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a lesson from the dust bowl


I am going to admit right away that I am a bit of a nerd.  Not as much of a nerd as my husband, but we do enjoy the somewhat nerdy pastime of documentary-watching.  Our favorite documentary maker is Ken Burns.  His documentaries move me, bring to me tears, make me want to travel the US, visit national parks and give me a new appreciation for the past as well as the age we live in now.  He uses photos, beautiful music, letters and narration to tell the stories of ordinary people who became a part of an extraordinary time in history.  He avoids what my husband and I call “cheesy reenactments”, which keep me from watching most other documentaries.

Anyway, the most recent documentary we watched was The Dust Bowl.  You can watch it for free HERE.  (Sorry, that is only a clip.  You can buy it on iTunes or try to catch it on PBS.)   This story hung with me.  The desperation.  The fierce desire to fight for your home.  The loss.  The perseverance   It all hung with me.   


 Aside from the total devastation and loss of precious children to dust pneumonia, this is the thing that struck me the most –

What we do, as housewives, matters.

As they were showing the effects of the dust storms on homes, one gentleman shared a story about his mom.  The house would be filled with dust and dirt after one of these storms…or constantly, really.  His mom would take down the curtains, wash them and hang them back up again.  Again and again and again for years.  I don’t know what motivated this woman to not give up on clean curtains.  I think after the third or fourth time, I would’ve just taken the curtains down.  There was something in this woman that knew that cleaning her curtains meant she wasn’t going to be beaten.


What struck me even more is that 80+ years later, when her son has an opportunity to speak before a camera and tell his story about life in the dust bowl, he talked about his mom cleaning the curtains.  He was certainly just a little boy at the time, yet that memory stuck out.

I don’t know if my boys will remember that I did their laundry and packed their lunches and wiped the counter after each meal and washed their sheets, but this testimony shared by this man reminded me that it does matter.  It all matters.  Even if the counter gets dirty again and the laundry basket overflows again, it matters.

Doesn’t that make those mundane tasks worth more?

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  1. we are big nerds here, too, and we raise that nerd flag high! we love documentaries…. war, animals, history, whatever! sawyer LOVES history and abe lincoln is his hero. he has a shirt with abe on it that i got for him at the rose bowl flea…. it’s getting too small but he still insists on wearing it. and his collection of books may have tons of star wars and ninjago, but he also has a vast collection of president/us history books. he loves franklin, jefferson, henry ford… i love that he loves and appreciates it. as for the memories, it’s interesting what our kids remember. i share a lot of my life and my kids on my own blog because i know that if i leave this earth earlier than i would like, my kids will have that to see the memories we created together and also to see that they meant everything to me. :)

  2. It matters. I will never understand the stigma attached to staying home with one’s children. Since the advent of modern feminism women have a choice. Nonetheless, just because you CAN do something does not necessarily mean that you SHOULD. Children need their mothers just as much now as they did before women started burning bras!
    If my child grows up to be healthy, confident and happy that is all the thanks I need.



  3. Christine says:

    Love Ken Burns! That is pretty much the only TV NY parents ever watched and I learned so much from him!

  4. Shannon says:

    For some reason that story of the curtains resonated with me just now. Being a SAHM has it’s rewards beyond measure, but there are times that I wonder what I’m doing washing the same clothes, wiping down the same toilets and cooking the same meals day after day? It does matter! I really need to remember that even if I’m not seeing it now, my children will someday recall these things. So now when I get to feeling ho-hum I’ll remember the Mom who washed the curtains time and time again. :)

  5. The book “The Worst Hard Time” covers much of the same material as the documentary with many of the same accounts. My Dad had us all read it a couple of years ago, and I will say I had a whole new understanding of why my Grandmother did many of the things she did. It was a great documentary…we’re nerds over here too!

  6. Eileen says:

    I, too, must be a nerd, because I watched that documentary with absolute awe and respect for the people who went through that terrible time. Ken Burns is wonderful; check his documentaries on PBS, a wonderful channel.

