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!