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.
My visit to a Hudson book club last month turned out to be a very unique experience. It began with not-unique sleet and snow driving conditions that
caused most of the members and me to be late. Subsequently, we were told that our reserved private dining room had been inadvertently double booked and the other group was already in the room. But this book club group had read my book and their pulsating perseverance spurred them to accept a narrow hallway-size room in the back of the restaurant.
So we sat in the windowless hallway facing each other along the two walls so close our knees almost touched. My reward was a wonderful meeting/discussion. What a gracious group of women, and wow, they were set for discussing THE DIRTY DAYS and to learn much more about life in those times! Meanwhile, the bad weather conditions had escalated outside. But my almost two-hour energetic discussion with these very bright women was worth my hazardous twenty-mile drive back to St Paul.
I would do it all again in a minute!
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.
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
I’ve often been asked “How did your experiences growing up in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression impact your life? What lasting effects did your growing up during that difficult time and place have on you? And, how much of what’s described in your book, THE DIRTY DAYS, really happened?”
Here’s my answer to all three questions: I had so little growing up, and I believe that fact made me appreciate the better times I experienced later in my life. When I was a child, a store-bought dress, bakery bread sandwiches, shoes that weren’t two sizes too big, a bathroom inside the house, and electricity were luxuries we didn’t have. But for many decades since then, I’ve enjoyed having such luxuries, plus many more, and because acquiring them was such a long, hard struggle, I’ve never taken them for granted.
As I was growing up, I often dreamed of wearing pretty clothes, like the “children” did in my old, battered-up Sears catalog. And going to school with well-dressed girls who came from wealthier families could make me feel like my clothes appeared too small or too big and tacky. To this day, I cherish store-bought clothing—although I usually buy only clothing on sale and then I alter whatever I buy to make it fit—larger, smaller, wider, shorter. I guess what I’m saying is—I’m very frugal to this day, but I still do relish dressing up.
Due to the short supply of water for personal cleanliness and other uses during my growing-up years in the Dust Bowl, I’ve always been somewhat of a need-to-be-clean kind of person. And because I learned to be so very frugal then, I still oftentimes get by without some luxuries I actually could afford, or I renovate what I have instead of buying new things or conveniences.
For example, I once found an old wood headboard at a farm sale and removed its worn-down varnish and refinished the beautiful wood. Then I “commissioned” my husband to build a bookcase with the wood for our daughter’s bedroom. Another time I bought an adult coat at a rummage sale, and from its good-as-new material, I made a winter jacket and cap for our then six-year-old son.
Growing up in the country without a telephone or an automobile readily available, I often felt isolated and friendless. It seemed like my best friends in my early years were the “children” in the old beat-up Sears catalog that I brought with me when we moved from Arkansas to Oklahoma. Today I still cherish friends and reach out to support or help anyone in need. I’m also very loyal and patriotic as a result of my entering adulthood during WWII.
So basically, I’m saying my experiences growing up made me what I am today, the best part of me anyway. Growing up in southwest Oklahoma during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl has served me well. I’m resilient, determined and full of hope—even at the ripe old age of 87.
Finally: How much of my story, THE DIRTY DAYS, is fiction and how much really happened? Of course, the names of people and locations and even the chronology of some events have been changed. But I have to say most of the events and stories in my novel really happened. As it states on the cover of my book, “A novel based on her life.” And it is.