Young Migratory Mother

It was surely just a coincidence that I discovered it so close to the place where we first met, wasn’t it? I mean, I don’t believe in karma and all that nonsense – so it was just a little coincidence then, okay? Maybe, but as I remembered the many hours spent with her, it was a significant small coincidence. The discovery that bought it flooding back happened not so long ago – just a few weekends past when I’d returned to where it had all began, Chicago. I must admit it has stayed on my mind since – the coincidence. Played on my mind so much that, when I returned, I did something about it. But finding out more didn’t make it go away. I had wondered, off and on, over the years what became of her – but now, it has reached obsession status – and I can’t be fixated on her. It’s not right; it’s pointless. Not now, so many decades down the track. The past is the past. You’d agree, if somehow you’re out there reading this, wouldn’t you? I know, when she first disappeared I felt bereft for a while. But back then there was Sharon, so I moved on pretty quickly. It wasn’t as if there was anything between us, just a quickly formed casual friendship that obviously meant little to her – or maybe it just seemed that way. The reason she left my orbit so abruptly I’ll never know. She told me so much of her story and now I have more to add to it, but do I want the full version? We’ll see. So, I’m thinking, if I write it all down, I may get the woman out of my system. Right?

I had flown to Chicago to catch up with my son, Jim, his wife Livvy and my two grand-kids. I don’t make the effort to see them as often as I would like. Jim’s always busy running the company and Liv has her hands full with the imps, as I call them, although they’re far too old for that moniker these days – as they tell me often. About ten years ago I retired and moved from there to NYC to be with the new lady in my life. Jim took over the operations of Meatpackers at that stage. It’s a restaurant chain – a very successful one, if I do say so myself. Under Jim it continues to thrive. He’s moved it into Europe – by the time I left I had expanded into most major US locations. We keep it simple – the best steaks to be sourced locally, matched with the best reds to be had on the planet. Simple – but effective.

My marriage to Jim’s mother, Sharon, broke up soon after I met Shelly. She, Shel, was a manager of one of my Big Apple outlets and we hooked up initially at a franchise heads’ conference back in ’89. She was unattached at that point in time – I was soon to be. My kids had grown, but Sharon and I? Well, we had not grown in our relationship along with them. It was a cold and chilly affair by the end, but Shel soon warmed me up. It’s fair to say there was instant mutual attraction. We were lovers by conference end. I threw in the towel to my vows at the altar pretty quickly. It’s never as simple as that, of course, really – but it was the right decision for me. I followed Shel to New York soon after. We’ve been lucky – happiness second time around for both of us. And she’s given me another set of grandchildren. Shel, in some ways, reminded me of her back then – a tall willowy blonde for whom time had been relatively kind. There was a presence about both women that made you sit up and take notice when they walked into a room – with Shel, as with her almost doppelganger from back in 1963. I had never previously had an affair whilst with Sharon, despite the occasional temptation that had come my way – I knew that with Shel it would never happen again.

Jim and Liv picked me up from O’Hare and drove me to their lakeside condo, about an hour away if the traffic was steady. I intended five days with them, dividing my time between going out and about with Liv and the kids while Jim worked, or otherwise I expected to be catching up with the latest on our business in the down-town office with my son. I had nothing to worry about on that score – it seemed we were flying. And that’s how the visit turned out, almost.