  7. A refreshing insight! Thanks.

  8. Teresa says:


  9. Charlotte says:

    We watched the dust. Bowl on PBS… We still talk about it and tell everyone who will listen about it… It was an amazing piece

  10. I encourage you, Marian, and all your readers to drive across your beautiful country and see as many National Parks and monuments and states as you can. I cannot believe how many Americans have not been out of their own state. I am a Canadian and have been to about 40 or so states and have seen fabulous sites. There is so much beauty and history out there.

    (I’m a proud stay-at-home mom!)

  11. We are self confessed nerds in our home too. Children always remember the things that made them feel loved and special and protected.Caring for our families is important and those mundane tasks need to be done by both parents if you are fortunate enough to have a two parent home.

  12. We watched “The Dust Bowl” too. I loved it!! I think there was something about a woman being depressed too. I can imagine if your life revolved around your home and family it would have been so so discouraging. I guess the woman who continued to wash her curtains had Hope and that Hope made all the difference. :)

  13. Hello!
    It is so crazy how many people watched that documentary. I live in Oklahoma, my husband and his family are from Boise City, OK, in the Panhandle, one of the hardest hit areas. I too was amazed and saddened at the same time. As a matter of fact, I just saw my grandfather this past Friday night and asked if he had seen it. He was born in 1924, so he was of grade school age. His response was, ” No, I don’t like to remember it. I lived it.” I wanted so badly to ask questions, but didn’t. I am an ancestry nerd, so these things fascinate me too! Glad to know so many others enjoyed it as well.

    • I hope you will approach your grandfather again some time soon and see if you can gently lead him into answering a question or two about that time in his life. If you don’t give it a try, you may soon regret it.

  14. Dolores says:

    What a lovely message.

  15. My hubby and I watched that too and we thought it was fascinating. The fact that they hung on through such adversity really amazed me.I don’t know if I could have stuck around when it started affecting my kids, but the entire thing was just amazing.

  16. So very well put…. thank you

  17. Sarah says:

    I don’t think it has anything to do with being a working mom or a stay at home mom. That is not the issue…it is that home matters! It is where the family foundations are lived and life is learned. Tragically under valued now days. Sarah

  18. Marsha says:

    I think the curtains helped keep the dust from getting all over the inside of the house. I live in a valley and dirt is contantly blowing. Even though we have good windows and curtains there will still be dirt all over the window sills all the time.

  19. I needed to hear that today as I power through another round of really mundane tasks. Thank you.

  20. This post made me think of one of my favorite books… well, I guess it would be more accurately called meditations. It is a precious little book and I know that you would love both the words and the photographs immensely!! It is titled “Being Home” by Gunilla Norris… discovering the spiritual in the everyday. It beautifully talks about those very repetitive, often mundane tasks we all do daily like sweeping and taking out the trash and points out how they are truly acts of service and opportunities for reflection, etc. Sigh. I think it is available on Amazon if you are interested 😉

  21. sharon says:

    read or re-read the “grapes of wrath”, this book has stuck with me since high school.
    the hardships, the dust, the poverty. and you are right, every little thing we do for others is worth it. thankyou!

  22. Nicole says:

    Thank you for sharing! I needed to hear this today…

  23. I too love this kind of documentary. I have a bit of an affinity to that period even though I didn’t live through it myself. My father did and he told us stories about his childhood. But also we were very poor, growing up in the mountains of Montana with nothing but an outhouse and no indoor running water. My mother would somehow keep our home clean and wash our sheets every week. Hanging them outside to freeze dry! I admire her for her fortitude. Making due with so very little. Every time I feel deprived at all I think of what she did and feel very pampered. I lived in a very small 1100 sq ft house for years with six children, but realizing I had more than my mother ever did kept me going without too much complaint. So you see your children will remember the little things you did for them and that is what is important in the long run.

  24. Hazel says:

    Haven’t seen this series,yet, but if you want to read a fascinating book about the dust bowl years and the effect on weather, everyday life, etc. read “The Children’s Blizzard”–I’m also a nerd…..

  25. Camille says:

    Sharon, I just started to say “The Grapes of Wrath” is also a compelling history of this very sad and horrific time in our history. I will certainly watch for Ken Burns documentaries. We enjoy a well produced one.

