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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 love Ken Burns. My husband and I watched his Civil War series when we were dating, and then went to visit some of those historical places while traveling across the US to attend a friend’s wedding. We still talk about that trip. — Thanks for tipping your hat to the housewife.

  2. Marian, I like documentaries, too. I also like biographies. I guess that makes me a double nerd. 😉 That’s amazing about the dust bowl. I’ve heard that term but no little about it.

  3. i also love to watch the docs. that Ken Burns does he brings the humanity into it. this story really touched my heart. these people didn’t know the word “give up” they truly were a strong people. to lose everything and keep going. that age produced such strong willed people. my mom was a widow with eight children. when my father died she would not take government aid, was too proud. worked 2 jobs to feed & clothe us for many years. so many of our parents came from that same stock. thanks for insight.

  4. Cheryl Adams says:

    Marian, thanks for the reminder… There are those days when I think, “How many times have I made this bed, washed this dish, folded this towel…” but I’m blessed to even have that opportunity! I need to laminate this verse and hang it everywhere in my home:
    Colossians 3:23 Work hard and cheerfully at all you do, just as though you were working for the Lord and not merely for your masters.”
    Have a great week!

  5. How is it that you always end up talking about something that seem spot on with me. I was just having a conversation with my husband about mundane, repetitive tasks. There are days when I enjoy the comfort of doing something I know how to do, the way I want to do it. Then are those other days when every aspect of those very same tasks seems to gnaw at my patience and appreciation. It’s hard to imagine the challenges those people endured and thank goodness for the people who help us remember.

  6. Geeks are in…..strange but true. I will watch a documentary on anything and at anytime. I just watched one called “Craigslist Joe” about a guy who lived off the goodness of others he found on Craigslist for 3 months. He even made it across country and back with nothing more than a laptop and a Smartphone. Yep, I will watch a anything in the documentary category.
    Ken Burns is the best though. How many other documentary makers have become a household name? Amazing if you consider it. If you haven’t already, you should watch the series he did on Jazz music. You will buy all the Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella, and Louie you can get your hands on,….and thank him for it. Good stuff!!!

    • Yes, I saw that one on Craigslist. It was really interesting.

      • Sherry Wimer says:

        Marian – the more I read your blog the more I feel I have a kindred spirit in you. I actually found and bought your book before I knew who you were. The book really has inspired me. And I also love Ken Burns documentaries. If schools would use his films to teach kids about our American history I believe they would really appreciate the country we live in. I am such a visual person and I really do not like to read, but I could watch one of Burn’s films one after another.

  7. Denise T says:

    I might be a nerd as well. I enjoy documentarires. I might be strange , I enjoy washing dishes and washing clothes/folding clothes. They somehow keep me calm and relaxed.

  8. Christy Keyton says:

    LOL – I guess I am a REAL nerd. I love the history channel, biographies, and documentaries. And believe it or not – I like ironing! I inherited some of my grandmother’s gorgeous all cotton linens with embroidery and crochet trim. I just use them on my guest room bed, but I love ironing them and then making the bed with those lovely, freshly ironed linens. Laundry and ironing is a great time to pray for your family as well – no one wants to help with those tasks, so they leave me in quiet in the laundry room! :-)

  9. Melissa says:

    Thanks for that today….I really needed a reminder that being a mom and the mundane tasks I do day in and day out are important. Just a few hours ago I was telling my oldest that 16 years of the “routine” was wearing on me and I was tired of the same old same….His response (typical 16 year old) “It’s not my fault you had 4 kids”…..then me….”I’m not blaming anyone, just saying it would be nice to know that what I do actually makes a difference since all it seems to be is more of the same.” After all, the dishwasher was running and the sink was full of dishes again, the dryer was done, but the washer and hamper were full, as always, I had just been to the grocery but we apparently had “nothing to eat”, etc, etc…..clearly you understand :)

  10. We saw that documentary too. It was amazing and an eye opener. So much to learn from those people. I think everyone should see it.

  11. Angela Davis says:

    EXACTLY what I needed to hear today!! Bless you!

  12. Karen says:

    Thank you.

  13. I clicked on your link to “The Dust Bowl”. It looks like it is a video clip only. Do you have a link to the full episode? I would love to watch it.

  14. That was a great documentary. I learned a lot.
    I got to meet Ken Burns a few years ago. He gave one of the most inspiring talks I’d ever heard on philanthropy. I used to have a copy…wonder where I put that? :)

  15. Catherine Roberts says:

    My children are now in their 30s. They DO remember all the things I did for them including a birthday party for the cat. Many days I was far from a perfect parent and longed for the day that I no longer had to clean up after three children. Now I wish I had those days back. (-:
    Your children will remember the most amazing things and appreciate you more than you know. Now I have 8 sweet little grand babies to love. Maybe we need to have another birthday party for the cat.

