Since I only briefly mentioned my mother’s quilt making and her creative money-saving cooking in my book THE DIRTY DAYS, I would like to share a little more information about these two endeavors. First, I’ll comment on denim quilts in this April 15th post, and in my May 1st post, I’ll share my thoughts about her Vinegar Pie. Both writings, I believe, are examples of women’s self-reliance in the 1930s.
Mothers of the Great Depression, especially those in the 1930s Dust Bowl, were often artistically ahead of their times. For instance, when I was a teen in the late 1930s I thought my mother was rather cool when she saved the relatively new-looking backs of the legs of my father’s and brothers’ worn-out blue denim bib overalls to use in her quilt-making.
She also saved scraps of the flour sack floral print material left over after she made me or my sister a dress. She would creatively incorporate the colorful floral pieces with the denim pieces. The contrast of the two materials made a strikingly attractive quilt. I noticed that my friends’ mothers also recycled coarse blue denim overalls material and gave it and the pretty print flour sack scraps a second life in the creation of their quilts.
I like to think the denim overalls material symbolizes the men’s persevering labor and the flour sack print speaks for the roll women played in the family’s survival of the 1930s hard times.
In retrospect, there was nothing backwoods about a quilt made of squares and triangles of faded denim overalls material interspaced between pieces of floral flour sack prints.
Today, in boutiques, department stores and trendy mail-order catalogs one can find numerous items made of denim with floral print trim, beads, embroidery, and any number of innovative and funky decor adorning all sorts of jackets, skirts, purses and home decorations. Yes, those artistic, quilt-making mothers of the 1930s were decades ahead of their times!
Poor farm women during the 1930s Great Depression didn’t have much time or money for sewing clothing. Time was especially precious to the women of the Dust Bowl because there was almost constant dirt causing problems or requiring their attention. Without enough water, or any modern conveniences, cleaning chores were tediously planned and performed. Scraping together enough ingredients to make a meal took time to execute, as well.
But those cited examples are only the tip of the iceberg as far as demonstrating Dust Bowl women’s resourcefulness and self-reliance. For sure, there wasn’t much time for flexibility in their routine. And finding time to make a garment demanded extraordinary flexibility.
Traditionally, a woman’s time with a needle would have been spent in mending, or altering their children’s old clothing, or making quilts. And any cash in pocket was slated mostly for costs of running the farm, a few food staples such as flour, or very possibly for shoe repair. Often a significant amount of money would be needed to pay the doctor for delivering the next baby.
So it was a godsend when the flourmills began to package flour in cotton sacks made of attractive floral print material. The women took a liking to that immediately. So, since my mother and most of the other moms who lived in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression were also frugal women, they saved the print materials from flour sacks to sew dresses for their daughters.
Dress patterns were an extra expense, and the women often designed their daughter’s dresses by changing some of the detailing of an old or borrowed pattern. They also made the dresses with extra-wide hems, and when it came time to lengthen the skirt, my mother and some of the other moms sewed a narrow, bright colored trim, or lace, on the faded line where the old hemline once was.
The old saying Where there’s a will, there’s a way surely fits my resourceful, self-reliant Mother and the many others like her in the Dust Bowl and throughout our nation during one of our most historically difficult times.
For more information about those times, see my book THE DIRTY DAYS.
While watching the History Channel Dust Bowl special a few years ago and the recent Ken Burns PBS Dust Bowl Documentary, I have appreciated the brief but touching testimonies of the now elderly survivors of that historic period.
Truthfully, I wish those articulate elderly survivors—approximately my age—had authored a book-length account of their parents’ courage following their decision not to flee the Dust Bowl. The day-by-day, year by year heroism of those parents has not been given the amount of ink Americans deserve to see in written history.
Sadly the children of those 1930s parents are fading away, and scarcely any have recorded the up-close and personal history of their parents’ courage, perseverance and physical endurance, much less record the ways in which those hard times impacted their own lives as youngsters.
