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Migrant cotton picker’s childhood who lives in a tent in the government camp instead of along the highway or in a ditch bank. Shafter Camp for migrants, California. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, November 1938. (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection).

Commemorating Mother’s Day: Poem and Family Activities

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In preparation for the opening of the Library’s new education center The Source in 2025, I have spent significant time looking and listening for historical depictions of children and families in our collection. With Mother’s Day approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about how mothers appear with their children in Library collections. Many people know the “Migrant Mother”—Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of Dust Bowl migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson. But other Library visitors might be surprised to know that in addition to the photographic records of the Farm Security Administration, our collections can share a sonic record of families during the Dust Bowl as well. Today, I’d like to share two songs from the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection that have been stuck in my ears and my heart since I first heard them.

Robert Hemmings, photographer. Charles Todd at the Recording Machine. El Rio, California, 1941.Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Workers Collection (AFC 1985/001), American Folklife Center.

Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin were New Yorkers who spent the summers of 1940 and 1941 lugging an eighty-pound disc recorder through California on a collecting mission for the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress (today, the American Folklife Center). After a New York Times article was published sharing about their work, they were invited to present some of their recordings at the White House to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and ten invited guests. There are several essays at this link if you’d like to learn more about them and their work.

While I’m looking forward to exploring more about Government Camp Song in the lead-up to the Source opening in 2025, my journey through their collection led me to “Our Mothers”. This was a poem written by Flora Robertson and sung by her friend Mary Sullivan as Mrs. Robertson was “too bashful to read it.” Luckily for us as explorers of primary sources, Mrs. Robertson was not too bashful to speak with Todd and Sonkin about her lived experiences with dust storms in Oklahoma, adding a historical context that you can share with your children and family.

This Mother’s Day, we invite you and your family to listen to the recordings together and reflect upon the lyrics Flora Robertson wrote—at least until it starts skipping near the end.

The words of the poem read:

There’s many a grey-haired mother in our camp today

That’s had to give up the old home, so far far away

They’re tired and weary of tramping, a tramp life they say

Some are just waiting for the end of last day.

Don’t wait ‘till those mothers are silent

Silent in cold play, do something to show them, make them glad today

If you have a mother, who is old and gray, sit right down and write her

Send it off today.

We’ll make her heart so happy, her faded eyes will shine

Don’t forget to say to her: I love you mother of mine,

Do you remember how she stood by you?

Those times when you were sick, and in trouble, too

If you have a mother living in the camp, just please say some kind words, is all you need to say

To make her life happy (happy)—”

Despite technical difficulties at the end due to the disc recorder Todd and Sonkin used, the underlying message of the song—don’t forgot to tell your mother that you love her—is one that resonates this Mother’s Day. Robertson’s poem about mothers is not the only one in the Library’s collection—she also wrote a poem “Why We Came to California”. As Eleanor Roosevelt shared in her My Day column, as quoted in this article, “the inspiring thing to me is that people can live through such hardships and still have music in their souls and the ability to express themselves hopefully.” Like Eleanor Roosevelt, I am inspired when I think of Flora Robertson. As I think about the many poets who have been honored here with events at the Library of Congress, I wonder if Flora Robertson would be among them if only her circumstances had been a little different.

With your children, you can use this poem as a jumping-off point for many Mother’s Day activities. Listen to the poem as a family and write down the emotions or thoughts that came to mind when listening. Then, swap your lists and circle words you’ve written out loud that are the same between your family member’s different lists. As you think about these words on your list, could they become the start of poems? Explore writing activities through our previous posts about poetry.

You may wish to explore family history and think about the role of oral histories. This blog post about Family History Month offers some practical tips and tricks. In addition, if your children would like to mark Mother’s Day by conducting an oral history interview with you or with other mothers in your family, these online resources can guide young people in interviewing family members.

If nothing else, Robertson’s poem can be a reminder to you to wish members of your family a happy Mother’s Day and let them know that you are thinking of them.

Happy Mother’s Day from the Informal Learning Office at the Library of Congress!

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