Thursday, August 5, 2010

Purple Dresses and Airplanes: Anna and Tommy

My good friend Heidikins introduced me to this wonderful piece of American photographic art today and I was deeply inspired. The images posted at the (HERE particularly), depict the effects of the Great Depression on America’s rural population. Small towns hit particularly home for me as I hail from a small town boasting a mere 1600 citizens and 0 stop lights throughout the entire county (see: Huntington, Utah; Emery County). The lives of small town folk is incredibly simple and incredibly beautiful. Though I’ve embraced the ‘big city’ and can’t imagine living anywhere else but a thriving metropolis, when I go home to dear Huntington, there’s something more peaceful, more quiet, and more simple about everything that goes on there. It’s a truly tight knit community of people who are intricately involved in each others lives. Many are born, live, and die in these small towns, building a legacy of humility and beauty that, I believe, completely eludes city-folks caught in their everyday hustle and bustle.

When I saw these photos I was so inspired by the images and the incredible reality of the lives of these Americans of yester-year, that I wanted create stories for all of them. I will never know what the REAL stories of these small town Americans may be, but I expect that we both share something in our hearts for the joys of simplicity and a love of place.

Disclaimer: Thus, the story of the below photo is purely fictional, made up in my head, and any relation to the actual individuals in the photos, or real individuals living or dead, is purely coincidence. I hope that disclaims me enough for not getting in trouble for adding my own inspiration to these already inspired pictures.

Purple Dresses and Airplanes: Anna and Tommy

Anna loved Sunday afternoons. It was the one time out of the entire week she was allowed to wear her favorite purple dress all day and not have to change into her scrubby boyish trousers and hand-me-down tee shirt that her two older brother’s had worn before her. Though her mother felt it was silly and “irrational” Anna thought the tee shirt smelled of “goats” and “sweaty boys”. She was of the mind that hand-me-downs take on the smells and shape of the very first person to wear them – and no matter how many unfortunate younger siblings the hand-me downs made it through – it would always feel and smell like it didn’t quite belong to the current wearer. Anna had hopes that because her brothers were first of all, boys, and second of all, rather rough and tumble with their clothing, she wouldn’t have to wear their goat-smelling baggy hand-me-downs. Turns out, luck was not on Anna's side most of the time. “Girls shouldn’t wear boy clothes!” she’d complain to her mother every time she was presented with yet another pair of worn trousers and a scruffy tee shirt. Her mother would sigh in exasperation and say, “Anna, you should be grateful to have clothes on your back and a roof over your head at all. Some little girls don’t even have that.”

Anna knew she was right. Her mother was always right about these things. There were a lot of kids on her street that ran around with no shirts at all – even some of the younger girls went shirtless. Most of the toddlers, on hot summer days, would be completely naked. These were the poorest families in the neighborhood since their fathers or older brothers had been killed in the war in Europe. When this happened, the widowed wives would be given a folded flag for their husbands or sons service that they could hang in their windows or on poles in their brown lawns as a reminder of their sacrifices for “the cause of freedom.” Anna felt sorry for these families who had lost Papa’s and sons in the great war and thus, could barely afford to feed and cloth their own families; but all the same, she wished she didn’t have to share her brother’s old clothing. It wasn’t dignified. Couldn’t poor folks be dignified in some respect too? Perhaps if the government men who brought those flags to grieving wives and mothers also brought them a new purple dress too; something that made them feel lovely and not so alone. So many women were alone with their children these days,when their men were gone, many never to return. Couldn't they too have some dignity other than a cold handshake and folded flag? Couldn't they feel like they looked like Sunday everyday? Perhaps then, the sadness wouldn't be so overwhelming. Perhaps then, these women could still find hope in everyday things. To Anna, her purple dress had such power over her own heart - it was her key to another existence outside of hand-me-downs and poverty.

That’s why Sunday was so special. Even though Anna didn’t have a particular fondness for the 2 hour sermons her family of 6 attended each week at the run down Presbyterian Church two blocks from her home, she relished the idea of having a weekly bath, her mother brushing her hair until it shined and sometimes adding a dainty barrette or braids, and lastly, putting on her newly pressed, knee length, slightly puffy-sleeved purple dress. It was the one piece of clothing that set her apart as a girl – as a woman of 10 years old – and made her different than her 3 older brothers. She escaped in that dress to somewhere else. She wore it all day long; through sermon, through Sunday brunch at the church with the other poor families from her street, and even at play with her best friend, Tommy. She felt dignified.