Photographer Dorothea Lange’s photos of the weary Oklahoma migrant mother and her forlorn children say a great deal about the suffering of those who fled the Dust Bowl for California. Lange’s powerful images are a good backup to Steinbeck’s depiction of the migrants. However, I wish there had been many more photographs and more written depictions of the folks and their children who bravely remained on the drought-stricken dusty plains.
It is alarming to me that the children of the Dust Bowl, dubbed The Greatest Generation, are now in their late seventies to nineties and passing away at a rapid rate. So the chance of additional recorded accounts of the heroism and strength of the pioneer men, women and children who endured the 1930s Dust Bowl is very slim.
Fortunately, Steinbeck’s splendid novel lives on as a credible depiction of the Okie immigrant’s desperate struggles to survive in California. My novel, The DIRTY DAYS, is based on my life as I actually grew up in the Dust Bowl but with the intention to portray and honor those who didn’t flee from the Oklahoma plains during our country’s worst hard time. It received the publisher’s Editors Choice and Rising Star awards.
My father is delineated in my story with both strengths and weaknesses, with the latter trait garnering the reader’s sympathy. My mother, whom I call a pioneer woman in my book, sometimes tampers with the truth to protect her family’s peace of mind. Both are typical of Dust Bowl parents. Molly, my alter ego and narrator of my story, represents the real me and my friends in the 30s.
Readers tell me it’s good that my story doesn’t end when the drought and dust storms are over. Rather, it briefly takes the reader into Molly’s and her parent’s post Dust Bowl life, and it shows how their acquired 1930s life skills of strength and determination continued to serve them well.
My two children, in my real life and in my novel, express hope that my story will contribute something noteworthy to the recorded history of the Dust Bowl survivors’ vital role during our nation’s worst time.
To the left is a picture of my mountain taken from the car window when Dan, Ginger and I were driving to the site of the farm where I grew up. As a child I viewed this mountain from my back yard, which was about thirty-five miles east of my homestead at the westernmost end of the Wichita Mountains. In my early years it seemed much farther.
My childhood memory of this flattop, bare mountain had lain dormant for decades before it sprouted again in my consciousness. Like a tulip bulb that becomes a blossoming flower in springtime, that childhood memory came back to me many decades after leaving my childhood home. It happened as I was writing my book, THE DIRTY DAYS.
I was writing about the loneliness that had come with the hot, dry and dusty 1930s summers, missing my schoolmates and with too much time for thinking about the scarcity of food. I must say it pleased me that my brain retrieved my decades-old memory of this mountain that had been my youthful imagined, yeasty-fragrant loaf of bakery bread—bread we could never afford to buy.
But as the picture reveals, the once-upon-a-time faraway, flat-topped mountain that I imagined looking like a loaf of bread now has slanted ends, due to erosion through the years. Furthermore, my mountain doesn’t seem so far away anymore, due to the changes in the contour of the once much flatter surrounding terrain, which these days also has some streaks of green grass and trees on its surface.
So I’m left with this thought: Land changes physically with the passing of time along with good, or bad, maintenance, as do humans.
Video Posted on Updated on
In the final minutes of my journey home, we stopped a second time at the locked gate in front of where my childhood home once stood. I gazed across the land I once longed to leave and now felt a sentimental connection to it. Soon Ginger was at my side intoning Barbara Walters-type questions while video taping me. I was so surprised, self-conscious and overwhelmed with emotion that I felt almost mute.
So, the surprise video recording captured me in a sentimental state of mind struggling to find words while also freezing in my flimsy jacket against a brutal wind and 41 degree temperature. Here is that video, which Ginger and Dan talked me into posting. And I hope viewers will grant me some slack, as I was not prepared for my daughter’s questions.