As is perhaps to be expected, life had changed markedly since I started work at a Chicago bar/come diner back in the early Sixties. The Union Stock Yards have now long gone, but they were  in operation then, past their peak, but still employing plenty – enough to give Dwight’s Place healthy custom. Dwight himself was a crusty old fellow – about my age now. He wasn’t going to be around much longer I could tell. He was rumbling on more and more about retirement. He’d been in the restaurant trade all his life. I’d been working in such for a while too by then – ever since I was old enough to serve alcohol. Now, approaching thirty, I was effectively the boss of the place and was figuring it was time to settle down. Sharon did a little waitressing in the joint and we had become a number. I had in mind to propose that we made our relationship more official. By then I’d been putting a bit aside for a while and was sure I could interest a bank in my business prospects when it came time for Dwight to call it quits.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Yep, it was ’63 when she came into Dwight’s on the first occasion. I know that because my mind was on the tele as Kennedy was being reported on the news as having given his famous speech about being a Berliner. Little did we realise the terrible event that was about to befall the nation only a few months away. She was up to the bar before my attention fixed on her. It was unusual for a woman to come into Dwight’s at any time. It was a male sort of place – just the basics – beer, whisky and stomach lining fried tucker. We were open twenty-four seven to cater for the shifts starting and finishing around the clock at the cattle yards, slaughter houses and freezing plants that operated in the immediate vicinity. These days Meatpackers operates more upmarket, but it was a different time back then and women in our place were an exception, especially ones who ordered beer with bourbon chasers, as she did that first time.

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As Dwight wound down I had given myself the evening shift. It was usually quiet between the six o’clock to seven meals and midnight, heating up at the late hour when many of the workers knocked off. So I had time for her, not that she was overly forthcoming that first evening. She reordered twice, sitting quietly on the end stool – and left after an hour or so. I thought little more of it until she reappeared the next night – and frequently after that. Always the same order, repeated twice. But as we came to know each other she started to linger longer, sometimes almost till the midnight rush.

As I said, she was a tall blonde, very purposeful in her movements and precise in speech. She never waffled, even as I came to know her better – but there was a warmth about her too. If I had to pin her age down I’d say late forties/early fifties – her face wasn’t heavily lined, giving evidence that she took good care of her skin. Apart from that, make-up didn’t feature. She wore blue-denim coveralls – I never saw her in anything else in all the evenings she graced Dwight’s with her presence.

Gradually she opened up to me. I liked a bit of a chat with the regulars and once I’d broken down her initial barrier to my charm, she was quite forthcoming. She didn’t live far away as it turned out, but had finally found a job closer to home cleaning some of the offices in the vicinity with a crew of three or four. She liked the hours – afternoons into the evenings, leaving her mornings free. There was no wedding ring on her finger – I spotted that early on as I was thinking of popping the question back then to Sharon. It took a while for my patron to bestow on me her first smile – but when it emerged it was worth the wait. And she did possess a sense of humour. Whenever Red Skelton or Lucy came on the tele she often convulsed in laughter. It was good to see her lose her inhibitions, in my presence, as time went on. She stared asking me questions about myself, as I did her. I talked of my plans for the years ahead – of taking over Dwight’s, of wedding Sharon and maybe having a family. And in my quizzing I soon had a fair amount of information on her life, to that point in time. And here’s what, over those months in her almost nightly company, I found out.

Although she’d lived in our windy city since the war, she still had the remnant of a southern drawl and sure enough, she’d been bought up in Texas. I cannot remember exactly where in that large state she spent her childhood, but I do recall her saying it wasn’t exactly an easy one. When the dust storms hit in her late teens, though, it became considerably worse for her. She’d married young – had to. Again her husband’s name has long gone from my memory, so let’s call him Dave. Her family took Dave in under their roof too, as well as a newborn. A second quickly increased the pressure on the now virtually untenable farm to support them all. In the end they had a decision to make. It was made easier by a neighbour who informed them he was heading to California where there was money to made on the Bakersfield oil fields. And there was room on his truck. She spoke, back then, of the many adventures to be had en route. There were humorous tales. There were tales of hardship. But my overriding memory was her telling of the constant gnawing of hunger as she and Dave always put the children first. On reaching the West Coast state they terminated their journey at Edison, just outside Bakersfield. It was just a camp-site, but with the truck and a little canvas two families had a sort of home together. While they waited for news about positions with the oil companies they turned their hands to seasonal fruit and vegie picking around the district. Their upbringing meant they were farm-hardened to the sort of work ethic required and soon a little cash was rolling in. Life was starting to look up for these battlers. Dave was successful in gaining a position so, after around six months in the camp, they moved into town and rented some rooms in a boarding house. Then, a year later, came Pearl Harbour. It wasn’t long before Dave joined up to do his bit and she lost him at Iwo Jima. For a while she persisted on his pension, but she soon found that, with two kids, the dollar simply wouldn’t stretch. And life without Dave was pretty bleak as well. When a call came from her sister, also widowed by the war, with an offer to share accommodation, she accepted. It was a long trip to Illinois on a Greyhound bus, especially for the kids. But once she arrived, she soon made a go of it, picking up any menial work she could lay her hands on to help out her sister with expenses and to provide all she could for her two offspring.

