Saturday, November 19, 2011

Learning Endurance

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.)


Brian Miller said...

chris this is beautiful...his sky your do well to the picture but also to your family...

Lou said...

Those times, the hard work, and seeing the results, was better for our hearts and souls. A beautiful poem, really captures a time/emotion.

And as Viktor Frankl writes, we can endure anything as long as we feel our lives have purpose.

Anonymous said...

A very heartfelt Happy Birthday to you, Chris. In my mind, birthdays are to last all week. So you go on with your beautiful self and celebrate the snot out of it. You are loved.

izzy said...

This is lovely and I am glad you had such a wonderful experience with family! Thanks.

Helen said...

Chris, your poem touched so many emotions in me ... actually a few I had lost sight of. This is an epic work, paired exquisitely with Ms. Lange's photography.

I couldn't help digging more into the history of these photographs and learned some pretty interesting stuff. As much as the photographer would have us believe hers were completely candid shots, she did some editing/posing, etc which she readily admited to. I found this week and Poetry Jam fascinating ... thanks to YOU.

Heaven said...

A beautiful tribute to your grandfather. Your story is heartfelt and moving, and may he always live in your heart and field of plenty.

Carrie Burtt said...

Such wonderful history in this....we can learn so much from our grandfathers...this is beautiful Chris....happy are a lovely and enchanted oak indeed. :-)

The Bug said...

This poem reached down & grabbed me at some visceral level. I don't really know why, but I know I'm moved.

Happy birthday!

And happy birthday to the Gettysburg Address - it was delivered on this day in 1863.

Titus said...

Strength, quiet and apparent simplicity make for a poem of rare beauty. A big story has become personal, and intimate. As with the photograph.

Wonderful post.

Syd said...

Wonderful, Chris. You captured the hardship and gentleness all at once. Your family intrigues me.

Jess Mistress of Mischief said...

Love this! :)

Morning said...

what a beautiful story
on survival and love.

Happy Sunday.

Lolamouse said...

That first line really pulled me in! I love the name "Skydotter" as well! What a terrific story of your family and a great write for the photo prompt.

Dave King said...

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.

This is very fine writing. The verse was extremely moving.A great delight to read it.

Margaret said...

This prompt was amazing. Thank you for making this photo I have seen numerous times, come alive for me now. Fascinating. I love your poem, your grandfather and the intimate feel of this piece. I love the image of you in the fields with the rain coming down wearing his felt hat!

Caty said...

beautiful...I love the intro. The poem about your grandfather was lovely, makes me want to have met him. He sounds like a wonderful man :)