Over the past couple of years I have watched the faces of desperate people in Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Afghanistan on the nightly news, and wondered if there was any real hope for any of them. With their land and property largely destroyed and few, if any assets, what kind of future is there for them?
But recently, I came across a relevant article in the March issue of “Smithsonian,” the magazine published for the Smithsonian Institution. The article was entitled “Migrant Madonna” and featured a photograph by Dorothea Lange, an icon in American photography. The photograph was of a migrant worker, a woman, and her three small girls. It was taken in March of 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, at a pea pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California.
The entire pea crop for that year had just frozen and there was no work for the migrant workers. The woman in the picture was a study in total despair. She and her three little kids were dirty and in rags, and she had just sold the tires of her car to buy food. It was a picture even worse than most we now see on the news reporting from foreign lands.
The article stated that Nancy Velez, manager of the photography lab at the Library of Congress, says Langes photograph continues to be one of the most requested items in their collection. “Its the most striking image we have, it hits the heart,” says Velez. It is a picture devoid of hope.
The article continues with a picture taken in 1969 of the same woman, now identified by the “Modesto Bee” as Anne Thompson, at the home of one of her daughters in Modesto, California. Thompson is surrounded in the picture by the same girls as in the original picture, but now, all well dressed and in obviously comfortable surroundings. Their story is right out of Steinbecks “The Grapes of Wrath” and, indeed, they worked and lived in many of the places under the conditions described in that epic. But they survived, and they did, in fact, have a future.
As I read this story, I was reminded of one of my long-time clients who I will identify only as Mrs. G. Several years ago, Mrs. G. wrote a book entitled “.” The book was extensively reproduced but not published for public consumption. She wrote the book so that her children and grandchildren would know what a remarkable person her mother had been.
The book chronicled a story of how a family of 14 children survived the same kind of struggle experienced by the “Migrant Madonna” and did so largely through the efforts of an indomitable mother.
Mrs. Gs mother was married in 1895, at age 15, to a man working for an itinerant preacher holding camp meetings across Texas. As the children began to arrive, her husband turned to farming as a sharecropper in Texas and Oklahoma. Life was hard. Much of their clothing and bed sheets were made from 100-pound flour sacks, and often the kids had no shoes to wear to school. They moved frequently, farming seven different farms in Texas. The profit from farming seldom yielded much more than the cost of seed and feed for the animals.