  16. The little things really do matter. For instance, I had this dime-store “happy Birthday” banner I had hung for each birthday, as long as the kids were here. I hung the banner the last time Andrew was home and he said, “I knew you’d have that up!”. That made me so happy that he had always noticed and loved the little traditions. I hope to keep sharing with grandchildren one day!

  17. I think it was Ruth Graham (Billy Graham’s wife) that had a sign in her kitchen that said “Divine services performed here daily” !

  18. Tonya says:

    I love that perspective, thank you for sharing it with us! As stay at home moms, we tend to diminish the importance of what we do. I always love reminders like this!

    One of my friends is a Christian artist and he has a song called, “If ever you worshiped” which is about this very thing. I absolutely love it!

  19. I’m starting my own business because of my passion for home decor and restyling furniture, but also because it gives me the opportunity to work from home and take care of my two little boys. Because I know it matters. A few years ago my oldest son said ‘Mom, I think it’s great that our king allows all mothers to stay at home on Wednesday afternoons so we can play outside and have an ice cream together.’ (They don’t have school on Wednesday afternoon, for your information :-)) I had to explain him that the king of Belgium has nothing to do with my decision to stay at home on Wednesday afternoon, and that not all mothers do so.

    • teresa says:

      I remember that from living there growing up. I also remember my Mom getting the “Mother’s Money” cheque. I’ve always wondered if they still do that.

  20. Tami K says:

    Such an awesome post I really needed to hear this today (or should I say this morning) thanks a ton for sharing because I believe it does matter ……

  21. MARY EGUIA says:

    Every day after work I go home to start the things I couldn’t do while at work,laundry,dishes,dinner,picking up,etc. I was so angry that I had to keep doing all of this ,it never was done. I told my Mom this and she said “Mary,it will never be done. You will always have those things to do. So don’t expect it to go away.That”s life.” Well I never forgot that.She is right. Just like during labor with my 1st born while on the phone I said,here’s another contraction Mom. She said “No ,one less contraction till the baby is here” Great advice. Have a wonderful day Marion.

  22. By His grace, we were given the most precious gift of being mommies. It is in His grace, we raise those babies. It will be our faith in Him that our children will remember and have the most impact in their lives. The hours spent on our knees on their behalf, will bear much fruit. It is All for His glory!!

  23. You can find this documentary on Netflix as well – check out his JAZZ series – Excellent!

  24. This is an amazing documentary…and I’m happy to be a nerd too by watching it. I’d always heard about the dust bowl…but had no idea of the devastation right here in our own country. What was even sadder is that is was man made…created by not managing and taking care of the land…not so unlike what we are doing on a global scale today. Have we learned from this horrible past event…or is it a lesson missed? I have such respect for the families who struggled through to make it day by day. It was sad to hear the one child say he grew up thinking there was no color other than brown…a world with no color…beyond my comprehension.

  25. Alice R. says:

    It does make a difference…thanks for the reminder. Sometimes I think if I have to do some small task I do every day again, I will go crazy. I’m wrong when I feel like that: having a bed to make means I’m lucky, having dishes to wash means I’m lucky, having family to dirty up what I just cleaned means I’m lucky. I’m deeply grateful for who and what I have.

  26. Maybee's Mom says:

    My husband and I have watched that doc. several weeks ago…I don’t think people who did not live in the dust bowl understood how bad it was. We are farmers and appreciate our soil and moisture every planting season…my husband No-tills and has for 30 years….he practices good stewardship to our earth….how sad that the Dust Bowl was created by man….hope we have learned a lesson…our yields may not be as high as some who till and our fields aren’t beautiful till crops get a certain height….but less erosion and moisture loss…is the trade off….he has learned to care for the land that has cared for us…hope through you others watch this Doc…such a great history lesson….Maybee’s MOM

  27. Thanks Marian! I, too, watched the Dust Bowl documentary and was moved by the tenacity, eternal hope and sheer will of man to stay on the land and endure. I actually live in southwest Kansas and understand the plight of these people bacause many of those same families still live here. I was especially touched by the lady that remembered seeing her father round up all their cattle and heard them into a large hole he had dug and shot them because they could no longer afford to feed them. She was a 90 year old woman and was crying as she retold the story because it was so tramatic to her then and today!

  28. Thank you for this post. I actually am a regular reader, but rarely (if ever) comment. This post struck a chord within me, and I just wanted to let you know that it made a difference to me. And that the things that you have to share matter. Thank you for inspiring me (and many others) to strive to move mountains while reminding us that it is through the small things that the big things occur.

  29. Suzanne says:

    Your boys will remember those things – and many, many others. I know I remember lots of these “little” things my dear mamma did for me. These memories are better than any of the material gifts I received, though I dearly loved the doll she made me for my eighth birthday. Still have it. Stay-at-home moms matter. God bless.