She was still living with her sister when she turned up at my workplace. I remember her referring to themselves as ‘…the two love-starved old spinsters’, although later in the piece she did tell me of some of the men she’d had dalliances with along the way. But none could match her Dave, so they didn’t last long in her affections. As for her kids – one married out in LA, the other still living in Chicago. They’d done all right for themselves after a rough start, she reckoned.

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I had really started to look forward to her company in Dwight’s. She rarely came at weekends, but was there most week nights. She never varied her order nor her outfit. I figured our chats did us both good and I was reluctant to see her give me that goodbye wave as she departed. Then, as suddenly as she had appeared she was gone. I never laid eyes on her again until this recent trip back to Chicago

This occurred on my last morning in the city by the lake. I’d had a great time with Jim and the grandchildren. And as my flight back home wasn’t till later in the afternoon, I decided to return one last time to that old stomping ground where the sale yards had been till their demise in ’71. It was there that she had briefly impinged on my life – but my thoughts were far from her till I entered that shop. I was due to meet Jim for one last lunch after I had wandered around on my own for a bit – I wasn’t to know, when I set out, that that lunch was going to be mainly about her. He listened with interest as I related most of her tale to him, along with what I had discovered that very morn. He was seemingly engaged and kept me talking on the subject – and in the blink of an eye it was time to leave the city for O’Hare.

Yes, I was feeling quite nostalgic that morning in any case. There had been a bit of that lately. I was getting on. I knew it would probably be another good while before I saw those kids again, although Jim had promised to bring them out to NYC for Christmas. I loved Shel’s lot, but there was nothing like your own flesh and blood. I knew back home they would expect something from me, so I had my eye out for a souvenir place during my meanderings. There were plenty of those around now the place was more gentrified and with it being popular with the tourists. With numerous to choose from, what compelled me to land in that one?

It was more a stall in a small indoor market than a shop as such. Above it was a sign, ‘Postcards Galore’. I thought – a few postcards of the city for friends and maybe something cute for the kiddies. The seemingly thousands of cards were arranged in sections under labelled headings. I found some pictures of dolls in national costume for the two girls, together with a couple of old-fashioned fire-engines for Shel’s grandson. He was fixated on trucks and boy stuff. I know, it was all very sexist of me. I was rifling through the section marked Art and Photography when, to my utter disbelief, I found her.

In my memory it was one of the last nights she visited the bar. We were chatting away when she suddenly asked something akin to, ‘Would you like to see a photo of me when I was younger?’ Of course I replied in the affirmative and from her bag – I always found it somewhat incongruous that she carried a handbag to go with her dungarees – a tattered envelope emerged from which she withdrew an equally tattered image. I was touched that her ease with me allowed her to gift me a viewing – it certainly wouldn’t have happened in her early days of drinking in my company. With its creases and smudges, the black and white depiction of a more youthful her looked much travelled and much cherished. Maybe the showing of it was her way of saying goodbye – she gave no other hint of vanishing from my night-shifts at Dwight’s at all.

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I guess, even in her coveralls, she had an air about her that was very sensual; very beguiling despite her age. There was a mild flirtatiousness between us and in all honesty, I think, if there had been no Sharon, I would have been tempted. And her younger self looked something too.