Tommy wore patched and faded overalls everyday all day; sometimes with a tee shirt much like Anna’s old ones and sometimes with nothing at all. His father worked at the dairy farm and when Tommy turned 11, he was enlisted as his father’s helper. Even children had to earn their keep during what Anna’s papa called “these hard times” and Tommy brought home an extra $5 dollars a week just for shoveling cow manure and cleaning stables. He had the hands of a callused old man; hardened and black, the dirt caked in the cracks of his fingers and nails looked like it would never wash off. However, like the other children, Tommy was bathed, his hair combed, and his least worn pair of dark overalls were washed and worn over a wrinkly blue colored shirt with the stars and stripes tie the Salvation Army had provided for all the young boys. Tommy hated his tie and disposed of it immediately after sermons. He hated it with a blind rage. He said it was the reason papa’s and brothers were leaving their homes and getting killed. It was the reason his papa limped when he walked because there had been a great war even before this one that had crippled his father forever - making them poor and limited. Tommy thought more than any other 11 year old Anna had ever met. He thought deeper things.

Anna told Tommy he looked like a real gentleman when he wore his tie no matter what he said about wars; and this caused him to stick out his tongue at her and blush a deep burgundy. Tommy was the oldest and only boy of 4 living children. His mother had died giving birth to a baby girl, who also died, when Tommy was 7, leaving Tommy’s father alone to raise 4 young children. Tommy’s father would leave for the dairy farms, a 10 mile walk, at 4:30am, 6 days out of the week, and not return until well after dark. When Tommy turned 11 and joined his father at the dairy farm, his younger sister, Merideth, was 10 and thus entrusted to take care of Margaret, 8 and Susie, 4, while Tommy and his Father worked to take care of them all. Sometimes, Anna’s mamma would be up with her baby sister and see Tommy’s father limping, heavy footed, down the street, carrying a soundly sleeping Tommy in his arms, “That boy is too young to know the tiredness that comes from a man’s work,” she’d tell my father, who was one of the foreman at the dairy farm and denied opportunity to serve in the war because of his asthma and kidney stones, “It’s what’s necessary Adele,” he’d reply softly, following Tommy's father with his quiet eyes, “these are hard times for everyone. There’s a war bein fought and we all have to fight it some way or another… ” Mamma would click her tongue and shake her head, "It isn't right."

But Sunday, oh Sunday, the hard times wouldn’t seem as hard. After sermon and the luncheon provided by the local Charity Sisters of the First Presbyterian Church in Robstown Texas, Tommy and Anna would stuff extra rolls in their pockets and steal away to their special spot behind the Henderson’s old red barn. There were long planks of wood laid out side by side across a wide field behind the barn, as if they had been intended for some sort of foundation meant for an adjoining building, but which had grown faded and overgrown with tall grass over the years. Yet another reminder of things left undone and reams left unrealized as the war continued to take men from their homes. Tommy and Anna would dump the remnants of the treasures they’d collected throughout the week, various sized marbles, small tractor toys with 3 wheels, rusted jacks and sometimes a few bouncing balls or baseball cards they’d found in the street or garbage cans, and they’d barter back and forth for hours or make up games with only these items and their healthy imaginations. Imagination was a luxury back then as folks minds were usually occupied by more serious matters. Children were the only ones left afforded such luxury and even among the young, it was a dieing commodity.

One Sunday, Tommy told Anna he had something really special to show her after Sunday brunch and to come as fast as she could to their special place. Anna was fidgety throughout sermon with anticipation and received several smacks on the back of her head from mamma for her incessant wiggling. After sermon, Anna watched across the long picnic tables for Tommy’s signal that it was time to head for the red barn. Tommy was sitting next to his Papa and it seemed to Anna, eating slower than any person had ever eaten in the history of eating. She knew Tommy savored these times with his father, where they weren't working or too tired to talk, but she was still anxious to see what he had to show her.

When he’d finally licked his plate clean, he leaned over and told his papa he’d be leaving to play with Anna, and his father gave him a  subtle nod. That was the signal. Anna jumped up so quickly she knocked over her little sister’s juice cup and it spilled all down the table. “Anna! For heavens sake what’s gotten into you girl? Clean this up!” her mother exclaimed. Exasperated, Anna mopped up her mess as quickly as possible, stuffed an extra roll in her dress pocket amongst her other treasures of extra thread and tiny green army men, and raced for the barn. When she arrived, she saw Tommy sitting on one of the faded wooden planks, leaning over something on his lap. She approached him quietly and tried to glimpse what he was looking at. “What took you?” he asked, not looking up. “Oh… I spilled May Beth’s juice…” she said nonchalantly. She could tell Tommy smiled by the tilt of the back of his head at her admitted blunder. Tommy always seemed older than he was - smarter somehow; like he belonged to a different generation of wiser, purer people than the ones they interacted with in Robstown. “Well sit down then… I have something I want you to see…” he continued after a pause, still not looking up. Anna carefully sat down beside him, smoother the front of her dress, and eagerly looked over his propped up knee to the pile of wood pieces between his legs.

