Dust to Dust

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.


  1. Lita - May 14, 2020 9:10 am

    ‘We’re more than skin and bone.’ Love that. Have a good day, Sean. Stay safe and well.

  2. Leslie in NC - May 14, 2020 11:11 am

    I just love your stories about our elderly folks who have lived not just a good number of years, but a good number of experiences. And I’m with you Sean, yella flies and tomato aspic can both bite the proverbial dust!

  3. Christine Washburn - May 14, 2020 12:01 pm

    Wow. She went through so much and lived to tell about it.
    Our complaining doesn’t accomplish anything, except making us miserable.
    Just keep looking up, for our redemption draws near.

  4. Cathi Russell - May 14, 2020 1:11 pm

    There’s so more to know. Thank you Sean, I needed that this morning.

  5. Amanda - May 14, 2020 1:31 pm

    GREAT interview!

  6. Dean - May 14, 2020 2:06 pm

    Enjoy your column so much. It is the first thing I read every morning. Thank You

  7. Tammy S. - May 14, 2020 2:12 pm

    How bad did you want to get a hug from this sweet lady!! I want a hug from her. Thanks for enduring the nuisance of yellow flies to tell us her amazing story. There is a documentary on The Dust Bowl on public tv. It is great and gives just a glimpse of what she went through. Powerful to hear, so matter-of-factly, from a survivor of so many horrible life events. What an amazing lady!! Thanks, Sean!!

  8. Charles Mathers - May 14, 2020 3:42 pm

    My father was in the Army. In 1957, the Army sent him to Ft Bliss, El Paso, Texas. We packed our car and drove from Anniston Alabama to El Paso Texas. We drove into El Paso in the middle of such a dust storm. We had to stop on the highway because you could not see the front of the car. My father got out and tried to clear the tumbleweeds from the grill on the car. I thought my mother would go insane. She hated dirt like a preacher hates Satan. We stayed in El Paso four years fighting blowing dirt and sand every day. We drove out of El Paso in the middle of that dust storm’s twin brother. We didn’t stop for that one though. My father didn’t dare.

  9. Linda Moon - May 14, 2020 4:20 pm

    I’m sorry to hear about you and the yellow flies. I’m with you and the other hated things, though, since yellow flies aren’t near me here in Not-Florida. I share your penchant for good stories, Sean. We are in good company with President Lincoln who said that storytelling “puts new life into me”. You put some life into me as I read the old woman’s story….from history. She is a living Ma Joad! You told the story well, Mr. Dietrich, and so did Mr. Steinback!

  10. MAM - May 14, 2020 6:25 pm

    Reminds me of my Mom, who died at 94 in 2005 – a real survivor. She had typhoid as a child, got stung by a bunch of scorpions a few years later (which she always said was why mosquitoes and other bugs never stung her, so she wouldn’t have been bothered by yellow flies), had major surgeries, including for ovarian cancer, from which she was cured and lived for another 34 years, removal of a kidney, and a fortunately benign brain tumor in her late 70s. She peacefully died in her sleep. During her last years, she kept saying: “I don’t know why God is keeping me here.” She was ready to go at any time.

  11. catladymac - May 14, 2020 8:55 pm

    After 70+ years it is a treat to me to find someone else has the same opinion of tomato aspic as I do. Plus the rest of the story was real good too.

  12. Christina - May 15, 2020 3:13 am

    I’m gonna think of that next time I look up the sky! Maybe the quarantine won’t bug me so much anymore.


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