. At the time the family needed each member’s contribution to regain financial footing.
Out of desperation the Merizon family was forced to go on relief. It was Armand’s job to hike downtown to the local fire station to pick up the weekly dole: a chunk of meat, a quart of milk, a loaf of bread. While standing in the bread line he kept hearing the wistful talk of people, desperate as they were, wondering how it would be to attend the 1933 World’s Fair in the big city of Chicago. To Armand’s way of thinking, all of that was an easy ride, only two hundred miles away.