I’m reading Grapes of Wrath for the first time. Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school and obtain an English degree without having to open its pages and I’m so glad, because I think young Olivia couldn’t have seen it as it should be seen. And in some ways I’ll probably never be able to understand, because as I let the story sink in, as its cruel, maddening realities unfold before my eyes, it makes me wonder if I’ve ever struggled a day in my life. At all.
Not to belittle trials and tough seasons of the modern day for they are hard in their own right, but comparatively, it all seems to be just a pile of inconveniences. This morning, we loaded our family and three heaping baskets into the car and drove safely down the road to a Laundromat. Our own laundry room off the kitchen still sits without a washer and dryer, as we wait and save or wait to be able to save, but this morning, it didn’t bother me. Growing up in the suburbs, I’ve always held the belief that Laundromats are shady places, but they are just places that must exist, because people need to wash clothes and it’s not actually a right of residency to have your own machines. There have been years where our apartment complex didn’t have laundry hook-ups in unit and there were years where we had our own, but it’s just a part of this whole big thing of life. A people thing. And truthfully, in one and a half hours, I knocked out three weeks of laundry for four people, I couldn’t have done that at home. My clothes filled half the row of washers and the circular windows were a blur of color and soapy water. One by one, the loads were transported in the cart that always reminds of the one episode of Friends, where Rachel washes her own laundry for the first time and Ross falls even more hopelessly for her. The massive dryers tumbled until the clothes were folded and again, packed away.
As I sorted and folded, I thought about the things we allow to be such great inconveniences and I thought about the Joad family, from the book. It’s night and day, what we call struggle, what we believe to be a hardship. And I don’t want to be that kind of person. The Dust Bowl era destroyed the lands, sucking the life out of fields and farms. The farmers worked tirelessly to salvage the land, but the crops failed, so the money didn’t come in, and the banks took back the land. The land where their children were born and the elderly died. The land was a part of them, until the banks wanted profit and saw people as interferences and kicked them off the land. The tractors destroyed jobs and homes, turning legacies to rumble. So, the masses fled West, with the hopes of greener lands and jobs. An exodus that became something of a nightmare and the Californians didn’t want the Okies, no longer farmers, but considered migrants, who were forced to resident in little camps on the outskirts of town. They were treated as foreigners, trouble, good for nothing, and dirty, but all they wanted was to work hard and raise their families, to have a little home and be respectful people. The orchards dumped truckloads of oranges into the river to rot as children died of hunger. I wonder if anything has really changed in the world at all, but that’s another thought.
Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land—stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarreled over them, those frantic hungry men; and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. They put houses and barns, they turned the earth and planted crops. And these things were possession, and possession was ownership.
The Mexicans were weak and fed. They could not resist, because they wanted nothing in the world as ferociously as the Americans wanted land. Then, with time, the squatters were no longer squatters, but owners; and their children grew up and children had the land. And the hunger was gone from them, the feral hunger, the gnawing, tearing hunger for land, for waters and earth and the good sky over it, for the green thrusting grass, for the swelling roots They had these things so completely that did they did not know about them anymore. (Chapter 19)
It’s the last line that grips me, They had these things so completely that did they did not know about them anymore. It tumbles in head like the the towels in the dryer, again and again, each time bringing more understanding and more questions. I think we are these children of the squatters, the offspring of a generation that achieved a way of life, a certain standard of living. And I think we’ve forgotten that a good life is not easily achieved, but full of labor. It’s ripe with hard times and monotonous realities, like laundry and dishes and paying bills, but such things are actually not the struggle. We wash clothes without hauling waters and heating it on a stove, we clean our dishes in sinks of hot, clean water or at the touch of a few buttons and we pay bills, because we have things, like homes and electricity. We deem it all as inconveniences and create struggles out of our abundance and ease. Struggles are real and they abound, but they are not these things.
Recently, I was speaking with a dear friend, a mother of three young children and she said, “These are working years, laboring years. We do our best. We give and love until we collapse at the end of the day with the satisfaction of knowing that we loved, worked, and lived.” I imagine the people of the 1930’s were not much different than us, but they knew that all of life was hard work, sprinkled with little bits of rest and reward. Sometimes, I think our society glamourizes the opposite until we come to believe it is an essential right of being a first world citizen. Sometimes, I think we see the years of work our parent’s generation put in and think we can obtain it all right away, fresh out of college with two little ones in tow. We forget the building years, or worse, see them as an inconvenience.
And I think we are also the children of the sharecroppers, because the way of life our parents and their parents knew and lived, is now fading. Perhaps, we are fighting to hold on to the remnants, but the shift is here. They went to college, walked into good jobs and worked until they retired. So, we went to college too and for some, the transition was easier, but for many, it hasn’t been. The jobs were few and the over-qualified, college educated were plenty. We see it every day and the tension grows and I wonder just what our revolt will be. I wonder what exodus we will make that will write the next chapter of history, the way the sharecroppers did.
They had these things so completely that did they did not know about them anymore.