Click on this link to see the video: http://www.normawelty.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/myjourneyhome.mov
In Search of Turkey Creek
We left Rock Cemetery in search of Turkey Creek (Teal Creek, in my story). I knew if I could find Turkey Creek, I could find the homestead. On sheer instinct, I directed my son, Dan, to drive straight down the country road we approached as we left the cemetery.
We drove about 4 miles, crossed over the road that led to the town on the right, then drove another mile or two. And there it was—Turkey Creek. I felt a number of emotions. Pride and surprise that I could so easily find my way after almost 70 years—and nostalgia that I was only a few miles from my childhood home!
We crossed Turkey Creek, then turned left onto an unmarked road, which I knew in my heart, was the road to my old home. To the right of us, once we made the turn, was a large empty field where one of our neighbors once lived. All that remained was an old oak tree that once stood next to our neighbor’s home. I knew a mile to the left further up the road, I would find my homestead.
When we got there, the tiny house, old barn and chicken coop no longer stood where my former homestead once was, and the reality of “that was then, this is now” competed with my nostalgia.
The entire area was cordoned off by a four-wire line of barbed fencing, and in front of where my home once stood was a locked steel gate.
Ginger expressed surprise that the distance between the house to the corner of the main road where the school bus picked me up in the mornings and dropped me off at the end of the school day seemed a longer distance than described in my book. I agreed. Dan was surprised to see the creek so close to where my house had been. I thought to myself, it did look closer than I remembered.
Although there was nothing left but the fields of green, no longer brown, I could close my eyes and see the barn, old Nellie, the chicken coop, and our tiny three-room home. No running water, no electricity! I was both saddened and warmed by my sudden memories.
My children were disappointed, as was I, that almost all buildings from my youth were now gone. Not surprising, I guess, after almost 70 years. I mentioned we should drive up the road to see our closest neighbor. I’d heard from old friends that the house might still be standing.
A Neighbor’s House
As we started up the road, we could see in the distance a house silhouetted on the horizon—and it looked to me as we approached it just as it did in my youth. But as we drove up to it, what I saw was a shell of a home sagging and crumbling with windows and doors agape and long ago deserted.
Still, my daughter and son were ecstatic to finally see a remnant from my youth. The neighbor’s house, now in disrepair, was years ago much nicer and bigger than our tenant farm home ever was. How I wish I could have shown my children my own home and farm! How I wish I could have seen it again—for myself!
So after a long but exciting day we left the area and headed back to Altus to our hotel. Along the way, I pointed out the location of the gas station, now gone, where I waited each morning for the school bus. I drew my children’s attention to the bridge where my brother Jr. jumped and broke his arm.
The Way Back
I must say that although visiting the place where I grew up was for me a sentimental journey, I think my children felt it was even more awesome visiting the sites of my youth than I did.
I could imagine that to them, the area looked rather flat, beige and bleak, and I’m sure they couldn’t help mentally and emotionally comparing their childhood setting in the north, where amid lush green rolling terrain there were tree-shaded, two-story white farm houses complemented by tall silos flanking huge, red barns and other farm buildings.
Such scenes were within walking distance, or a quick drive, or bike ride from their home where they grew up in a western Wisconsin town.
So that’s the story of what is likely to be my final return to my childhood home. But it’s certainly not the end of my memories or my stories about growing up in the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl!
Next week: MY JOURNEY HOME: Final Thoughts (a short video)
My Baby Sister, Betty Louise
My baby sister, Betty Louise, died more than 80 years ago. I write about her delightful personality and her winsome ways in my novel, THE DIRTY DAYS. I also write about her devastating and sad death in infancy and the effect her early death had on my daddy, Mother, and me. Her funeral and burial—as well as the gentle care our kind neighbors gave to my mother in her shock and grief—are also documented.
To this day, at 87, I’m still deeply touched by the loss of my baby sister. She died during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, but not from dust pneumonia or other weather-related disasters. She probably could have been saved if my parents had been able to take her to a distant hospital for care. The local doctor did the best he could under the circumstances.
