In the stifling summer of ‘34
when drought hit Iowa hard
like brick on bone
my grandma Blanche packed up the family
for another Midnight Shhhhh! Move
(before the landlord came for the rent)
This time they hitched a ride
out of Council Bluffs to Lake Manawah
and settled in a summer cottage
They squatted there year-round
as did other families, who had
their own stories of landlords
Blanche fed every man who rode the rails
They put up signs for the next hobos:
A cat (“kind lady”) and two shovels (“work here”)
She felt that every person deserved food, medicine, and
shelter (today, this is called Socialism) and that
giving the men a task helped build their egos
So Dorney swept the steps and Gibb fed the chickens
(“borrowed” by Blanche on their way out of town)
while another collected eggs and so on. They never
stayed long. Blanche later insisted the term “Hobo”
was not slander but, as in H.L. Mencken’s writings,
it meant “homeward bound.” Indeed, some went “home”
right in their back room, too sick, too weary to go on.
Blanche knew the doctor, got them morphine, helped them
sip broth. She also washed them, like family, before burial.
When I asked my mom about those days, it began a years-long,
booze-fed, continuing conversation about poverty, the
Dust Bowl, generosity, and the human spirit. Blanche, before her
in those days, was Ma Joad incarnate, with a touch of
Woody Guthrie. “But Mom,” I said, “you got to live in a
cottage by a lake. Where did Grandpa get that kind of money?”
My mother Charlotte, Blanche’s only daughter,
gazed out the back window and smiled ruefully: “Child, it
may have been a lake, but there was no water in it back then.”
© 2012 Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil
For Sunday Scribblings, the prompt is apropos: Drought. The Great Depression coincided with one of the worst droughts in American history. Bad agricultural practices were largely to blame, and it seems all we’ve learned is how to bio-engineer Frankenseeds to forestall the inevitable. Indigenous Americans knew how to plant and harvest; how to move south in the colder months, giving the land a chance to renew; and how to treat the earth with respect.
NOTE: Ma Joad is one of the main characters in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes Of Wrath. The movie starred Henry Fonda as Tom, the eldest son, and Jane Darwell as Ma. Her embodiment of that character, Ma’s feistiness and compassion, won her an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress of 1940.
I like to think of Blanche in those days as part Ma Joad, part Steinbeck. Although she never wrote a book, Blanche was a voracious reader and self-taught scholar. That’s how she knew about Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and the like. She went to her grave despising Ayn Rand’s opinion that “altruism is evil” and her novel, The Fountainhead, which espoused that every person should look after themselves: “If we hadn’t lived near the tracks, who would have fed them? All the other houses had hobo signs like rectangles with a dot in the middle, ‘Dangerous.’ People thought I was nuts to try to feed these men. I guess that’s why I got committed eventually – Bill thought so too. But what’s crazy about taking care of each other in hard times?”
I’m proud to be Blanche Laughlin’s granddaughter. This is also at my poetic lake with water IN IT, Poets United.