    I think it’s special the man remembered his mother washing curtains over and over again. For her, I think it helped her keep things as normal as possible for her family plus the health side of it. Being as normal as possible during horrific times, is therapeutic! I grew up in west Texas during the 50’s and 60’s where we still had bad sand storms, but nothing like the Dust Bowl years. We taped our windows shut to try to keep dust out. It helped, but we still had dust everywhere and on everything. I cannot imagine those times.

  26. The dust bowl documentary was truly a testament to human perseverence, strength and hope. It was simply unfathomable what they endured.

  27. Great series! My husband’s father was an “Okie” who moved to California with his family when he was a child. I never knew the prejudices they faced after their arrival to California. It gave me great insight into his family. Thanks for posting this! — Pauline

  28. I used to wonder, fiercely, what everyday day-to-day living was like during the Depression. How did these women handle the everyday tasks?

    I’ve come to learn it all firsthand, though. For the last 5 years we’ve had our own struggle of the same nature–no income for 8 months, and then such a drastic decrease; we have made 75% less than we did in 2006 and I have learned to do things differently. We went a year without buying ANYTHING–not food, not diapers for our 3 in diapers–and I’ve learned to grow a better garden, sew and mend better than before, make over clothing, make things from scratch that I never dreamed of making from scratch, and continously cut expenses until I could feed my family of 9 for $100 a month these last two years.

    The hope part is VERY important. There is beauty and joy amidst the struggles. There is great satisfaction in making your own bread, in watching your lettuce sprout and then come to your table, in making over hand-me-downs, in learning new sewing skills to make clothes and gifts.

    My oldestchild is 11 years old. already she makes gifts for her friends and for her siblings. My children excitedly look forward to their birthdays and Christmas and whatever homemade gifts I make for them.

    Our struggle has made me more aware of the needs of others, as it has given me a chance to serve others who are struggling financially. My website is for that purpose, and I have been amazed at the stories of struggles that others have shared with me, as they have continued to struggle with income cuts, unemployment, and rising costs.

    The best comment I received recently was from a reader who said she thought she was going to have no Christmas gifts for her family this year. She said that the gifts I showed her on my blog allowed her to make gifts using what she had on hand, and what she thought was going to be the worst Christmas turned out to be one of the best.

    Another reader commented that her husband commented that the gift that she made for her husband was, according to him, the BEST gift she had ever given him.

    I’ve seen hopelessness turn to hope in my readers, as they’ve cut their food bills drastically (while eating better!), learned to make due, learned to garden and cook.

    Our children DO notice. They remember far more than we think. If we teach them, they learn those skills of hard work, too.

    This was a wonderful post, Marian. Thank you for your words.

    • Thanks so much for this beautiful comment. I haven’t ever been pushed to be so tight, but we did have a Christmas where we gave coupons to each other like “dinner of your choice” or “back massage” and everything I gave my little boy was free or bought at yard sales. It was a challenge, but was really a sweet time, too.

  29. I was able to watch some of it…I didn’t get to finish watching can’t remember why…but your last point about the Mom washing her curtains; reminds me of the first time I went to Mexico on a Mission Trip with my church.
    We stayed at an orphanage so you know I saw lots of things that left an impression. But I remember the first night we shared our impressions of the day…One of the houses in the orphanage backed up to my window near my bunk…I remember seeing the HOUSE MOM…throw her dish water out on to the patch of dirt…where grass should have been, in my opinion. Then she took a really worn and quite USED broom and swept it. She swept that water all around the mud… smoothing out the sand. Packing it down.
    So it wouldn’t blow and creep back inside.
    As the week went on—I recalled all the times, I had to leave the orphanage and go in to very poor neighbor hoods and how I saw this scene being played out time and time again.
    It made me cry; that week.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  30. Marlene says:

    It is truly a blessing when we pull those memories out that our Mother’s left behind!!

  31. Lorretta from NH says:

    What an incrediable thought provoking post. We should never give in to the idea that what we do for others and ourselves ,is not important every single day! Thank you for that reminder.

