Reflecting on an Evening with Family

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Just thinking.

Wow, what a giant step from the poverty of the 1930s Dust Bowl to a 2014 upscale restaurant with delicious leftovers.

The young woman shown in the background, my granddaughter ‘elect’ and mother of the two young children pictured (my great grandchildren), set a good example when she asked for take-home boxes for the leftovers.

She was thinking of her husband (my grandson) who would be arriving home tired and hungry later that night from his job as an airline pilot.

I’m so grateful to have such wonderful family! Also pictured, my daughter and my husband, Bob.

Looking Back on 89 Years

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Bob and I at his 90th birthday party last October!


My birthday is later this month and I will be 89 years old. Since I first published my book THE DIRTY DAYS two years ago, many have asked me if I would go back and change anything about my life if I could. My answer is usually well, yes–but then again, maybe not. So many of the events that changed my life forever were never under my control. I was born the oldest child of a tenant farmer during one of the most difficult times in our country’s history. A great depression, the dust bowl, and then WWII. All of these events had a profound effect on who I was and would become.

As a result of our hard times, I learned the importance of friends and family (on whom we often relied), the necessity for resilience and tenacity (giving up was not an option), the need for charity and faith (someday things were going to get better–they just had to). My daddy and mother taught me integrity, the value of hard work, frugality, and pull-togetherness.

Do I wish my little baby sister had not died, causing my daddy to weep behind the house so no one would see him; or my mother seemingly lost and inconsolable over a tragic death that could have been prevented had we had the money to seek the best medical help possible? Do I wish I could have had store-bought dresses to wear and bakery-bread sandwiches to eat? Do I wish I could have had enough to eat–so often I went to bed hungry, yet never told my folks. Yes, yes, yes, and yes!

What I did have was a close-knit family that worked together, played together, grieved together, and stayed together. There’s no question I grew up with more hardship than I’m fond of remembering, but I also grew up in a house filled with love, courage, and hope. Would I ever want to change that–of course not!

Just some observations from a woman who has lived 89 years–and I’m looking forward to stacking up my 9th decade!

Mother’s Depression-Era Vinegar Pie

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Perhaps Mother’s vinegar pie would have been more aptly named if it had been called Sweet ‘n Sour Dumplings, or better yet, Emergency Dessert. For in my book, THE DIRTY DAYS, my brief account of Mother’s vinegar pie surely did give the impression of an emergency situation. As desserts go, Mother’s vinegar pie wasn’t exactly spot on when it came to flavor and texture. I dare say it would have missed the mark considerably for a blue ribbon in the county fair pie contest, had she been naive enough to enter it.
It truly was kind of an emergency when Mother tried to satisfy her family’s sweet tooth when supplies were scarce and the times were tough. Undaunted and without apology, she would boil a mixture of water, sugar, vinegar and vanilla for about two minutes, then set it aside while she made a dough with flour, baking powder, salt, lard, milk, and maybe a beaten egg. She rolled out the dough on a floured surface to piecrust thickness and then cut it into strips, each about one inch by two inches.
She would bring the liquid mixture to a boil again and the strips of dough were dropped into the boiling liquid–one at a time. Mother would swirl the liquid for about three seconds before dropping in each dough strip. After the final strip was dropped in and swirled, she would loosely cover the pan and simmer the “dumplings” for about ten minutes.
I have to admit the end result of the depression-era dessert wasn’t as bad as it might sound. Its flavor actually fell short of terrible. The liquids and sugar mixture were cooked to an appealing, somewhat thick and pale caramel color, which compensated for the dumplings that were fairly rubberized due to the skimpy amount of shortening used in making them.
But with a drizzle of whole milk on the warm dumplings and thick juice, Mother’s efforts were not wasted. Most important, both then and in retrospect, her efforts were and are viewed as an act of love worthy of the highest award.
Pictured below is my version of Mother’s Vinegar Pie, which my husband Bob nicknamed, Fruitless Pie. I must admit that I bastardized my mother’s vinegar pie recipe. I added a bit more sugar, a teaspoon of butter and vanilla and used a mixture of half plain flour and half Bisquick to make the dumplings. Then I topped the dessert with Cool Whip. Although she has been gone for ten years, I can almost see Mother’s nod of approval and hear her soft chuckle.
 I always took it for granted that Mother created her recipe for Vinegar Pie, which she sometimes referred to as Vinegar Cobbler. Much to my surprise I recently found recipes on line for vinegar pie and cobbler, both calling for a top crust over the dumplings, then baked in the oven. My frugal mother simply cooked the liquids and dumplings on the stovetop and never applied a piecrust.

