The tears still well up as I read the final pages of "The Grapes of Wrath" again. I can't remember how many times it's been. I generally make up a number when asked — 10, 12? — and then hold up the paperback Penguin edition that has been with me through all of those readings. Three bands of blue painter's tape secure the binding; pages 93 through 96 are now two completely loose sheets; pages 97 through 188 comprise a bound chunk that has come loose from the whole as well.
Post-it notes of diverse size and color adorn the pages. In an attempt to mark new passages to share with my students, unwilling to remove old sticky notes whose original purpose is now obscure, I have enlisted a series of stiff cards as bookmarks.
Fragile, loved and disintegrating, my copy of "The Grapes of Wrath" is one of my most cherished possessions.
One of my students recently confessed that he and several others had considered presenting me with a new copy last year; I thanked him for the thought, but was inwardly horrified.
My crumbling edition is a record of my relationship with John Steinbeck's novel, filled with notes I have carefully jotted in the margins and between the lines. My students wonder at my determination to reread the novel each time I teach it, but I cherish the opportunity to revisit the characters and forge new connections.
Rose of Sharon, the pregnant daughter of the migrant Joads, after months of deprivation, gives birth to a "blue shriveled little mummy." Early on, before I myself had been pregnant, suffered miscarriages, and ultimately given birth to my daughter Zoë, Rose of Sharon's hypersensitivity and whining rankled. Later, having grieved the loss of four pregnancies, and having celebrated the birth of my daughter, I had only compassion and empathy, and my affinity for Ma Joad, whose given name is never revealed, has grown as I read and reread. At the government camp, her son Tom introduces her simply: "This here's Ma," prompting me to write in the margin — one time when I was using green ink — "Still no name!" For years after my daughter's birth, many people referred to me as "Zoë's mom"; our primary archetypal role as mothers superseding for a time any individual identity.
In a different margin I find in red "This part makes me cry too," reminding me of my own fierce protectiveness over Zoë. Ma has just pierced Rose of Sharon's ears, before she can register any pain, who then looks "at her (Ma) in wonder." This is Ma's way of soothing her daughter's anxiety over her own developing child, and she says, "Very near let you have a baby without your ears was pieced. But you're safe now." (Ma is so clever w/the ear piercing!)
In the margin I disagree with one character who says "Everybody wants meat — needs meat." I cringe every time at the pig slaughter scene (I really don't like this part). I shudder when the migrants must decide what to keep, what to sell, what to burn. (I'd either have a complete breakdown — a pack rat deprived of her stuff — or I'd be cleansed.)
When horses must be sold for dog feed, I am moved to write: "This hits me harder, now I have horses." I have even turned to Steinbeck (and Ma!) when searching for the right words to soothe a friend's grief over the loss of her husband. Ma says: "They's a time of change, an' when that comes, dyin' is a piece of all dyin', and bearin' is a piece of all bearin', and bearin' an' dyin' is two pieces of the same thing. An' then things ain't so lonely any more. An' then a hurt don't hurt so bad, 'cause it ain't a lonely hurt no more. …"
Teardrops dot the final pages of my copy. The Joads have sought higher ground after being flooded out of their camp. Rose of Sharon's breasts are heavy with milk with no child to nourish. A starving man languishes in the barn where they take refuge. Ma and Rose of Sharon look "deep into each other," and the young woman offers her milk to the starving man, then smiles mysteriously.
Steinbeck wrote that this gesture was meant to be no more meaningful than the offering of a piece of bread. But any woman who has breast-fed her child, as I have, knows differently, and so my tears flow once again.
"The Grapes of Wrath" turns 75 on Monday. It's an important book that depicts the lives of those who fled the Dust Bowl to make California and the Central Valley their home. It also has been my dear companion these last 25 years. My relationship with the book is personal, and I celebrate it, and my tattered copy, on its birthday.
Beth Linder Carr is a teacher of English, German and drama at Sierra High School in Tollhouse.