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!
It couldn’t have been a better time and place. It was an exceptionally balmy April 11, 2014, and I was the guest in Stillwater High School teacher Peter Schield’s Junior English classes. Fresh spring air wafted gently though the open classroom windows, and much to their credit, the students conveyed very pleasant vibes as they entered the room, then later with their ‘thank you’ and/or pleasant nods as they exited the classroom. I so appreciated their polite withholding the desire to be sitting outside in the sunny breeze, or strolling in the park with a friend.
They had recently completed a unit of study on John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which depicts a poor Oklahoma family who migrates to a far less pleasant time and place in California than the students could scarcely imagine; and I, their guest speaker, was there to tell them what it was like for those who didn’t leave the Oklahoma Dust Bowl——an experience unfortunately equally unpleasant. And I did share some of my experiences.
After my presentation, students asked some thought-provoking questions. Here are some of them: Did you have hope? What kind of food did you eat? Did a poisonous spider or insect ever bite you? It was very dry, so where did you get your water? Did you ever want to go ride the rails? What was your clothing like? Did you ever want to move to California? What did you do for fun? What was the saddest thing you experienced?
There were more, but I think these “from their perspective” questions exemplify the range of thoughts these students had about my experiences. I hope you enjoyed this peek into the minds of this very nice group of teens, who made that day for me, one of the most beautiful days in the twilight years of my life.
It was the beginning of the 1940s, and we were still in recovery from Oklahoma’s worst economic hard times, which was compounded by drought and dust storms. My forever-frugal mother, knowing brown wasn’t my best color, found the brown dress I’m wearing in the picture on the right on a clearance rack. But to her credit, she splurged a little and bought a piece of white lace to trim the collar and a strip of white taffeta ribbon for a matching hair bow. I had just learned how to coax my very soft hair into the then-trendy high pompadour style, which was not an easy feat in that pre-hairspray era.
A large bow anchored with bobby pins behind the pompadour and wearing a blob of red lipstick were the mark of teen fashion consciousness that linked us in those days to the big world. Just being a part of local teen look-a-likes also may have given us a healthy feeling of a cohesiveness that subsequently quelled a bit of the gloom of WWII.
Here are two links to some wonderful photographs of the Queen that I think you will enjoy:
Although she lived in a palace and I lived in a shabby farmhouse in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Queen Elizabeth II and I really aren’t so very different. She was born less than a year after my birth. I took notice of the media photos and stories of her through the years, feeling almost like we were growing up together. She was quiet and reserved as a child and I appeared quiet and reserved because I was basically shy.
During WWII the future queen donned a uniform and served a stint in a British women’s auxiliary military as a non-combat trained mechanic and first-aid truck driver. During the same war I served my country working as an assembly-line riveter on US military planes for two years.
Finally, here is the clincher. Several years ago I was watching an old video on TV or possibly the computer of some sort of British jubilee parade with numerous horse-drawn, ornate golden carriages moving along on a street near Buckingham Palace. The queen was not standing on the palace balcony as usual. She, husband Philip and Prince Harry at about age three and a half (or possibly Prince William at that age) were standing in the front row of a crowd that lined the street.
Suddenly, no one but the queen noticed little Harry taking off toward a set of horses pulling a carriage; and in a nano-second the Queen sprinted the two or three steps after him and ushered him back to safety. She didn’t shout out to a guard or to anyone else, “Go, run after Harry!” She, like any normal, loving grandparent, instinctively ran after her young grandson in an automatic response to protect him.
No one seemed to notice or comment on what she did, but I saw it and I understood the moment. And that’s when I, also a grandmother, knew the Queen and I weren’t all that different. We are both devoted to our countries, and we love and protect our families.
I know, I know! I’m running over a month late in writing about my visit to the University of Wisconsin post-graduate writing class on April 29. But you don’t want to know the reason why. (Okay, I forgot my camera in River Falls and it took me awhile to go back to retrieve it—and I wanted to post only after I had some pictures.)
But back to my writing class visit. The class meets evenings once a week for two hours and forty-five minutes, and that is a long time to hold the attention of students, even of post-graduate students who are twenty-something in age. No worries, however.
I was very privileged to team with Dr. Geoffrey Scheurman, the University’s Chair of the Department of Teacher Education. His excellent presentation followed mine, and I was so absorbed in his teaching technique and Dust Bowl visuals that I forgot to take his picture. I deeply regret that missed opportunity. But I’m very grateful we could share that enjoyable, spectacular evening!
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.