I always took it for granted that Mother created her recipe for Vinegar Pie, which she sometimes referred to as Vinegar Cobbler. Much to my surprise I recently found recipes on line for vinegar pie and cobbler, both calling for a top crust over the dumplings, then baked in the oven. My frugal mother simply cooked the liquids and dumplings on the stovetop and never applied a piecrust.
Having sampled my rendition of Mother’s Vinegar Pie (Cobbler), my husband and I recommend that anyone interested in making Mother’s depression-era dessert should select one of the on-line recipes.
Having sampled my rendition of Mother’s Vinegar Pie (Cobbler), my husband and I recommend that anyone interested in making Mother’s depression-era dessert should select one of the on-line recipes.
Here’s a link to a Martha Stewart recipe for Pioneer Vinegar Pie–a significant contrast to the “recipe” used by my mother.

Self-Reliance and the 1930s Frugal Farm Woman: Denim Quilts

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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.

Pictured below is a denim jacket I bought about ten years ago, which to me is a take-off on the denim quilt idea. Women of the 1930s could never have imagined that oday’s woman might wear a denim jacket with big earrings and high heel shoes--a trendy look  that would be quite a contrast to the dress standard of their era!
Pictured above is a denim jacket I bought about ten years ago, which to me is a take-off on the denim quilt idea. Women of the 1930s could never have imagined that today’s woman might wear a denim jacket with big earrings and high heel shoes–a trendy look that would be quite a contrast to the dress standard of their era!

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!

Frugal Farm Women Made Flour Sack Dresses

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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.

A picture of me wearing a flour sack dress Mother made in material with tiny blue flowers.
A picture of me wearing a flour sack dress Mother made in material with tiny blue flowers.

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.

A Generation Fading Away

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Mother: A pioneer woman, who stuck it out with her husband on the drought-stricken plains of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
Strong, determined, hopeful. He continued to say, "It's going to get better. It has to."
Daddy: Strong, determined, hopeful. He continued to say, “It’s going to get better. It has to.”

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.


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My Mountain
My Mountain

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.


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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!

Turkey Creek (Teal Creek in THE DIRTY DAYS)
Turkey Creek (Teal Creek in THE DIRTY DAYS)

The Homestead

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.

The old homestead (house, barn, and chicken coop now gone).
The old homestead (house, barn, and chicken coop now gone).

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!

Old abandoned home of our closest neighbor.
Old abandoned home of our closest neighbor.

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 JOURNEY HOME—The Road to the Cemetery

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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.

The road to Rock Cemetery.
The road to Rock Cemetery.

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

Rock Cemetery.
Rock 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.

One of many tumbleweeds blowing across the graveyard.
One of many tumbleweeds blowing across the graveyard.

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.

Betty Louise's modern headstone that replaced her worn-out 80-year-old marker.
Betty Louise’s modern headstone that replaced her worn-out 80-year-old marker.

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.

My sister Jane and I at Betty Louise's gravesite.
My sister Jane and I at Betty Louise’s gravesite.

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

MY JOURNEY HOME—The Town Where I Grew Up

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Oklahoma City

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.

My son and daughter with me at the hotel in Altus—in front of a map of the area.
My son and daughter with me at the hotel in Altus—in front of a map of the area.

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.

A mural on a building that sits on Main Street.
A mural on a building that sits on Main Street.

Main Street

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.

Empty buildings on Main Street.
Empty buildings on Main Street.

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.

Our Goodbyes

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