May 13, 1935: Today the last of our trees died, a sleepy little willow that probably never had a chance. It was Tuesday when the last leaf fell, buried in a drift of rolling sand. The wind swept in with a fiery desperation; my God there was dust, dust like a dry hurricane, screaming like the sound of a roaring train. Dust in your ears and in your mouth; in the children’s oatmeal, floating in father’s whiskey; choking the bedbugs that lay between the sheets and the mattress. The newspaper called this “The Great Depression,” though to me it was more like a cauldron meant to boil the will, a fire for the lungs, a black-bottomed strike at the soul.
I wonder if the Devil is having his turn with us this year. The world that once upon a time gave us all such delight now waits beneath the executioner’s sharp axe. This beautiful, this holy land in which we live; this springtime of roses and autumn of color — that howls at our pain — I will miss the beauty that once was ours, but I will not cry.
I believe right now I’m more tired than I’ve ever been. I think we will suffer for a long time — and then we’ll endure. Even as we surrender the last good moment of our lives, we will endure.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons we have Christmas, and New Year’s. It’s why we celebrate birthdays and smile at young love and have fried chicken for Sunday dinner. There’s a feeling that what we do is worth saving, that each of us has value, that this earth, this whole idea of living, is a good thing.
But still, sitting on the porch, watching our land become a stranger, I’m not sure if it’s a good trade-off or not.
Nothing left to sell
We couldn’t wait any longer. There was nothing left to sell, and little left to eat. The day came when we abandoned this forsaken land of infinite blizzard for the Northwest; one more family of nameless faces and barren pasts, torn from our roots to strike out on our own, to find a morsel of fortune, to be chased along the road by hunger, disappointment and poverty. We called this new land the River of Rust. But we didn’t care. There was rain, and lots of it. Our new home (for a little while) was an old black Ford with cardboard taped to the broken window in the door, huffing down the road with a family of five, wondering where to go — where not to go — where to stop. A week here, a few days there, campgrounds and motor hotels, and finally, a tent beside the road, down in the ditch beside a river. And all the time I’m thinking, “When can my children go to school again? What am I gonna do if somebody gets sick? What if my man finally loses his control? What am I gonna do?”
And my man muttering: “I’m still strong — I can learn something new, somebody must want me for something. I built houses, I fixed cars, I’m a man. What am I gonna do?”
April 1947 — It’s been many years since then. My steps have meant little to others and little more to myself. Time for me has been arching like a rainbow, down and up and down, always with color. And though I take nothing to the grave but my empty body and my underfed soul, I leave these thoughts for another:
If a man’s house burns, I will help him build another. I will not punish a man for the deeds of his sinful brother. I will not condemn a man who worships a different god. I will not close my door to a man because of whom he loves.
Start trusting people that don’t look like you, stop putting padlocks on your mailbox and guns under the front seat. Remember that one man can make a clatter; a million men might work together in whispers.
I’m watching the night sky cross before my eyes. I guess shadows come quickly in the wintertime ...
Show me a flower as I die. Show me a child. And then let me be.