After all these years, I needed to visit the gravesite of my baby sister on what was to be my final journey home.
The Drive to the Cemetery
We left the little town of my youth to drive the 5 or 6 miles to Rock Cemetery in the countryside. We were traveling not by map, but by word-of-mouth directions from the manager of the store we had just visited earlier, the only active business in town I could recall from my childhood.
My sister Jane and her husband Charlie and my son, daughter and I got into our respective vehicles and journeyed down a country road until we came to a sign that simply said, “Rock Cemetery.”
Inside the Cemetery
The cemetery looked abandoned from a distance, but once we drove in, we could see both very old and newer headstones. I pointed out the grave marker for the doctor who had tried his best to save our Betty Louise so many years ago. And I called out to my daughter, “Look, Ginger,” when I saw several tumbleweeds, now worn, dry and less round, but still skipping over the cemetery grounds. Ginger had just asked me the day before if we would get a chance to see a tumbleweed.
I struggled to recall the location of the grave of my little sister. I knew from Mother that my youngest brother Billy had placed a modern marker on her gravesite several years before Mother died at the age of 94. Billy had told me Mother could hardly manage the walk from the car to the gravesite to see the new headstone —not because of her age, but because of her overwhelming grief, even after all these years.
We walked past several tombstones searching for the place I recalled
as the spot where Betty Louise was buried. I knew from my childhood that she was buried somewhere toward the front of the cemetery on the left. It was a struggle in the cold and wind (an unusual Northerner was blowing that day), but we found her. I leaned down to touch her gravestone—and tears stung my eyes as I noted the date of her death and recalled my grief at six years old.
In my story, THE DIRTY DAYS, a young boy
named Frederick had stolen my heart in grade school, then died in the 1935 Black Sunday dust storm. His real name wasn’t Frederick, but he was buried next to Betty Louise’s gravesite. His parents, who were quite well-off, in their grief, had cemented some of his favorite toys into his concrete headstone. I searched and searched for his tombstone beside my sister’s marker, but could only find remnants of concrete scrambled on the ground.
Time to Leave
It was time to leave the cemetery—and Jane and Charlie had a long drive back to Oklahoma City. They needed to be home before dark. So we said our good-byes, and my son, daughter and I, just the three of us, headed for the homestead. We had no directions or map. I would need to rely on my memory of how to get there after many years. My mother used to say, “Norma, you’ll always be smart in your books.” I guess that meant I had a good memory. Well, we’d see!
Next Week’s Episode: MY JOURNEY HOME—The Homestead
On October 3, 2012, my two adult children and I left the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport for what would be my final journey home to the farm and small town nearby where I grew up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.
We landed in Oklahoma City where we spent an afternoon and evening with family who now live in the area. Our original plan was to caravan as a group to the location of my story, THE DIRTY DAYS, a tiny town near Altus, OK. But, three weeks earlier, my younger sister Sue (pictured with me on the cover of my book), passed away—and so our plans were changed. Sue and her family were no longer able to journey with us.
So my son, daughter, and I drove by car from Oklahoma City to Altus—a trip of about 2 ½ hours. Along the way, I reminisced about my childhood—and my children listened patiently. I couldn’t believe how many random thoughts about my growing up in this place that were long forgotten all came rushing back to me as we drove by memory-inducing sites and places.
Arriving in Altus
We checked into a delightful hotel in Altus, a Hampton Inn, with lots of rural charm and ambiance. Luck was on our side—I got a FREE suite upgrade! My daughter did, too. My son was down the hall in a regular room and I slept that night feeling the security and warmth that comes from knowing your children are safely sleeping in rooms next door.
The morning after we arrived in Altus, my younger sister Jane and her husband Charlie arrived from Oklahoma City to join us for the short drive to the town my daddy, Mother, and I visited often—for supplies, to go to school, to see the banker—a town of approximately 400 people—similar in size to what it was when I was a youth. We left the hotel in Altus in two vehicles.
