What would Ma Joad do?











We’re back home now from our holiday trip to upstate New York.  It was, in a word, challenging.  Let me clarify that actually being there, visiting Scott’s family, was wonderful; I’m blessed with truly terrific in-laws.  It was the getting there that was the problem.

It all started with an early morning flight from San Francisco, which was delayed nearly two hours because of rain.  Needless to say, we missed our connecting flight in Washington, D.C.   We got off the plane to find that the United folks — frazzled with the influx of holiday travelers on December 23rd — had nonetheless managed to find four tickets for us on an alternate flight.  The problem?  The new flight departed about 22 hours later, at 3 pm on the 24th.

The prospect of a night spent in Dulles International Airport is not the kind of thing that makes one break into joyful song, especially when one has an already fried four-year-old and six-year-old in tow.  Merry Christmas to us!  I thought to myself hysterically, trying to keep Luke from lying down, in a sort of mute exhausted protest, in the middle of the line of travelers at the gate.

Enter Scott’s sister Kathy, who literally travels for a living.  Once she heard of our plight, she got on the phone and made things happen.  Five hours later, we were boarding a flight to Allentown, Pennsylvania (booked by Kathy), where we checked into a hotel at the airport (arranged by Kathy) and, the next morning, got a rental car (also arranged by Kathy) for the three-hour drive to our destination.  I have a new hero.  Her name is Kathy.

So yes, the whole thing was much, much less bad than it could have been.

But — sad to say — this is not the first time that we have had bad luck on a flight back east.   I still have PTSD from the night that we spent stranded in the Philadelphia airport five years ago, with baby Matthew in tow.   There is nothing that makes one’s heart sink more than the words FLIGHT CANCELLED, especially when one is traveling with children.

I will be the first to admit it: I don’t handle setbacks very well.  And this is where Ma Joad  comes in.

A few months back, I was teaching The Grapes of Wrath to my American Lit class.  Every time I read it, I am amazed at Steinbeck’s craft, and at the ending (one of the two best endings in literature, I think), and  — most of all — at the character of Ma Joad.  When her family is driven off their farm in Oklahoma due to the Dust Bowl, they have to pack up their jalopy and head to California, with no job lined up, no home to go to, no certainty, and very very little money.   They are like the turtle famously crossing the road in Chapter Three: all they have with them is what’s on their back (or in their truck).  It is disorienting, to say the least.

And throughout the whole story, Ma is the one who keeps the family going. She cheerfully sets up a home in every migrant camp they find.  She makes the hard decisions when no one else in the family is willing to make them.  When her pregnant daughter is becoming whiny, she employs tough love when needed and empathy when needed.  She gives to fellow travelers in need.  She keeps her own feelings under wrap for the good of the family (witness the episode with Granma dying in the desert).  She treats everyone with dignity.  She lets family members go when she knows they have to move on.  “That’s a woman so great with love that it scares me,” says Jim Casy, the novel’s ex-preacher and resident Christ figure.   And when multiple crises rain down on Ma’s head — as they do repeatedly — she employs her own personal system of triage.  “We’ll take the biggest thing and lick it first,” she says resolutely — and she does.

Resilience.  That’s what she has.  And that’s what I want to have, too. Somehow, there is nothing like a cross-country flight with children to show me just how much I am lacking in that department — and to give me a personal goal to strive for.

As I told my students two months ago, only half-joking, I want to be Ma Joad when I grow up.

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