  32. Oh, my gosh! How I wish I could reach across the miles and slap a huge high 5 on you in celebration of our mutual nerdiness! LOVE this documentary. This is my land. These were my people. And you are absolutely right that their refusal to give in, or to become uncivilized, their determination to maintain HOME….these are things I still cling to today. Thank you for this post. You touched my heart.

  33. This is so encouraging today as I power through laundry, grocery shopping and doing dishes. It never ends and can be so monotonous. But on the other side it means we have homes full of those we love and every material thing we need and more! Such a great reminder that it is meaningful!

    By the way, I’m giving away one of your books today on my blog. I love it so and had to share!!

  34. Without Dorthea Lange’s vivid and extraordinary photographs, that documentary would have fallen flat. She was an exceptional woman and photographer and, but for her, entire portions of our USA history would be lost forever.
    I believe it was General Eisenhower, touring a concentration camp at WWII end, who told his staff photographer, “Take plenty of pictures because in fifty years some SOB is going to say “this never happened.”
    Life is in the details. When we forget that, we forget how to live.

  35. Linda McDonald says:

    You are not nerds.It is another reason are drawn to you. The important things of life matter to you. It is very evident that the HolySpirit is alive and very active in you. It helps a lot to be reminded that what we women do matters.I heard a story that husbands who get a kiss before they go to work from their wives live longer and are better workers than those that don’t get a kiss. The same is true when they come home. They love that we stop what we are doing and the kiss makes what they did at work seem more worthwhile. Another thing I’m doing is wearing a painting suit over my clothes so that I can look half decent for him instead of always being paint clothes. Does anybody else have some tricks up their sleeves to enjoy the mundane of life?

  36. P. S. The U.S. Library of Congress sells photos by Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke White, Eisenhower’s staff photographer, Ansel Adams and a host of others.

  37. We watched that documentary too. It was especially meaningful since my mother lived in weather ford, OK at that time. I am past my child rearing years, but my kids still tell me things I said or did that stuck with them. I keep my 7 year old granddaughter now, so I guess I can still share a few things. I live in the part of Texas where Lubbock occasionally blows by. I cannot imagine what those poor families endured.

  38. Linda McDonald says:

    I also had to comment to Brandy about what she wrote. Her story of struggle and her willingness to see through God’s eyes helped me more than she will ever know. You are helping so many of us Marian with our different struggles. I hope God continues to use you in this way.

  39. Christi Benton says:

    I too was VERY moved by watching this two part documentary a few months ago!! I learned so much by watching! What an impression it made! Very well done….so informative!

  40. Jane B says:

    Very well written from the heart as well as the “pen”…does anyone use those any more??
    Life does have its struggles and I believe this: the strength of a woman is not measured in her arm or leg muscles, it is measured in the strength of the most important muscle we have…the heart. I said this at the memorial for my closest friend here in Dallas who passed away 3 yrs ago yesterday…a strong, strong woman. I am guessing she’d be washing curtains every day too. Beautiful story and thank you for sharing it today.

  41. Well said. We here in Oklahoma count ourselves as very hardy people. We have to be. We often deal with nature’s fury. ….But all these years later, yes, our homes DO still matter. Lori Lucas from Oklahoma

  42. Great blog today, it must have been very hard and challenging times, men that wanted to work but no work; animals dying with no feed or water; women with their children trying to feed, cloth and keep their family alive. My daughter is over 35 years old and her most vivid memory of her childhood is going to sleep hearing my sewing machine running. She said it lulled her to sleep. We were having hard times, I worked during the day and made her clothes and craft items to sell at “bazaars” as they called them then for extra money. After everyone had gone to bed, I would get all my sewing out on the diningroom table and sew until sometimes early morning and start the day all over again. My daughter is an avid and wonderful sewer now and sells her items she makes for children on Etsy. So it is a nice memory for my daughter without realizing it meant food on the table or to keep our family going. Thank you for sharing your thoughts today, Marian and inspiring us all.

