On a summer day in 1935, a few weeks before she turned 13, my grandma Margery was in the yard of her family’s southwestern Kansas home, pulling laundry off the line. She dropped the clothes and underwear, sheets and towels, gray with dust and baked dry in the villainous sun, into the basket at her feet, then ran back into the house. Her sister Norma and their mother were yanking the beds out of the bedrooms and into the main room.

Margery pulled the oldest sheets out of the laundry basket, put them in a big metal bucket in the sink, and filled the bucket with water from the pump. All over Meade County, in towns and on farms, every household was preparing for the black blizzard that was pushing toward them. If she paused to look out the open door, she would see the enormous black cloud moving, the ground rising up to meet the sky, choking the world in between. She didn’t pause, though. The scene was too familiar to bear scrutiny. Her mother’s mouth was tight beneath eyes that darted between her work and the door, watching the road for her husband and her youngest child, Billy.

As Margery, Norma, and their mother worked, they coughed. The coughing – deep, painful, noisy – was with them constantly. They coughed while they slept, while they worked, during their meager meals, and during their walk to church. As the family worked to keep the ever-advancing dust out of their house, their food, and their eyes, their lungs worked to expel the muddy mess that tried to choke them

Dust blizzards in cool weather were easier to tolerate; they could close the windows and doors, seal the cracks with wet towels. In summer, though, with the temperature often stretching to well above 100 degrees, the heat in a closed house was as deadly as  the dust-saturated air and they had to control the dust the best they could in spite of open windows and doors. They lifted the dripping sheets out of the bucket and hung them over the windows and the back door, pinning them tight against the wind. They closed the bedroom doors; during a storm, the family slept together in the main room because there weren’t enough sheets to cover the bedroom windows. Margery’s mother left the front door uncovered for her husband and Billy, who had been away from the house, helping neighbors.

When the sheets were hung and the beds made, Margery reached into one of the kitchen cabinets, the cabinets her father had made when life was better, before the dust, when there was wheat to harvest and cows in the pasture and grass on the prairie all around the farm, and pulled out a stack of cloths that she and her mother had made from worn sheets. She put them in the bucket and added more water to cover them. While she did that, Norma put the chamber pots under the beds. No one would make a trip to the outhouse during the storm.

The wind began to pick up, the advance wind that heralded the storm to come. Margery looked over her mother’s shoulder into the yard. She could see the wall of black dust moving toward them, carrying dirt from hundreds of miles away. The haze of dust was thickening now, dimming the light. Mother stood in the doorway watching the road. She crossed her arms, uncrossed them, stepped out into the yard, then back into the house. Norma sat on the bed nearest her mother, twisting a fold of the fabric of her dress until Margery was afraid she would wear a hold right through.

Margery’s mother suddenly jumped back from the door into the house. “Cover the door! Margery! Get a sheet!”

Margery snatched up the last sodden sheet and passed it to her mother who hung it. They were still tacking and weighting it when the storm slapped the side of the little house. The dim light that the sheets had allowed into the house was instantly gone. At four o’clock on a sunny summer afternoon, everything was suddenly dark as midnight, the windows and doors no more than faint gray shadows in the overwhelming blackness. The dust haze that never settled, even in the calmest weather, became thicker, grittier, more sinister. Margery’s hair crackled with electricity; she saw sparks move in the air and on the walls. After a storm, when they walked to town, they would see cars abandoned on the road where they had shorted out in the storm’s electricity. They would start again when the storm was over, but not before.

Norma coughed long and hard and Margery went to the sink and got three of the wet rags. She tied one around her nose and mouth, then felt her way to her sister and tied a rag over her face, too. Her mother was there, sitting with Norma, holding her hand, and she took the third rag for her own face. Margery sat down on the bed with them. The wind shrieked and screamed, whistling under the eaves and in the cracks, snapping the sheets at the doors and windows, snicker-thump, snicker-thump. The wind was so hot, so laden with dust, that even in the house her skin felt raw and blistered everywhere it was exposed. She kept her eyes closed against the dust, but she couldn’t close her ears.

