Yes, You Can Go Home Again

The Koester House Marysville, Kansas
The Koester House
Marysville, Kansas

As a child, when I passed the Koester House, either walking or riding in the car, I’d long to enter the grounds and the house and see what was there, to feel like a lady in a white Victorian mansion. But I didn’t. The house had a Never Land quality to it, a magical place with flowers and trees and small statues of animals scattered across the lawn. A three-foot tall brick and cement wall circled the property with a cement sty, steps leading up to a white gate and over into the magical land.

I never went through that gate. I only looked at the house and dreamed. Ah, the dreams with which we build our lives.

I lived seventeen miles outside of town in a farmhouse built by Grandpa Albert’s father sometime in the late 1800s, about the same time as the Koester House was built in town. Our front porch we called the East Porch to differentiate it from the South Porch. The East Porch held crates of fresh eggs and the milk separator and muddy boots while the South Porch held an extra bed, the large chest freezer, and stuff there was no room for in the house. Not exactly wrap around elegant porches with carved grills. The outside of our farm house had tar paper shingles as many old farm houses did in those days.

I suppose we were poor, but then no farm family with six kids was exactly rich. We had what counted: food, clothing, shoes, school supplies, the books we wanted, and my favorite, a full set of The Child’s Book of Knowledge. But no elephant statues in the yard. No magic lands, except in our imaginations, and places in the timber that held swings made of vines and a huge fallen tree we called our elephant as we clambered up the side to straddled it and ride into far-away lands.

Last Thursday evening, I gave a reading at the Koester House and for one evening the house was mine. It was odd, stepping up those steps of the sty and over into the yard. Almost like a rite of passage into a new and different world. Last week, the lawn was filled with snow, but the fountain in front and the little, white-painted animals were still there, and the antler-shaped edging along the paths, while capped with snow, lined my journey to the front door. For that brief journey from outer sidewalk to the front door, I felt like a child.

So many things change in sixty years. Our farmhouse is gone although the farm remains. Marysville has grown into a prosperous town. I’m certainly older. But the little girl inside the lady smiled as she opened the front door.


Photos and Smiles

My mother has been on my mind lately. Maybe it’s the effect of All Saints, All Souls/Halloween/Days of the Dead time and maybe because my sister Judy sent me a copy of an essay she’d found by chance when she picked up an old notebook and meant to make some notes in it. Surprise! Instead, she found Mother. Our mother wrote on odd bits and scraps of paper almost anywhere. I have Post-It notes.

And maybe it’s because friends are dealing with their mothers’ aging and dementia and Alzheimer’s and all the attendant parts of that process.

Reading the faded notebook pages made me smile: my mother, shortly after we moved to the farm, found a baby kitten in a nest under one of her Rhode Island Red hens. She was very particular about naming them – not “chickens” but Rhode Island Reds which are more docile, she explained, and kindly. I don’t remember those so well. I remember the stupid white Leghorns flying up in a scattered whir cackling and screaming no matter how often I opened the chicken house door. Ya’d think they’d learn!

In remembering my mother, I remembered her high school graduation photo which captures my unknowing and which showed a lady far different from the farm wife my mother became. Well, perhaps if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have recognized the town girl under the apron. Astounding, really, how long it takes to understand who our parents were.

The photos I have are all loose in some box or another or digitized on the computer.  I keep meaning to get them organized…..

I asked my younger sister Julia to send me a copy. She’s the keeper of the family photo albums. Six or Seven thick, bound, leather-covered scrapbook albums which hold our family history.  She said she didn’t want to chance tearing the photo by removing it from the page so the top of Great-Grandma Moore’s head is on one corner. That seems more or less reasonable. Great-Grandma Moore brought the Quaker heritage out from her pioneer mother in Jewell County, Kansas, and sprinkled it liberally among her assorted offspring. It may have been Grandma Moore’s influence that kept my mother from being a flapper.

Rosy Jeanetta Ellis
Rosy Jeanetta Ellis

I never knew Mother’s full name until after she’d died and I saw it on the death certificate. She didn’t like the name Rose – it was the name of an aunt she disliked. I knew that name was in there somewhere, and I knew she didn’t like it, but I didn’t know it was Rosy. And Jeanette had a much stronger ring to it, I expect, than Jeanetta. She named herself.

The casual elegance of this shot is arresting. As are the bows on her shoes. I didn’t know until much later than she’d lived in Kansas City and worked before marrying. Few photos of my mother show much of a smile. That’s interesting. Not sure what it means, but it’s interesting.

Here’s another of the smiling photos. My father, mother, two aunts, and a baby. The baby must be Judy. Mountains in the background point to the possibility of this being the move from the Kansas farm to San Francisco. The prospect of city life must have excited my mother. Although if it’s the California move, I’m not sure why the two aunts are along. Mother is smiling in the same way she smiles in every photo when she is off having an adventure. Everyone is smiling, even the baby — except for the youngest aunt, the short one in front, who never liked me and is scowling at me, still, from somewhere beyond the pale and the veil of unknowing. My mother and I have one more thing in common, I realize, although she was wise enough not to name me Doris.

Somewhere on the road.
Somewhere on the road.


