Wanting What You Have

I drove the three-and-a-half hours into the hills of Eastern Oklahoma to surprise my Mom on her 77th birthday Thursday. And surprised she was. Pleasantly, too, I hasten to add.

Trips up to see my folks grew disgracefully infrequent over the last two years as the demands of the hamster wheel (“Faster! Faster!, More! More!”), became more unreasonable and loud. This coincided with the decline in their comfort with negotiating Dallas traffic in driving down to see us.

All that to say, it was a pretty good birthday surprise I think. And justifiably so. Seventy-seven sounds like a milestone number to my ears.

Do the math and you’ll know that Mom was born in 1931. That was two years into the Great Depression and, to make things more interesting, her father, my Grandad Andrew Jackson, was a barely-literate tenant farmer in Grady County, Oklahoma—also known as the buckle of the Dust Bowl.) In the event early 20th Century U.S. history is not your long suit, here’s a quick refresher on the context:

The drought hit first in the eastern part of the country in 1930. In 1931, it moved toward the west. By 1934 it had turned the Great Plains into a desert. “If you would like to have your heart broken, just come out here,” wrote Ernie Pyle, a roving reporter in Kansas, just north of the Oklahoma border, in June of 1936. “This is the dust-storm country. It is the saddest land I have ever seen.” (PBS)

It was in Ernie Pyle’s year of heartbreak, 1936, that Mom lost her mother to a post-operative infection. The little girl standing at the dusty grave site holding the hand of a toddler sister was the second youngest of five kids; and only five years old. Hard times simply don’t get much more granite-like than that.

Nevertheless, Mom says that Grandad Jackson used to claim that he lost nothing in the crash of ’29 and ensuing panic—because he literally owned nothing to lose. And that was close to the truth. He farmed a section of Grady County land owned by a wealthy man in Kansas City and squeezed his family of seven into the little house that sat on that land. He faithfully sent the owner an agreed-upon percentage of the profits after the crop came in . . . if and when a crop came in.

Single-parenting wasn’t an option for a man in my grandfather’s situation. So he quickly remarried and five more half-siblings came along in quick succession (four girls, one boy). Mom, as the oldest girl in the clan, must have shouldered an impossibly large measure of responsibility at an astonishingly young age.

And though she knew real hunger and real hardship, what they experienced was “normal,” because everyone they knew was in the same state. In fact, they often felt more fortunate than the desperate families that passed through on their way to what they hoped was a better life in California—“Okies,” with all their earthly possessions piled on rattle-trap cars—who would sleep in the Jackson’s barn or even their chicken coop for a few nights, grateful for the hospitality.

I took Mom and Dad to dinner Thursday night but she insisted on cooking a big breakfast for me Friday morning before I had to head back to the Dallas hamster wheel. And oh, what a spread it was. Thick ham steaks, hot biscuits, country gravy, fried eggs, and deep red sliced tomatoes fresh from Dad’s garden. I want to weep just thinking about it. It was great.

It was, in fact, what Mom’s concept of Heaven must have been back in 1939 and ’40. A table full of food, a good roof over your head, a soft bed and everyone you love reasonably healthy and whole.

There is a great, neglected truth about life which tells us: “The secret of happiness is not having what you want; but wanting what you have.” Mom wants what she has. With the possible exception of more frequent visits from her first born. And I’m going to see what I can do about that.