The wind in the house suddenly increased, a great gust of choking dust swirling into the dark. Under the screaming wind, Margery heard her father and brother fall in through the door, coughing hard against the vile black dirt. Norma and Margery fought the sheet, pinned and weighted it back into place, then turned to the choking boy and man. Margery’s mother was helping Billy to untie a dirt-clotted shirt that he had tied around his face. Norma filled two jars with water and gave one to her father and one to her brother. Billy rinsed his mouth and spit mud onto the floor again and again, until another coughing fit got hold of him. The boy and his father struggled like this for a long time, rinsing and spitting, then coughing up huge black wads of Kansas.

They ate some dusty cornbread and sat together through the long evening until it was time to sleep. Margery lay down on the narrow bed she shared with Norma, covered her face with a wet cloth, and tried to sleep. She lay awake for hours, trying not to hear the wind or her family’s wretched coughing. She tried, too, not to think of tomorrow when they would begin the day by shoveling the dirt out of their house, wash sheets and towels, boil gritty cornmeal porridge for lunch, and prepare for another duster.

Children right before the Dust Bowl

My grandma Margery (left), her sister Norma, and her brother Lee (called Billy when he was a child) in Fowler, Kansas around 1931. This is one of the last family photos until about 8 years later.

If you want to get a sense of the horror of the black blizzards, there is a wonderful collection of Dust Bowl photographs at Kansas State University.

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44 thoughts on “Duster”

    1. Oh, good! It’s different from sharing one of my own stories, so I’m glad to hear that it feels real. My grandma – it’s really interesting. The timelines are all confused in her mind now; names of places, people, specifics, they’re all lost or jumbled. But the emotional and sensory memories are clear as day. She can describe exactly how everything felt.

  1. reminded me so much of the stories my grandma bebout (great grandma) told us of living through the dustbowl. She lived in a sod house in Kansas at the time. It was miserable but she told all the stories with no complaints, no regrets, it was just a part of life.
    We have no idea how difficult life was back then. We should be more grateful for what we have.

    1. It is, but in the 20s, when the Great Plains were being settled, there was an uncharacteristic amount of rain and crop prices were booming. When the drought settled in (and then the dust, which was caused by millions of farmers stripping out the prairie grass that held the topsoil in place), people though THAT was what was unusual. They thought they were enduring a short-term thing.

      My family did leave SW Kansas when Norma started showing signs of dust pneumonia (which killed thousands of people in the region). They went to eastern Kansas and got out of the dust, but the poverty hung onto them for a long, long time.

  2. I agree, Adrienne! You need to write a book. This was wonderfully written! Such a terrible story, but wonderfully written. I wonder, sometimes? How people in today’s world would deal with such things…

    1. Thank you! I hope so. This is the first book I want to write and I’m hard at work. My aunt Norma passed away quite awhile ago and my grandma and my uncle Lee are elderly, and I want to get their stories while there’s time!

      What a tragedy it would be to let these stories die with them. I hope I can make them proud!

  3. The Dust Bowl era seems to be one of those horribly tragic times/events people don’t think of as all that horrific.
    Your grandma’s story, and the way you told it, really drive home how far that is from the truth.

  4. Beautifully written! And definitely puts most of our own problems into better perspective.

    For anyone who wants to know more about that time period in general (and what caused the dusters), I recommend “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” by Timothy Egan. He talked to survivors of that time and combined their stories with his own research.

    1. Oh, yes! Look up-thread; I recommended that book to another commentator. I’ve read a dozen or more books about the Dust Bowl, and Egan’s is easily the most accessible. I agree with you; his blend of survivor stories plus research is what makes it the best book on the subject.

  5. Amazing story.

    It’s so funny, in almost all of the family photos I’ve seen from the 30’s, all the boys are barefoot.

    I love the two youngest holding the kittens too. It reminds me that I need to take more family photos.

  6. Adrienne, you are such a gifted writer. I loved hearing this moving story in your words, you really brought it to life.

    Yes, yes, yes get those stories out of your Grandma’s brain and into a tape recorder while she is still here, it would be tragic to lose them. I think of all my father’s stories that bounce around inside me half remembered, but with no way of knowing fully now. Sigh.

    This will make a wonderful book, that you WILL write. And I get a signed copy.

  7. Get those stories now! My sister bought my grandmother a notebook and recorder so she could get her stories out after she had a fall and got admitted to a nursing home. My dad told my sister to wait and give grandma time to rest before starting it. My grandma had a stroke and died a couple weeks later. We wish we knew more about her, but my dad doesn’t remember or share much of his upbringing. I hope you have the blessing of time to hear her stories.