It took me a while to twig that morning. I examined it for sometime because, in the back of my mind, was the notion that, for some reason, it was terribly familiar to me. Then it clicked. I stepped back in amazement. I felt somewhat shaken. When I turned it over and read what was on the back I knew, without doubt, I was right. It simply read ‘Dorothea Lange. Young Migratory Woman. 1941.’ I repeated her name over and over in my mind for a while. Dorothea Lange. Well, that just didn’t seem right. And only then did I realise. She was the photographer. Then I recalled. She had told me about her that night. Told me about the photographer lady with a limp who came calling that day long ago and captured her for all time. Imagine, after all these years, there, in a small retail outlet, in amongst the Mona Lisas and Whistler’s Mothers, I found her again.

Back then I also took my time in looking her over. The younger version seemed to have none of the, well, I guess you could call it stateliness or something, even chutzpah maybe, of her older self. I asked her to tell me about the circumstances of its taking. She then told me the story of that particular morning in some detail. It was obviously a seminal event for her as she recounted it with clarity. The bar was quiet, as was usual for that hour of night. I was only interrupted a few times in its telling to pull a beer or pour whiskey shots.

She sipped on her tipples as she gave me her account of the photographer’s visit. She reckoned she came along when she and Dave were at their lowest. In the fruit and vegetable picking they were engaged in they were hampered by the responsibility of childcare. Most farmers forbade accompanying children as a distraction and there were few at the camp on the outskirts of Edison willing to take on a whole day of caring for the children of others. Many, like them, had to split their days – one went in the morning, the other for the afternoon. Even then sometimes the little tots were alone for the changeover, restricted to a playpen. A day’s work was worth $2.25 to them – I certainly remember her telling me that. It was peanuts, even back then, but they could scratch an existence from it when the work was regular. If not, they relied on the generosity of their camp mates. It was tough, but she tried to get through it as best as she could, firm in the belief it was only temporary. She was very particular about her skin, she informed me. Being pale, she burnt easily and so ensured that her head was well-covered. The only luxury she allowed herself, only rarely, was the cheapest skin lotion available at the general store up the road. She used it sparingly every day. The long hours pulling turnips, plucking cherries or whatever the task was, exhausted her, even if she was only at it half days. But it was her attention to her appearance, even in those bleak days of labouring in fields, that made her stand out and perhaps caught the photographer’s eye. I have now come to know Dorothea Lange’s work well, due to my history with our mutual friend. My lady didn’t possess that beaten down appearance as did so many of the haggard, desperate women Lange took her samples from during her time with the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ denizens of that testing era. With this subject there was hope in her demeanour, as well as perhaps a modicum of defiance. She would not let it beat her. That was what her face told that day back then, as well as when renewing my acquaintanceship with the photo in more recent times.

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The morning in question she was getting herself organised for her shift. They were due to pick peas thirty-five miles away and she was about to hop up into the truck when she spotted a lady, with a camera, making her way to her. The woman introduced herself and asked if she was agreeable to having her photo taken. Assent was given so the photographer’s assistant jotted down a few details about the subject – obviously my customer, sipping her ale opposite. It was all over in a flash back then, but she told me she did ask for a copy of the image to be sent to the nearest mail pick-up, the general store.

What I saw was the younger version of my friend, up against some sort of building, with washing in the background. Her face was shaded by that all-important hat and her hair seemed to be cropped short – far removed from the long blonde tresses she disported on her visits to me. Later on she remembered being told that the woman worked for some sort of government agency reporting on conditions in the transient camps that dotted the outskirts of most towns in that area of California. She told me she had no idea what use, if anything, was made of the photograph taken that morning. She soon forgot all about it. She had far weightier problems on her mind, such as day to day survival. It had completely flown from her mind when, shortly after that encounter, the news came through that Dave had scored a job maintaining the rigs on the oil fields. He’d be earning oil money – good money.

