Monday, February 25, 2013

Of Ghosts and Tall Grasses

I recently received a gift from my parents. The gift was a two page description, written by my mother, of the events through which my grandparents acquired the land where she was raised, land she recently sold to my dear Uncle Paul “in interest of simplifying decisions for future generations.” Paul farms the land, and it’s right that it should stay with his family, who grew up there. With the proceeds of the land sale, she and my father gifted my husband and I an amount sufficient to put a down payment on a house in which to raise our own family. There were ghosts in the money, who now reside with us in this house.

Three months ago, there were five of us, plus assorted critters. We lived in a house of about 800 square feet. I never minded us being stacked on top of each other, never minded the close quarters. It never bothered me that the lack of space usually meant that someone needed to be on my lap for movie time, or riding on my hip in the kitchen while I made dinner. But the family keeps growing both in number and size of persons. The addition of the new kid, now a month old, makes us six, plus assorted critters... though we are down one parakeet.  

Children don’t stay little nearly long enough. Faster than I had imagined it would happen, they started to develop their own little interests and require some solitude to pursue them. My oldest, the boy, was the only one with a door on his bedroom, something my husband assured me he’d need as he grows into adolescence. I guess that has to do with teenage boys needing privacy while they build legos or something.  

Our new home is large enough for each of the kids to have their own room, a little space to call theirs, to hang posters and collect things that matter to them, a place to draw and sing and play inside the kingdoms of their own imaginings. There is enough green space out front to turn twenty cartwheels from one end of the yard to the other, to play freeze-tag, to ride a tricycle up and down the drive.  There is space in back for a small garden next to the chickens and the goat, and a swimming pool to cool us off after weeding that garden. There is a pregnant stray cat who has taken up residence under a bush near the south wall of the house. Soon there will be kittens.

As soon as we closed the deal and they handed us the keys, I was immediately taken with the notion that this is where we’ll grow old. This is where those kids will come, bearing two bags of dirty laundry each and stories of their adventures, when they grace us with a weekend trip home from college.  This is where they’ll bring their families, where I’ll spoil their kids with snickerdoodles and homemade playdough, then turn them loose to my husband to teach them Beatles songs on the guitar.  And if all goes the way I hope it does, we’ll just go ahead and get old here while they bounce on our arthritic knees.  For the first time in my life, I’m not afraid to get old.  It’s Norman fucking Rockwell I’m living here, and I can see myself with a long, wiry gray braid resting between my shoulders while I show a kid how to look up a pretty rock in a big book of geology.  

Now about the ghosts.  It would be impossible for me to look around this house and take full ownership of it.  I am its steward, that’s true, the same as I am the steward of the four kids who live here.  But this house was acquired with money that I didn’t earn.  I inherited it.  I can’t hitch my wagon to the oxen and then claim the toil of the journey as mine alone.  Sure, I work hard to make the payments and keep things running smoothly.  I work hard for my family, but not nearly as hard as my great-grandfathers worked to give me the opportunity to do so.  I pay homage to the ghosts that were in the money, and invite them to live here with us so that we won’t forget where it is we’re from and the risks taken and the efforts that made it possible for my girls to turn those twenty cartwheels from one end of the yard to the other.  

The ghosts were homesteaders and the children of homesteaders. This is a good time to acknowledge that the Homestead Act is a painful and controversial chapter of American history. I don’t want to sugar coat the idea that the Federal government was giving away land that was acquired through some really cruel means. In my heart, though, I know that the men and women I’m writing about were gentle spirits who meant no harm to anyone. They raised livestock and grains and tended to their families and their faiths in the tall grasses of the Kansas prairie. They were not murderers. These are people who left everything they had behind them to come to a raw, unfinished landscape.  They came here to farm.  It wasn’t like, hey, let’s set out for Kansas where the livin’ is easy!  We’ll hang up a hammock between two Cottonwoods! They came to break their backs for a little place of their own. They built small houses with their own hands. The houses had no insulation, unless bees count. They added rooms as children came along. Some of those children died. There was little time to mourn... winter was always coming.  Again and again and again winter was coming. And, less predictably, droughts and dust storms and plagues of locust and wars that took their sons away. Still, they worked hard and saved money and acquired more acreage, enough to support several generations of modest farmers and ultimately, to support the purchase of this perfect house where I’m now raising my perfect family.

I have so much to thank them for.  Of course, as I sit comfortably inside the walls of an insulated house while a blizzard approaches - the second winter storm in a week - with nothing more to do than nurse a baby and make chicken n dumplings, I’m thankful for the conveniences they’ve afforded me.

But there’s more than that. What stirs in me when I drive through the Tallgrass Prairie, soaring its terraces and diving into its valleys, is something that I can’t exactly name, but it’s something I take note of every single time. When I set foot in those grasses, it's overwhelming. And to watch my mother walk a trail through the Flint Hills with my daughter puts me smack in the middle of the infinite loop, feeling the coming and going of time and blood as sure as the wind on my face. I know that I’m lucky to have it, this connection to a place.  I call it my prairie.  This is my prairie, I tell the kids, maybe yours, too.  Travel, I say, explore, have adventures, you’ve got a long life but it’s a big world, so don’t dally and don’t accept limits, go all the way to the moon if you like. But remember this place. And if this doesn’t do it for you, don’t stop until you find a place that whispers the magician’s secrets to you. 

There’s real value in that.  It’s my wish for everyone. Whoever, wherever it is, I wish everyone would meet their soulmate in a salty wave or a foggy marsh or a city corner or a Bluestem hilltop.  I’m lucky enough to have been born in my place, so it was easy to recognize when I came home to it after my own adventures. The ghosts gifted it to me, that recognition. They made it so that when I stand on the prairie, I see a wild place, an adventurous place, rich with sturdy geologic treasures and fragile ecological exchanges, but mostly I just feel home.  It is, as my friend Heather recently remarked, where I found my heart, and a place big enough to hold it.


  1. This spoke right to my heart. I have felt these things so many times, everyday in fact, especially the days when I'm able to hike the prairies and feel that special breeze that only Kansas prairies have. It is so heartening to find others who share the same appreciation for history (especially family history) and the hard work that affords us so many luxuries. I'm so happy for your good fortune and grateful to share in the love of our land with a kindred spirit. Best wishes!

  2. Great piece.
    My family knows those ties to the prairies.... plus the added emotions of having had it taken away from us. The farm where my mother was born and where I grew up was taken for the Fort Riley Reservation expansion plus the Milford Lake. We can't even drive by on the road and say that's where we lived. The best we can do is point from a couple of miles away and say see that pile of rocks on that hill? That was our barn. The best we can do to find those ghosts is to go to the cemeteries.