  8. Lovely. Gritty. Makes my contacts ache.

    Wow, I never realized Nadine looked so much like Margie. I’ve not seen pictures of Margie so young.

    1. Thanks, you!

      Yeah, by the time she was making time with Howard, the resemblance is way less, but the photos of the two as young girls are very similar.

      When we moved Grandma to the shelter care, I brought all her photos home with me. I’ve died and gone to family photo heaven!

  9. This a fabulous post, Adrienne.

    I read it yesterday and did not comment, and now have returned.

    It’s fabulous.

    But strangely? What has resonated with me most strongly is the image of the little boy (Billy). Something about him calls to me. Perhaps its the inward-turned toes. Or the gaze directed away from the camera.

    Mostly I think it’s the awkward two-armed grip he has on that cat.

    I love that little boy.

    1. Thank you! I’m beside myself with joy to get compliments on the writing of this story; I want to do this story justice. Here, but also in book form someday.

      He is a beautiful boy, and I agree; there is something vulnerable about him there. I haven’t seen my uncle Lee in many years, so in my mind? He is associated with shag carpet and wood-paneling and a giant console television. When I Skype with him (because I’m hard at work, getting these stories recorded), I’ll ask him if he remembers taking this picture.

  10. Good grief, Adrienne! This is beautifully written! It is so vivid that I feel the need to clean my house.

    Seriously…this needs to be published. beautiful stuff!

    1. Thanks, Katie! I’m so excited to get a good response; I want this to be my first book. Or rather, it WILL be my first book. The writing is not in question; only the publishing. Cross your fingers for me!

  11. I loved this post, and cannot believe to have it here. I am fascinated about the dustbowl and have read most every account of it, and watched dvd’s on it.

    It is an incredible part of our time, and how it was created by the farming practices then.

    You can spin such a yarn.

    My kids and I read this, thank you!

    1. Oh oh oh! I’m so excited to find someone fascinated by the dust bowl! I’m very interested in my own family’s story, but the whole period is captivating. Horrifying and amazing. Would you believe, when I was a little girl and first learned about the depression and the dust bowl, I was deep into reading about it before I even knew that my grandma grew up smack in the center of the damn thing? I really had no idea. Of course, part of that is because my grandma rarely talked about it until the past few years. She was like some soldiers when they return from war; there were just a few stories that she would tell, but in general, it was off-limits.

      But now, she is eager to tell me everything and thrilled to have me write it all down. It’s like I lucked into a front-row seat, but with indoor plumbing and air conditioning.

      So, may I assume that you will be willing to read and make suggestions when I have drafts ready? 😉 It will be awhile, but the time will come!

  12. Adrienne. Great post about powerful stories. Yes, they need to be told. Are you aware that Margery’s and Howard’s parents both raised a nephew who was orphaned by the Spanish Flu epidemic? Just to let you know there is lots more there.

    1. Oh, yes. Much, much more. Your time will come for the extensive asking-of-questions. First, Grandma, then Lee. When I’ve heard their stories, I’ll come to you, Dad, Don, and Norma’s kids.

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  14. I stumbled upon this today, reading an earlier post. My grandma was born in 1920. I’m not sure where exactly she was born (I’d like to say Kansas, but I’m not 100% sure), but I knew she was left on a door step of a neighbor as an infant with no name. Her twin was later adopted out, too. It’s a very sad story, and that’s all I know, other than her adopted brother later survived Pearl Harbor. I have an interest in the Dust Bowl – my dad introduced me to John Steinbeck by giving me his used and very old copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” (one of my favorite novels). I’ve always wanted to know more about my family’s genealogy. Sadly, my dad’s family accused my mom of starting his drug addiction, and so I never really got to know that side of the family. My grandma on my mom’s side of the family is adopted, and my mom is still unclear as to who her biological father is. I’m sort of jealous that other people have such close knit family ties, and often imagine that one of my grandparents/great grandparents survived the Dust Bowl. Of the little I’ve been able to find online, I believe my dad’s side of the family lived in Kansas for a period of time. Family stories are fascinating to me, even if they’re not my own.

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