She felt it was a positive omen for the future and for a year or so it seemed that way. They soon had rented rooms in Edison and planned to take out a bank loan for a car. As they were leaving the ramshackle camp for the last time they called into the general store and found a letter waiting. The envelope, the one she still carried the photo around in after all those years, was marked with the words ‘Bureau of Agricultural Economics’.

Of course, as I recently found out, the person who took the image of her on my postcard was one of our country’s ground-breaking women, particularly in her field of bringing to the attention of anyone who would listen the plight of the poor in the US during those hard years. But I didn’t know that until I went and investigated Dorothea Lange at the New York Public Library shortly after I came back from Chicago. She is automatically associated with one of the nation’s iconic images, the similarly titled ‘Migrant Mother’. This one she took at the height of the Dust Bowl in 1935 – a photograph that seared the conscience and helped usher in the New Deal. But, for me, nothing compares to the one I have now framed and placed on the desk in my study. That one is personal.

Business-wise the seventies were great for me. Dwight duly retired with my worries about the demise of the sale-yards subsiding as first the demolishers and then the builders moved into the vacuum to transform the location. The bank looked favourably on my plan to take over Dwight’s Place and gradually it too was transformed, along with the area it served. Once I had it all in place I renamed it Meatpackers in memory of all those guys it had served over the years of the cattle yards. As the next decade approached the demographic of that part of Chicago started to change – less blue collar and more aspirational. We changed with it and revamped the whole joint. Meatpackers became lunch and dinner only. We went where the money was by only offering the best cuts of locally sourced beef and the best reds we could find. The combination worked and the original Meatpackers took off.

We expanded Lakeside, then into the surrounding states. By the time I retired we had fifty-two franchises spread around the country, all operating on the same formula. Admittedly, all this took a toll on my relationship with Sharon and I don’t blame her now for how she treated me in those last years before Shel. We were both ready to move on. It was harder with the kids, Jim and Carey, but I think, with my lovely lady’s help, I have rebuilt those bridges. My daughter is a nurse in Washington State, but she too has a stake in the business. I couldn’t be happier with my life where it stands at the moment – my life with Shel in the Big Apple.

As for my trip to that NY library to discover more about the photographer of my postcard and to perhaps find out something of what became of its subject, the following, in a nutshell, is what I came up with.

One book I examined said Dorothea Lange was the woman who ‘…humanised the Great Depression’. She was born in 1895 and had a difficult childhood. Her father abandoned the family when she was twelve and she contracted polio, leaving her with a life-long limp. In 1919 she opened a photographic portrait studio in San Francisco and was immediately successful. She married in 1920 to painter Maynard Dixon, the union producing two sons. By the time the Depression hit she was over portraiture and started taking her camera out of the studio to capture what was happening on the streets, particularly snapping the now many down-and-outs living rough. Government officials noticed what she produced. As a result they came calling. This led to her crusade as a chronicler of the forgotten Americans during the thirties and forties. Her work ensured they didn’t stay shoved under the carpet.

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I discovered her marriage failed and in 1935 she remarried to a man who shared her passion for assisting the poor. During the war she turned her attention to the plight of American/Japanese in internment camps, putting her offside with the government. The post-war years saw her involved in many projects associated with the downtrodden, often on assignment for ‘Life’ magazine.

And now, it seems there is only one more door to open – to find out this particular subject of Lange’s name and try to uncover what became of her. I know that these days it’s getting easier and easier to do. But my inclination, at this point, is to let it lie where it is now situated. Maybe, given time, I’ll feel not so obsessive once the dust settles on committing it all to paper. Over and over I’ve tried to recall the name on the envelope – did I think to look back then? Presumably I would have already known her name so perhaps I didn’t need to. It has disappeared from my memory cells and that is all I know. It felt good, therapeutic, doing this. Maybe, just maybe there will be another instalment.
Paul Bentine 1999

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