Leon is a 98 year old man living in Port Orchard, WA. He has lived a long and extraordinary life. Leon’s family came to me with a wish to record some of his stories to share with the generations of children that won’t be able to get them directly from the source. An emotional, but not especially forthcoming man, he has sprinkled bits and pieces of his life story throughout their many conversations, the details getting hazier and hazier as the years went on. One daughter remembered the story this way, her brother remembered this piece clearly, his grand daughter interviewed him 10 years ago for a school project and swears he said this. No one could put together enough of the story to paint a picture of this man’s life.
I believe that the beauty of oral storytelling is just that however. The bits and pieces handed down to different people, in different conversations over telling and retelling, create a narrative that suits the person and their relationship to the story teller. In creating Okie, I not only worked directly with Leon, but with his children and grandchildren to collect the pieces of his story they most wanted to know more about. Together, we crafted a series of essays that tell a larger story. The story of a little boy that lost his mother, traveled with his family through the Oklahoma Dustbowl to find a new life in California. Leon went to war, found the love his life, made a family, lost that love, then found a second chance in his twilight years. My mission was to turn that life into something his children and grandchildren could hold on to long after he left this earth. Below is an excerpt from the series of essays entitled: Okie-one man’s story.
It’s so’s anything I eat is peppered with a bit of that grit anymore. MaMaw says she spends half her day tending children and what’s left she’s contending with dust. It’s in our supper, on our plates no matter how quick we set them upside down on the table. Its in our shorts, in our sheets, in Junies diapers. Dust from the windows from the doors and covering our yard. Dust on the animals and dust barring the barn door. Nothing but dust. Since the dusters started last summer, we haven’t seen a single day without a firm blasting. Red from the south, black from the west, gray from the east and good old Kansas brown from the north. Nothing but dust and tumble weeds and not a lick of rain. Jintzy will tell you she can’t remember ever seeing rain, and at six years old she might be right. I can’t say as I’ve seen more than a sprinkle since the day she was born.
I drip the bath water on her head, dampening brown curls and making her giggle.
“You know what makes it rain Jintzy?” I ask her. “When Jesus gets sad all the way up there in heaven, he make all the angels cry with how damn sad he is…”
“Red, don’t say damn, MaMaw says you cain’t swear…”
“Okay okay Virginia, shush up so’s I can tell you ‘bout the rain”
“Okay Red, go on, tell me ‘bout the rain then” she splashes me playfully as I make to wash her back and take the old kitchen tools out of the barrel to make room for her to bathe.
“So, Jesus is up there in heaven crying right? and him and all them angels are just boo hooing like Gladys when that Miller boy told her she had a big nose…”
Jintz giggles at the idea of her older sister, splashing me again, enjoying our private joke.
“So as them angels are crying and carrying on, Jesus is showing them pictures in his magic heaven crystal ball. Pictures of all them starving babies over in Africa MaMaw keeps threatening to send our cabbage to, pictures of baby lambs keeling over in their pens and pictures of all us sinners out here just goin’ on sinnin’ with no regard to his feelings on the matter. Them angels just get themselves so worked up into such a tissy looking at them pictures;”
I grab MaMaw’s big ladle from the bath, continuing to wash Jintz’s back and behind her ears as I fill it with bathwater. Jintz looks ahead expectantly, waiting to see what I will say about those squalling angels up in heaven…
“They just throw themselves to the floor losing their damn minds…i know don’t say damn;” she starts to turn to scowl at me, disapproving once again of my Okie mouth, as MaMaw calls it.
“Jintzy, I tell you what those angels are just hollerin’ and blubbering worse than Wanda June, kicking and screaming and carrying on until the heavens just open right up and all them tears come down….SPLOOSH!”
I let the water from the ladle fall on her head and she cries out in shock.
“LEON KENNETH LACKEY I am gonna tell MaMaw on you!” she sputters, wiping the drips and drops from her face with one hand and madley grabbing for me with the other as I roll on the ground next to the tub laughing at my joke.
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