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.

Each time they moved, mattresses were tied to the roof of the car and their most precious possession, a Singer sewing machine, was strapped on the back of the car. Mrs. G.s mama was a magician with the treadle-operated sewing machine. She made all the childrens clothes, and when a sock was worn beyond repair the yarn was carefully recovered and woven into a sock that could be salvaged.

When they moved to Arizona, the drive from Texas took three weeks, camping out each night along the highway. In Arizona, the whole family picked cotton for 10 cents a pound. Mrs. G. said in her book that it was long staple cotton, which was far more difficult than regular cotton, and it was hard to pick 100 pounds in a 12-hour day. But life was hard in Arizona and without any cooling other than wet sheets, the heat was unbearable–so it was back to Texas.

The family, over time and after many more moves, finally made it to California and the long slow climb out of the poverty cycle began. Mrs. G. had to drop out of high school in her early years, but later returned and finished her studies. Still later, in 1968, she graduated from Arizona State University with distinction.

In a few days Mrs. G. will celebrate her 91st birthday. She lives comfortably in a retirement home, and owns a small shopping mall as part of a substantial estate. She owes her success to the lessons she learned from her fireball mama who, despite all the moving around and the hardships endured, held the family together and always admonished them to remember that “other people had bigger problems.”

Ms. G. has for years been generous in her support of pre-school education for underprivileged children. Her two favorite expressions are “Everybody wants to harvest, nobody wants to plant,” and “I.Q. is not as important as I can.” Mrs. G. was able to make a future, where seemingly there was no hope, because of a remarkable woman.

As I have reflected further about this, I realize that while this is not about my mother, to a large degree it could have been. I remember her struggle to hold things together during the Depression when there were no paychecks, and her ability to make do with almost nothing. This could also, in a way, have been the story of another great lady–my mother-in-law, who immigrated to this country from Denmark in 1920 with $50 and speaking no English. Our generation and those that followed owe much to these great ladies and the strength they showed in truly hard times.

The point of all this is that there is hope, and I like to believe that we in the insurance industry help to provide it. The billions entrusted to insurance companies and invested in our economy help provide the opportunities that lift people from poverty. What is needed in these other countries, now devastated, is a similar mechanism. As our companies expand abroad, perhaps some of these people we see on the nightly news will find answers to their prayers.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, March 25, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.