I write of Gladys Cooke Watkins as both my mother and as the symbol of the DepressIon and, in my case, also Dust Bowl Mothers — And all the Mothers since and coping with poverty and society’s disdain for them and their men unable to find work that sustains, a number that approaches 50% today.
I have chosen to illustrate this sketch with Lange’s compelling photograph, certainly because of its iconic status., and for me, because it evokes a more personal reaction. When first published I actually thought it was of my own mother. At 32 she has the same coarse skin weathered, my 31 year old mother’s not so much by sun as by wind and grit. She has the same half closed snapping dark eyes, the “Cooke” nose and hair falling the same.
I was five years old with a one year old brother, an out of work father and an artistically talented mother who loved Emerson and pretty things, The family was living near the epicenter of the Dust Bowl as in Timothy Egan’s book title, it was The Worst Hard Time. Good news was so rare that the birth of my brother had been celebrated on the front page of the local newspaper. Only with the perspective of an adult have I come to realize how stretched her creative imagination was to keep life and limb together and make a safe and joyful as environment for children and husband.
Unsurprisingly food was problematic and the recipes but the descriptive patter that accompanied included such things as “speckled chicken” (butter in sorghum) on biscuits for lunch and cornbread crumbled in buttermilk a breakfast “fit for the prince and princess” made a happy meal. A big navel orange in a Christmas stocking along with some nuts was accepted as from the Magi. When we were able to move into a place we could keep chickens breakfast and dinner improved. As well, my mother proved to be a remorseless neck wringer.
Mother always seemed to know what was the best way for the children. Before an airplane crashed in our neighborhood she heard it coming, enfolded my brother and me in her arms while pulling us under an old iron oven on legs, likely the only place in the house that was relatively safe. It is the only time I recall feeling her fear. With times a little better she managed a Gilbert Microscope for me my ninth Christmas. Always modest and aware of our unique and individual needs for a gentle maturation, my guess would be the more challenging was shopping for and purchasing my pubescing brother’s first jock strap so he could play football.
I regret for my mother the dreams that never had their day. She had wanted to move to Hawaii and teach school as a career but instead went to work for the telephone company, fell in love and married my father. More determined for the dreams for her children through the hard times into the better she and my father managed to start my brother on his way in one of the top engineering universities and to the Bell Laboratories for a career in electrical engineering and management; and get me through medical school.
She never lost her sensitivity for the vulnerability and suffering of others, really all creatures. I likely learned my first medical lessons from observing her ministering to sick kittens. On the last visit I had with her living in her own home she wakened me at dawn to shimmy up the mimosa tree and replace a baby robin to the nest it had fallen from. It all worked out as mothers, robin and mine, ceased the twittering, contented..
The women of Mother’s era came to maturity as flappers following the good times, doing daring things in the style of the twenties. Then came the fall and how these women were tested. First for too many by the poverty of the Depression and, for virtually all, the losses and anxieties of five years of brutal war while at home rationing of food, fuel and shoes and luxury taxes on the rest.
No one can say it better than Ann Reeve s Jarvis:. “A mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”