  30. What a wonderful story. I love this post. I hope that someday my children will remember the lengths I go through to make their home as clean and comfortable for them. Sometimes I get tired of the mundane, routine chores but I thank you for the reminder of why and who I do them for. Have a fantastic day.

  31. Leslie says:

    What a touching post. I’m in the middle of common-day tasks today and you just lifted my spirits. All the little things in the home do matter.

    I also want to take this opportunity to tell you how proud I am of you. Yesterday a friend and I went on a “research” run to Barnes & Noble. The budget doesn’t allow the purchase of books for a few months, so we’ve begun a tradition of spending a few hours at the bookstore working on our wish lists. I found your book and absolutely loved it — both of us did. As we carefully looked through the pages (barely opening it so it wouldn’t look used) we both commented on the simple elegance. How inspiring to see a strong woman of faith create something beautiful and excellent. So proud of you — can’t wait to get the book in a few months.

  32. jude morris says:

    The nonfiction book by Timothy Eagan that is mentioned in Ken Burns’ documentary makes a fabulous read on this topic. Burns used it as a resource. If you liked this, you would also be fascinated by a nonfiction book called The Children’s Storm which recounts a freak blizzard that occurred in the upper Midwest and resulted in a terrible tragedy for school children. Sad, but compelling reading.

  33. Nikki says:

    I love documentaries and historical fiction. You need to read Out of the Dust by I think Karen Hesse. It is about a child and her life. It is written in poetry form. It is for middle schoolers but so touching. I always read it to my class to incorporate literate and history.

  34. Paula Lusk says:

    You are not a nerd. My husband and I have been watching PBS since the 1970’s, We love all of the documentaries, Masterpiece Theater (even before Downton Abbey). I’ve watched the Dustbowl 2x. One thing that I found interesting was, when the wives would take strips of cotton wet them and then cover inbetween the siding. Just trying to keep the dirt and silt out any way they could, What stamina these women had.
    I love you new rug you got for the living/family room. Very neutral, but lovely. AND the one in your office is so fun, I just love it, Blessings

  35. Petria OReilly says:

    I read the Grapes of Wrath in junior high school. It almost broke my heart to learn of the suffering of these people. It still affects me to this day.

    On another note…Besides the presents that Santa Claus brought for my three children, I would fill their stockings with all kinds of interesting things that would pertain to each child. I would collect things all through the year for them.( nothing expensive,,,). When my 2 oldest were in college and my youngest was a senior in high school, I decided that they really didn’t need the stockings anymore. Oh my gosh! You would have thought that I had told them that we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas at all. They said that those stockings were what they looked forward to at Christmas more than any other gift. I was touched that the stockings meant so much to my daughter and my big, strapping boys. Your boys will remember things that you will have forgotten and it will be so sweet to hear them reminisce.

    • Kirstin says:

      Funny on the stockings! When both of my kids were old enough to know what the Santa clause gig was really about, my oldest told me she really liked the magic of Christmas that I had created for them, and while she was big and old enough to be a part of the adult activities and responsibilities of Christmas, she wanted me to continue with the Santa sacks (stockings were too small) and the presents magically being produced on Christmas eve. And recognized that there was a whole lot of work in making that magic happen; but wanted it none the less.

  36. Amen, friend.

  37. I love all of his documentaries. I have watched and cried from the Civil War… Lincoln- Baseball and the Dust Bowl. He always cuts through to the human experience and that’s why I think we can always relate to his work.

    Speaking of the Dust Bowl – there was a documentary about Woody Guthrie that was incredible also. I think it was on Bravo – not sure. Through him Americans learned about this scourge – he felt that he needed to be the mouthpiece of the downtrodden – especially in the Dust Bowl.

    Thanks for your post!


  38. I like Ken Burns’ documentaries also. Thank you for a little word of encouragement for us moms today!

    Jeanette @ Creating A Life

  39. Marian,

    Ken Burns is also my favorite documentary filmmaker, he has such a mesmerising style of story-telling. At university, we had to watch the entirety of “The Civil War” for our Civil War History class. We learned everything we had to know for that class on his film alone. What an amazing documentary, it was so incredibly well done.

    That film was particularly interesting to me as at least two of my ancestors from my dad’s side of the family (all from Tennessee) fought in that war, the most poignant of them being a pair of brothers, one of whom fought for the Confederates, the other fought on the side of the Union. So it’s a family legacy that the ideology behind that war truly split a family and made brother fight against brother. What stuck with me from that film, other than the obvious horror and utter devastation and loss of life, was the heart-breaking letter that Union Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife, Sarah, one week before he was mortally wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run. I dare anyone to read the letter and not reach for at least one hankie!