  43. Yes, well. My favorite people in the world are nerds. :)

    We too love Ken Burns’ documentaries. The Civil War premiered when I was pregnant with our oldest son. I still get all tingly every time I hear “Ashokan Farewell.”

    Thank you for the reminder that what we do really does matter. Now that my boys are mostly grown up, I can tell you that you’re absolutely right.

  44. I’d seen stories of the dust bowl experience from time to time, but until Ken Burns pulled it all together in his documentary (as only he seems to be able to do) I never had a full appreciation of what it was like for those who actually lived it.

    By the way, another Burns documentary that not many people seem to know about is “Not for Ourselves Alone” that tells the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and their work for women’s rights. It was first released in 1999. If you haven’t seen it, please find a copy and watch it. It’s hard to imagine where us gals would be today if not for those two incredibly dedicated women…

  45. Growing up with grandmothers who lived through that time,I wish I would have learned more,but one thing that always stuck. The appreciation for the littlest of pleasures.Plus their importance on education, my Dads mom all 5ft and a quarter was the sweetest taskmaster,every day when Dad came home his mom had a indian tablet ready with row after row of numbers…add,subtract then multiply and divide….then the books all the classics…My Dad was the smartest person I have ever known,he could look at a ledger and saw the problem right away. He always said his Mom was the reason.

  46. June G. says:

    Marion, Thank you for this today…you are a very sweet person and this post just prooves it! I raised two girls now both grown with homes of their own…you bet they watched everything I did! I bought the Grapes of Wrath not long ago, since I hadn’t seen it since high school (OK, 40 yrs), and I can’t get it out of my mind. How they came here (California) for a better life and some were turned away others lived in camp type housing worked hard for very little money…such a said time in American History. Brandy’s post from the Prudent Homemaker is a testimony to how resourceful we can be as women when we put our minds to it! And you never know when that time might come. I live about an hour from Yosemite National Park. I can remember as a child when we had family come from Mississippi, we always took them to see the big sequoias and the beautiful water falls. We have plenty to appreciate here in the USA! Only other place I’d like to visit is Canada. I’ll be sure to watch the Dust Bowl Documentary, thank you.


    June G.

  47. Marion,

    You are not alone in nerd-dom. We love documentaries and I will watch them on how tires are made, and the migration of anything. But American history is probably one of my favorites. I will be sure to watch the film, and I cannot agree more. Each wiped nose, dried tear, washed sock all matters. My Grandma was raised during the Great Depression, and had a huge influence in my life. Because of her, I know how to be frugal, what nylon and sugar rationing were, and how to be a nurturing mom. She always said “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” The influence we have on our family, community and church is quiet sometimes but powerful!

    xo, Tanya

  48. Oh my gosh, we’ll have to find that show. Ted and I both love stuff like that, i guess we’re geeks too. It’s really so cool to hear that the little things we do, the every day stuff we think get completely lost in the muck, turn out to be some of the things that will be remembered.


  49. Absolutely it matters! That’s why we do what we do as to God, not to man! What a wonderful post.

  50. Shannon Carroll says:

    Our college adopted Carolyn Henderson’s book, Letters from the Dust Bowl, for our common reader this year. She is the woman from Texhoma who was well-educated and homesteaded her land. She is often quoted in the documentary. We are located in the Texas Panhandle, in a place still seeing the effects of the Dust Bowl (and today, the wind is blowing 50 mph, and the sky is dark from the dust), and we felt it was important for our students to know more about the culture of their home and why we are the way we are. The experience has been amazing, and many of the students noticed exactly what you did: people somehow managed to live their lives and find the things that kept families together. They did not give up on being kind, thoughtful human beings, and they refused to succumb to living in squalor, even when they had nothing more than water to wash those curtains.

    I love that you found in the film the very nature of the people living through it. Machiavelli said in “The Prince” that a prince should never, never confiscate a person’s land. Kill his wife, kill his children, but never take his land because it was the only thing he had that would endure. It helps us understand why so many people stayed through the Dust Bowl, rooted in their land. Kudos to you for posting this tribute to mothers who choose to keep things stable in the midst of chaos.

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