“It’s a model plane…” Tommy said shyly when Anna didn’t ask what he had, “It’s… it’s not entirely put together. I mean to say… I’m making it. Papa said aero-planes are like mechanical birds. He said that one day – people will travel in aero-planes all over the world… and it won’t just be for bombs and fighting.. but it will be for exploring and visiting. What do ya think of that Anna? Being an explorer in an aero-plane?”

Anna wasn’t sure what to say. The thought of soaring through the air like the birds was both exhilarating and frightening. “Where would explorer’s go Tommy? What would they explore? And... and would explorers never come back... home?”

“Well…” Tommy was in deep thought as he pounded the little nail on the nose of a crudely carved piece of wood meant as the planes body, “Well… anywhere. Anywhere they wanted to go. You could… you could fly to New York City. You could fly to London. You… you could fly to those islands in the middle of oceans they talk about at the Barber shop or see the pyro-mids of Egypt… you could go anywhere… anytime.. and never have to… to think about wars or cows or… anything… but flying.”

He went silent then. Anna had never heard Tommy talk about leaving before – much less to islands or Egypt or even to the next town. Anna felt something catch in her chest and move to her throat as she watched Tommy’s young, callused, dirty hands, create this model of hope, of freedom, this airplane, a symbol of Tommy’s dreams and dignity. She knew he would do it. She knew Tommy had the heart to do anything. And she was scared Tommy would leave and never return like so many other men in the neighborhood.

She continued to watch in silence as he put wings on his piece of wood; how his mouth picked up at one corner in a half grin as he watched the little propeller spin. He suddenly looked at Anna expectantly, looked her strait in the eyes, then at her purple dress, now smudged with food from the brunch and wrinkled from sitting in sermon, and then at the barrette in her hair. Anna glanced down at her sweaty hands and dirty fingernails, feeling her cheeks and forehead become hot. Tommy made her nervous for unexpected reasons. He made her feel embarrassed of her dirty nails and clumsy manners.

“And… and explorers… they need… a partner,” Tommy explained in his very soft way, picking around his words carefully, “they need someone to help clean the wings and, navigate, and… keep them company. So, so I wanted to show you the aero-plane first. See how it sits with you… see if.. if it suits you. See if you like aero-planes.”

Anna nodded her ascent vigorously, her cheeks still burning, not wanting to look at him, “Yeah… yeah well I think it’s a real nice plane, Tommy. It’s beautiful. I like your aero-plane.” Tommy let out a long, low, relieved sigh, "I'm so glad Anna."

They sat in silence for a long time, a small breeze blowing through their hair and across the long grass, a mutual understanding settling between them; an understanding that most adults never experience in their lifetimes. The simple unspoken understanding between two kindred souls.

Anna broke the silence, “Well,” she began very matter-of-fact, “We have a lot of planning to do if we are to see islands and New York and London and pyro-mids. I mean, we’ll need food and blankets and maybe a tent so we can sleep where we please when we need to. That will take money. And... and, Aero-planes are no place for a true lady, so there's that to consider...” she trailed off in thought.

Tommy nodded in agreement, and continued to play with the thin propeller blade on his homemade airplane.

“And… and,” Anna became indignant now, “I think it’s important for partners of explorers to be able to wear what they want. They should get to wear dresses everyday if they want… and… and they shouldn’t have to look like a boy or wear boy clothes neither… and should be able to eat jam on toast everyday instead of only on Sundays and… read her picture books as late as she wants…” she trailed off again, glancing briefly in his direction.

Tommy was looking across the sky, seeing lands that only existed for now in his mind, a future he had perhaps envisioned for years, since the beginning of his young life. He smiled his half smile, “That’d be okay Anna. Yeah. Yeah that’d be real good. I’ll find you more picture books than you’ll ever be able to read in a lifetime… in a million lifetimes... and dresses of every color for everyday...”

Anna looked across the sky with him. Then, reached over and took the airplane from Tommy’s hands, fingering it lovingly, and spinning the propeller blade. She giggled softly as only little girls can giggle, and said, “Okay Tommy. Okay…”


heidikins said...

This is lovely...and makes me want a Tommy.


Jessica said...

I've always admired the simple dignity of people who live quiet lives, but do it well and with pride. Thanks for sharing!

jaime said...

I may have got a little misty eyed when Tommy's dad was carrying him home from work...good story pal!

Also, a funny thing, I actually looked at those pictures a couple days ago and this pic with the two kids was my fav. "Tommy" doesn't have a lace in one of his shoes and it's makes me wonder what happened to it.

Ps- I too am a small town girl (pop 10,000...which is a bit larger than your town). You're right it's so much more peaceful and simple. I too love city life, but my heart feels more at home in small I'm a little homesick thinking about it. My goal is to have a cabin near one of the lakes by my hometown of Kalispell, MT...someday.

Andrea Jolene said...

Jaime - excellent attention to detial! Missing shoe-lace... interseting.

I'd like me a small cabin in Hutington Canyon myself... somewhere to escape the crazy city life! And it's craziness!