The old woman is sitting on her porch in an average residential neighborhood. I am standing at a distance, interviewing her. She wears a cotton blouse. Floral print. Thick glasses. Surgical mask.
The yellow flies are killing me. One bite from a yellow fly makes my body parts swell up like the Michelin Man. I hate yellow flies. In fact, on my list of most hated things, yellow flies are among my top three items. Right beneath tomato aspic, just above telemarketers and pop-country.
This is the first interview I’ve done in a few months. I’ve been quarantining like everyone else, I haven’t left my house to do much more than get the mail.
There was a time when I was interviewing and writing about new people every day. Then the virus hit and suddenly, here I am, wearing the same pajama pants for 64 days straight.
Anyway, the woman I’m interviewing is 90 years old. We are keeping a 20-foot distance. I’m here because I am a sucker for a good story.
She is a mother of three. She lives with her daughter, who is her caregiver. Her daughter admits that occasionally taking care of her mother is exhausting work.
“But at least I ain’t in a nursing home,” the old woman says. “Least I’m with family.”
She is no stranger to hardship. Before she was born, three of her brothers came down with the Spanish flu from the 1918 pandemic. They almost died.
“My parents called it the plague, we didn’t call it the flu, not until years later.”
When she was a girl, she lived in Southern Kansas. And in the 1930s, parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas turned into a giant eroding bowl of dust. In other words, it was a veritable hell on earth.
I don’t have the education nor the knowledge to explain the Dust Bowl era here, but I can tell you that the Midwestern duststorms in the 30s were like something from the book of Revelation.
“Mom was stuffing wet rags in the cracks under our doors to stop the dust,” she says. “It was like living in a bunch’a fog. My uncle died from dust pneumonia.”
She remembers seeing one particular bad storm. The cloud was miles wide, and tar black. She said that all the local preachers believed that the world was ending. Literally.
“We all just KNEW it was the Judgement.” She shakes her head. “It’s funny because that’s what they’re all saying about the coronavirus.”
The large storms swept through small towns, filling the atmosphere with dirt and sand, burying Packards and Fords. Animals were dying from suffocation, farms were collapsing, children were choking to death, backyards had five-foot accumulations of dirt.
“I remember the rabbits,” she says. “They were running away from the dust. They’d come into town, millions of’em. We had rabbit-killing parties, killed as many as we could because they were a nuisance, ate holes in your house.”
Children wore wet dishrags over their faces to filter the air. Every den, bedroom, kitchen, and dining room was filled with a pink haze of grit and sand. Anyone who had enough money was leaving town.
“My family left for the South, where my mom was from, ‘cause I had dust pneumonia.”
She had the dust pneumonia so bad that on the trip South, she had to lie down in the back of the truck with a damp rag over her mouth while her brother gave her sips of water.
I ask the old woman how that era changed her, and she chuckles because my interview question is a dumb one. I’m a little out of practice.
But she’s a good sport.
“Well, I still rinsing my drinking glasses for dust before I get any water. My kids all picked up on that habit.”
When the old woman hit age 17, she met a military man in Georgia. She married him and things were going nicely for them until she got pregnant. Her first two pregnancies were miscarriages.
“I thought God was punishing me,” she says. “It’s funny how I always think that. After my second miscarriage, I was ready to die my ownself.”
But somehow life surprised her. The woman says life has a way of doing things like that. Years later, she had two boys and a girl. Things were on the upswing again, but good times were short lived. Sometimes it just works that way.
“I got real sick. About died.”
Her illness started small and kept getting bigger. Her hair was falling out, her skin hurt, her eyes hurt, she couldn’t eat. She went to the doctor but he couldn’t figure out what was happening. Today, they might call it an autoimmune disorder, back then it was called just plain “dying.”
She got down to 93 pounds. The illness nearly killed her. But it didn’t.
“My life has been one thing after another, but that’s life, darling. Nobody said it would be easy. But you know what? I’m not gonna be stuck in this old body forever anyhow, I’m something else, I’m more than skin and blood. We all are.”
I ask her what she means by “something else.” But she doesn’t answer me, she only points to the sky. I look upward. I don’t see anything but blueness.
“Sweetie,” she says, “when I get up there, I’ll be able to tell you more about it.”
I swat my neck a few times. Somehow these yellow flies don’t seem that bad anymore.