|Photograph by Dorthea Lange, 1936|
Great moments in history on this date: Goodbye, Ford Edsel; Hello again, Moon (second Apollo landing); and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
"We can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. ... It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
I wonder if survivors of the Great Depression and the Midwest Dust Bowl bequeath a primal-memory gene to some of their kids… some inheritable, shady sense of having endured the catastrophic and standing ready to endure it again.
I owe my life to the Depression and the Dust Bowl (proof I should remember next time I question whether ill winds really do blow in some good). On both sides, my parents’ families were migrant workers in the 1930s, one from Oklahoma, one from Montana, who came together in a small California town, eventually creating me. It’s my birthday this week, and I’m pondering my beginnings.
The photo I’m using with this post was taken by Dorthea Lange in 1936 just down the road from where I was born. It shows a woman named Florence Thompson with three of her seven children, at a migrant camp near the pea fields (which still are grown there). Lange easily could have photographed one of my grandmothers with my father or mother in tow, heading for their rendezvous with destiny (sorry).
Besides my own family history (discussed around dining tables all my life), I’ve also interviewed many Great Depression and WWII survivors in my magazine work… so maybe it’s just familiarity with their generations that gives me a sense of kinship, rather than some unconscious primal memory of endurance as a way of life. What I know deep in my bones, whether it has come via genetic code or education, is that human beings are capable of suffering great loss and misery with dignity, without complaint, and with a majestic patience. That character is something I want in my life.
Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is the poetry prompt this week at Poetry Jam, where you’ll find other interpretations of that great photo. Here’s mine.
Good Norwegian Stock
My grandfather’s ways sprout from my fingers
like seeds lifting their round heads
out of black earth under a broad blue sky.
Skydotter, he called me, with mirth in his eye:
the Norwegian name for rain-laden clouds.
And daughter I am, a loaded ship of cloud
in an ocean of sky, sailing the big Plain
sowing grain in my wake.
In his time,
Grandfather paused to tip back his hat
and watch the wild geese vee southward
as clouds lowered for winter’s long march.
Eyes watering with Montana cold,
well-worn flannel warming his neck,
he spared a moment in endless treks
from house to barn to fields and back
to honor the enduring geometry of geese.
The time came
when he bowed his head before dry fields
that refused the seed and sealed the land
against the grain. He surrendered
the farm to the drought-battered Plain
and turned westward, where his hands
skilled in the nurture of growing things
became carpenter’s hands, sawing trees
into usefulness as cupboards and houses,
though he preferred them wild.
he dug his hands in the unfriendly dirt
behind the small place in the new country,
with aging patience coaxing from it
fields of freesias and clouds of lilac,
roses bowing heads heavy with buds
above a sea of tulips. Tomatoes marched
through rainless summers in his garden
guarded with small offerings of water
and waves of corn ripened by the fence.
I grew up in a field of plenty, cultivated
by a grandfather still wearing the old felt hat.
I, his sky daughter, wore his hat with pride
the day I stood as the heavy sky burst,
my dirty hands outstretched to catch the rain
falling, falling, on the young strong grain.
Dorthea Lange’s photo is reproduced from The Commons on Flickr, an awesome site of worldwide photography in the public domain, with use restricted to personal, educational or research purposes.)