Our parents were married in 1930 and I was born in 1931, the first of 10 years of drought in the plains of the southwest. My brother was born at its peak, the summer it snowed in May, 1935. We all suffered poverty and illness for years. I recently viewed the excellent documentary done for the PBS series American Perspectives which confirms my perceptions. Catastrophe enough to forever dash optimism and hope.
However my memory was and is now of very present parents and extended family until the move to Tulsa in 1939. In Lawton we owned and lived in a home built by mother’s brother, my Uncle Ulna. It was within easy walking distance of her mother and 6 of the 8 brothers and sisters, many many cousins, nieces and nephews. In-laws or blood kin they were all the same to us. Some I never sorted out.
There was a wonderful park with a creek and crawdads to catch on chunks of salt pork. We had a cat and lots of buff chickens that laid brown eggs and gardens, vegetable and flower.
Even the two years we had lived away from Lawton before Tulsa there was much visiting and the house in Altus was full the day David was born.
The weather was horrible. Daddy had pneumonia more than once. He was injured when he fell through the glass re-glazing greenhouses that a tornado and hail storm had virtually destroyed. Lord knows there was little food and lots of debts. I have an envelope yet where Mother had scrawled the amounts to grocer, doctor etc.
But a lot of living and wonder at the new life in David was going on too.
The Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 and we moved to Tulsa in November 1939
We moved into one side of a duplex. A back bedroom had been made into an apartment and was occupied by Sidney, a middle aged man with a proclivity to expose himself. He was the retarded brother the owner of “The Greenhouse.”
Gone were the daily visits with cousins and aunts and uncles and the laughter and chatter often enduring to recede into murmurs as we drifted into sleep.
Gone were the bedtime poems from The Child’s Garden of Verse or stories from the Bear Book or the Circus Book.
My strongest memory is there was no grass, no chickens, no safe place for a pet and no Mother or Daddy. Our father disappeared into 12 hr seven days a week work days and Mother to her bed in terror of prevalent tuberculosis and infantile paralysis.
David and I were alone to find ways to occupy our time. There we many things to explore, the railroad boxcar converted to storage, the railroad tracks, the viaduct over 21st Street, the iron laden strip mine effluences, quaintly called “the creek.” The broken-glass sharp cinders from the coal boilers were everywhere. I don’t know why but I hated to wear shoes so I learned to even run on them, only occasionally cutting my feet.
Soon I began to memorialize past neighborhood visiting by walking for blocks into the Tulsa neighborhood knocking on doors and presenting myself as someone come to visit. The kindness of strangers; The bemused women who answered the door would more often than not invite me in for milk and a snack. I would chat for only a short while then excuse myself.
The experiences of many hours in communication also with the diverse inhabitants of a nearby ancient plum orchard and creek blended with memories and longings; restoring and re-forming into a mosaic my chattering multilingual and multidimensional family.
I am uncertain of the precise times but I know that by the time the U S entered into WW 2 we had moved to a more spacious single dwelling across the street and though no real grass there were 4 O ’clocks in the back. Once the War began David and I played war games and absorbed it all on Saturday afternoons at the Delman movie theater. Casablanca is one memory shared with brother David in affection. Even my middle school year book is named Wings Over Wilson and featured a bomber as logo. My recollection is the summers of 1941-2 were hot in the extreme. But one could enjoy the scent of the 4 O’clock and see the southern sky from the backyard of this home on US 66.
Soon after the beginning of the war I overheard Daddy telling Mother “I am not going to go kill any other men. They can’t make me.” I was confused but never spoke of it. I don’t recall that Mother or Daddy ever spoke openly against the War but I don’t recall them speaking for it.
As Mother and I mourned the loss of family connection Daddy began to thrive at his first real opportunity to fulfill his dreams and provide for his family. He had work and, if limited, a reliable income. He set about in his way to disprove the characterization of the jobless of the thirties as without virtue.
As I reflect, I am coming to recognize my habit of co-mingling the serious and the grim with the creative and beautiful stems from my father and his love for and work with flowers. He recognized man as a generative and generous being and that beauty was an essential element in man’s existence. He also understood that investment in nourishing other life is not creation nor ownership. He was called upon at too young an age to choose to practice beliefs that the only sustainable responses to barren darkness and tragedy are not violence nor competitive acquisitiveness; but to replant and to empower the creative.
He died so much too soon. At his burial ceremony the family stood accepting handshakes from what seemed to be an endless stream of men and women, all recounting that he had given them their first job. Once he was in a position to hire I never knew him to turn down a teen (and few others) who was looking for work. He never forgot the goodness in a man, given half a chance.
This is a world and life view I have aspired to and taken for granted for most of the years of my life, never giving recognition to its source nor to the existence of alternative views. I do so now.
“It ‘s the strength that you share when you are growing.” – J. Baez
(I am Less than the Song I am Singing)