We drove for about 30 minutes, then arrived in the town near the tenant farm where I grew up. My children were eager and ripe with questions—mostly questions about the locations of the events in my novel. Can we find “Wanda May’s” house? Which building was the “bank?” What about “Mr. Offner’s store?” Where’s the “school?”
So much had changed in 70 years! Many of the businesses on Main Street were now empty—and old! I couldn’t find “Wanda May’s” house—torn down many years ago, I supposed. My school was no longer there—but a new school had been built in its place on the same location. The old hardware store—“Mr. Elkhart’s” in my book, was the only business I recognized. Much bigger now and in a new building—and very successful.
We stopped for a delightful visit with the current manager of the store, still family-owned after over one hundred years. It was the manager’s great-grandfather who started the business—and it was his son (the manager’s grandfather) who knew my daddy. My heart leaped to find at least one thing I could hang on to from my growing-up years so long ago.
At the end of our delightful conversation with the manager, my son, Dan, asked for directions to the cemetery. Armed with the information and intent on seeing my baby sister’s 82-year-old gravesite, we took one last drive down Main Street, then drove to nearby Rock Cemetery. The jovial mood set earlier was now replaced with melancholy.
Next Week: MY JOURNEY HOME—The Road to the Cemetery
Since publishing my first book, THE DIRTY DAYS, in June of 2012, I have been privileged to enjoy several book signings—local and otherwise. I’ve loved them all—and I’ve been touched by each experience, all for different reasons.
While I’ve met many new friends at each event, for which I am grateful, I cherish the renewal of family ties, seeing old friends, and connecting with former students. A joy I hadn’t anticipated!
January 2013. I have not made a New Year’s resolution. I never have. I’m eighty-seven and ever since I was a child growing up in the 1930s I have been a day-by-day resolute person—marked by firm determination, according to Webster’s. It was determination, perseverance and my resilience to defeatism that caused me to be among the survivors of the Dust Bowl and the simultaneous Great Depression.
I’ve now stacked up more than six decades not living in the Dust Bowl. Four of those decades were in beautifully green Wisconsin and the remainder of those decades in equally impressive Minnesota. But I’ve never outgrown the lessons I learned surviving the poverty and drought-stricken, dusty Oklahoma Plains.
My Minnesota friend, Mary, who also grew up during the Great Depression in a small town amid the rolling green hills of eastern Wisconsin, often said, “My family was poor during the Depression, but I didn’t know we were poor.” Knowing her father brought home a weekly paycheck, I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking her what she thought poor really meant.
I never told Mary that I intended to write a book about my life growing up in the Dust Bowl, and when the time was right, I finally wrote my story. When she heard the news that it was published, she was overtly crestfallen, lamenting because she hadn’t written her book, which she had promised to herself that she would do someday. Quickly, however, she purchased my book and read it in two sittings.
She called me as soon as she finished the final page, and with tears in her voice, declared, “Norma, you did a wonderful job.” She immediately became one of my most avid supporters and talked up my book to her friends and family, as well as to old high school friends still living in Wisconsin. And I was very glad that I had “bitten my tongue” those many years ago.
It was largely Mary’s warmth and caring that made this New Year’s Eve dinner with our dance club friends much better. I was in a great deal of pain from an old back injury and couldn’t stand very straight, or walk smoothly—much less dance. Twice during the evening, my five-foot-two friend Mary held my hand in her delicate hand while walking with me (a bit stooped, yet still taller than most women) to the lady’s room.
I was humbled by Mary’s caring, just as I’m humbled every time I see my published book, and when people want to talk to me at my DIRTY DAYS signing events, or at basketball games—or anywhere. I don’t need to make a New Year’s resolution to continue my addiction to writing. People keep me inspired and determined. And so I’m now on to my next adventure: writing short stories to be published someday in a mini-story collection.