These words of Steinbeck’s, found in the opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath – an epic dustbowl novel set during the Great Depression, have been clinging to the edges of my thoughts ever since I read them a few days ago:
‘The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, dying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of their houses to stand beside their men – to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break. The children peeked at the the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the water troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust. After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked: What’ll we do? And the men replied: I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.’ (The Grapes of Wrath, end of chapter 1)
I love the unspoken, but intimately woven together, familial relationships amidst the devastating reality of livelihoods being ruined by the all pervasive, blighting dust.
As the novel goes on, the women we encounter are by no means weak. There is an interdependency which is more and more evident as the involuntarily itinerant family struggle to find work, food and peace. Men and women ebb and flow in strength and weakness, in fragility and persistent strength.
There’s no comparison between our context and that described in the novel, and we know nothing of that level of suffering. But the resonating note for me is found in the interwoven, interdependent intimacy of a family relationship. Through the buffeting breezes and storms of the last year, and the challenges of what is to come as we break ground over here, I do recognise that secret sideways glance. That quick check of the ‘wholeness’ of my man. And a reciprocated glance in my direction, as he attempts to gauge my emotions as well as my fragility and potential tenacity.
While I’m not sure that the boys have been sending ‘exploring senses’ in our direction, they are at ease now in ways I haven’t seen for months.
I praise God for our near ‘wholeness’, even with the slight cracks, and for the privilege of marriage, and family. But I’m so thankful, as well, that I ‘know deep in myself’ that it’s not whether we are ‘whole’ but whether we are trusting our unchanging God that’s the decider on whether any ‘misfortune’ is ‘too great to bear’.