May Story of the Month: A Mother’s Day

The United States celebrates Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May. That’s this weekend, and it’s a perfect theme for this month’s Story of the Month.

While researching the Great Depression (1929-1940) for one of my stories, I found this photo and it is an amazing one. The joy this woman shows, despite her poverty, is the perfect picture of motherly love.

Inspired by the photo, I imagined myself sitting with this woman to learn about her typical day.

Cotton picker with her baby, Maricopa County, Arizona, November 1940. Photo by Dorothea Lange

Look at her.

My child don’t know nothing about life. Oh, how that makes me glad.

All she knows about is me, Daddy, her brothers, my bosom, my arms, my whispers. She knows my smell, my smile. And when she wakes, when those eyes open and she jabs my soul with her brown eyes, oh, so deep, dark brown — she knows the love of God through my ragged self.

My day is cotton picking, metal pans, and hot dust. Then I come home to feed my folk. If Daddy don’t come home with some food, I’ll be cooking with weeds and what I can find hiding under a stone. Sometimes I feel sorry for the critters. They hungry, too. It don’t take me long before I get over that sorrowful feeling and aim that club. Daddy says I should just think of them as gifts from God and then do the deed.

Out there, that’s Clarence and Cecil. Good boys. I bring home the critters and make a teaching out of it. I teach my boys how to spell as we skin and cook. R-A-B-B-I-T. Rabbits, squirrels, birds, snakes. Use what you got, I say. Even those hoppers can taste good when you know tomorrow might be empty. My boys did get good with the club, too, so I can care more for my baby girl. So thankful for the bags of flour we get. I can always make do with some of that. Salt, pepper, roll it around ’til the critter is covered, thick. Melt the grease and fry up what I got. If the only thing that tastes good is the smell, then at least that’s something.

No meat tonight, though. Fried dough. See that? Flour, lard, water. Roll it up. Stick it in the grease. Eat. And those rations, they don’t last long. Especially the salt pork. Men trade that for cigarettes and anything else that’ll ease their pain. Oh, they are sure bold about stealing. Daddy don’t fight about it. He asks me “Salt pork or be dead?”

He’s a wise man, a good man. Love him so. Clareen looks just like him. When she opens her eyes, you’ll see.

Daddy brings home our dollar twenty-five, tired as a dog. When he looks at her, I see his face rest. Not in a happy way, but a satisfied way.

He works for something better than a meal.

We built our house from scrap piles of junk. Now, this is our home for I don’t know how long. I know folk who don’t have a roof overhead, so I’m not complaining. Can’t keep out the dust, but what it settles on is clean.

Our washing and relieving are in the pail and the ditch. Now that he’s older, Clarence got charge of the clean-out. I help him get ready with the bleach and send him on his way. Can’t have none of those germs around my baby. I’ve watched too many of my folk losing their own because they don’t take time to be careful.

Wonder what she’s thinking. God knows I love her. I sing her this song every day:

Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so,

Little ones to him belong,

You’re so weak, but he is strong,

Yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me,

The Bible tells me so.

Singing is how I take my babies on trips. Leave this dreary ol’ Buckeye place. I sing that we’re riding on a train, new shoes, drinking a peach Nehi. We get to California, the orange trees heavy with fruit. We just pick them, don’t have to pay, nobody chasing us away. Juice running down our faces. My babies love that song, never tire of it. And I sing about the ocean and how they can swim in it, if they want. We read the papers and plan for the day. Reminds me of what the Bible says — the promised land.

Oh, yes, my day is more difficult with her, yes, it is. All my business stops when she’s awake. My boys don’t like it, I know, but they had me, too, like she do now.

Joy, joy, joy. Look at her. Clareen. My first baby girl. Oh, when I’m out in that field, picking, bending, and I feel her breath against my neck — that just grows me. My legs get stronger, my hands get tougher, my aches don’t weigh me down. There’s a reason for all this, I believe.

I’m hoping I have the answer before she starts to asking what it is.

There you are, baby girl. Hush, now. Hush.

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy;

at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalm 16:11