    – Kimberly

  40. thank you for the chills this morning. while it’s storming outside and i’ve kept my 4 year old home to avoid him possibly having an asthma attack you give me confirmation that my job is important.

  41. I watched that too! We love Ken Burns and all he does! We must be nerds too! PBS is my favorite!

  42. YES! Being a wife and a mom is THE most important job…I have ever had. I can get a little rough and I wonder after the millionth time in one day that I have picked up the same toy…does this matter? I have always know it does matter…it is jut nice to read others say the same thing!

    Your book was delivered to my door this afternoon. I can’t wait to get dinner done, baths done and girls in their jammies and in bed (yep, it matters) and plop down on the couch n front of the fire with my new book. I have heard AMAZING things and can’t wait to dive in myself!


  43. LauraSC says:

    Thank you for this post. You’re so right about what matters. Years ago when I was a new bride and visiting my husbands grand parents his Granny was so impressed with how I folded the bed sheets and bath towels. It was after we had left that it became clear just how impressed. She had told nearly everyone in the family what a great girl I was because I knew how to do those things and that I had table manners. It was my mother who made sure that I was well equiped with the know how to do things that I simply thought everyone was taught to do it that way.
    Dust Bowl was awesome. We really enjoyed it. What a facinating part of American history.

  44. Kirstin says:

    I love your blog. : ) I don’t watch documentaries often, but I didn’t know what to rent at the Redbox recently and I chose “Wild Horse Wild Ride.” It’s a fascinating documentary that follows several individuals who adopt and train wild horses from the government and take them to a competition in Fort Worth. Very worthwhile.

  45. laura says:

    We live in the Dust Bowl (West Texas – Lubbock)

    Blowing Dust, piled up at front porch and back porch that you see at the end of the day when you get home from work. Sweeping…Sweeping…Sweeping (did I say we sweep a lot) is a constant with us.
    And if it is raining while the dust is blowing – well, when they say ‘it rained mud’ they mean it REALLY rained mud).

    We can wash the car one day and have it nice and clean for o.n.e. day. We enjoy the heck out of the clean car, even if for a day.

    But…it is home for us and has been for 24 1/2 years.

    It is nothing like it was years ago…but we still get those really big dust storms every now and then and then…seeing that wall of black-as-night coming in is a frightening sight, yet very fascinating.
    In fact, most of this week we have had blowing dust! cough cough hack hack

    Ken Burns documentaries are amazing!!

  46. I am a nerd, too. I watched a documentary on Henry Ford the other evening (while my husband slept on the sofa beside me). It was very interesting. There is so much to learn from the past! He provided classes for his workers so they could learn English and learn how to assimilate, better. Their graduation involved walking onto a stage and entering a giant pretend ‘melting pot’ in their native garb – and then they emerged waving an American flag and dressed like American men of the time.

  47. Wow I needed this today! After being up in the night cleaning vomit out of the carpet and sheets and rug in my daughter’s room to the nonstop work of potty training a 3 year old boy, to the endless piles of laundry and dishes, it feels like I’m living a real-life version of the movie Groundhog Day! I chose to stay home when my son was born and it was the best decision I’ve made since he’s been so sick for each of his 3 winters, but there are certainly times I wonder if I’m even noticed, if anything I do is important. This helps bring perspective! Thank you!

  48. Hallelujah to that! Making a home is always important. It’s not just the stuff but the idea.

    My Grandma (who is 102 1/2 btw) was recently talking about getting clothes off of the line during the dustbowl. She said it was so dry you could hardly hang clothes out because grasshoppers would cover the clothes to get to the water. Ew. If you’ve ever had to deal with getting clothes off the line or the scratchiness of grasshoppers I think you can “feel” how bad the whole situation must have been. The whole idea of keep on going had real meaning.

    I love Ken Burns’ documentaries too! I own most of them and watch them while I’m doing projects and there is just meaningless junk on TV.

  49. Marian,

    I’m going back through emails this morning and found this one I had missed. I did watch the Dust Bowl series on Ken Burns and I just love him. His documentaries are real and resourceful and I loved the story of the curtains! So good of you to share your thoughts on this. It does make a difference to us sometimes to know that even the most small mundane things make an impression in our expression of love for our families. Thanks for all you do.

  50. Sharon says:

    I, too, saw that program (as well as the one of National Parks). This program was so poignant. The people of that time and place endured unbelievable hardship, and yet most of them just persevered. I, too, remember the part about the woman washing her curtains, never letting the persistent dust get the better of her. I found that so inspirational. When my son was growing up, I was a working mom. Staying at home would have been a real luxury. But working moms or stay-at-home moms all are bound together by love of family. And all those household tasks that can sometimes get us down DO MATTER. Thank you for expressing that so well in your blog.

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