Weekly Photo Challenge; Love

This is a bigger challenge for my bank of photos than one might expect. I saw photos of Paris, a city I do love, and photos of the Lady and Unicorn tapestries which are only about love, and photos of oceans and breezed and California, which I also love. And the beach at Venice Beach, which I’ve always loved and which photo graces my Facebook page.

In scrolling through, I saw a shot of my son’s graduation from college; shots of my grandson getting married; Cliff and me, laughing or getting married and my sons walking me down the aisle; almost all the shots of my huge family said “love” in one way or another.

Perhaps the right photo comes from a question: how did this big, outrageous family learn to love so openly and unconditionally through all the family disasters and trials that all families go through?

And then I arrived at the old black and white photo of my Grandfather and Grandmother Ellis. She, a Birthright Quaker from Jewell County, Kansas, from a long line of earnest Quaker families. Her grandmother, Lucinda, had been a pioneer into Kansas. A Quaker married inside the church. That’s the rule. But Grandmother Ellis didn’t.

Grandfather Ellis, or Grandpa Joe as we kids called him, was a railroad man. He’d come to Kansas from the hill country of Kentucky, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the youngest son of a family who’s many older men had been killed or disappeared into the Civil War. He came to Kansas. And charmed a young Quaker girl. And she left her church, but not her family, and married a handsome, dashing railroad man.

And maybe that’s how my family learned to love so widely, wildly, and well. And while not a Birthright Quaker, my mother was a Quaker down to her bones. Family and God. Whatever the trials (and our family had a few wild hairs along the way) you loved and accepted them.

Grandpa Joe and Grandma Margaret
Grandpa Joe and Grandma Margaret

Your Brother’s Keeper

Friday of the First Week of Lent

“You are your brother’s keeper,” is one of those lines that can choke us.

And yes, we are.

In other words, our human relationships are as important as our spiritual ones.

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Chapter 5, Jesus teaches his disciples about the importance of human relationships. It’s not enough to be like the Pharisees, a select brotherhood, “admitting only those who, in the presence of three members, pledged themselves to the strict observance of Levitical purity,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. Jesus indicated that all are our “brothers” and all deserve reconciliation.

It’s like The Pointer Sisters sang, so many years ago, “We are family….” all the sisters and brothers.

Sometimes relationships have to end. That’s clearly so. But we do not have to cut that person our of our hearts. We can still reconcile from our feelings of hurt or betrayal and remain separate physically.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean whatever happened is okay. We don’t have to let hurt back into our lives. Forgiveness and reconciliation means we clear our hearts of the hurt so we can live clearly. Forgiveness means we can put down the heavy yoke of judgment and breathe.

Which yoke do you need to remove from your shoulders?


Remembering: Memorial Day in Kansas, 2010

Cliff and I went up to the farm this last week. It’s the family farm, an original homestead. Many of the outbuildings are gone and the fields planted to tallgrass prairie. We keep a camper up there and there’s a building we call the Little House, an addition Dad built on in the mid-1970s after we tore down the old house, a simple farmhouse which dated from the early part of the last century, and Dad bought a double wide mobile home for Mom to have a new house. The Little House is built from the remnants of the old house. A sturdy Ralph Brucker build construction about 15′ by 25′ with a basement and used when more of the family came home than the three bedroom mobile home could handle. I sit at a put-together Wal Mart desk in the Little House and write. We live in the camper – our Hobbit Hole.

At any rate, we go up each spring and clean out critters from the camper and the Little House. Last year, when I first unlocked the side door to the Little House, a long snake-skin greeted me and I jumped – until I saw that the skin was just that – a left-behind skin some bull snake shedded along the rough edges of the steps. We didn’t know what to expect this year since the winter was exceptionally bad with drifts reaching fifteen feet in some places and lots of spring rain. Anything could have happened. But it didn’t – except for a few skims of water in the basement and a few dead mice. The camper fared better with only dead bugs and dust. That was our first blessing of the trip.  

We’d also gone up to do the “cemetery run” as I call it. We have family buried in four of the small country graveyards scattered around Marshall County and one up in Barneston, Nebraska, where my mom and step-dad Ralph are buried and his family. The farm sits right on the Kansas/Nebraska state line so going from one state to another is common.

Each year when I was growing up, Mom fretted most of May about the peonies and whether they’d be blooming in time for Memorial Day. This year, not only were they blooming, they were splendid and filled the farmyards we passed and the cemetaries.

We first visited Barnes, Kansas, a town I lived in when I was in grade school. My father and older brother are buried here. Barnes is one of those sorts of never-never lands with childhood memories cloaked in shadows. My older brother died before I was born and my father when I was eight. We left Barnes for the farm when Mom and Dad married.

All of the cemeteries in that part of the country are old – most have headstones dating back to the early 1800s. You can see some of them in this photo – they lean. But they stay. And the old parts have fewer flowers planted.

Barnes is one of those prairie towns that’s making a comeback. The bank is back in business, a small one-room brick building. My father’s old storefront where he sold electrical supplies still stands. Now there are two cafes in town – a farmer’s cafe where Nannigah’s Grocery used to be and a larger bakery and cafe that caters to travelers and tourists and sends bread out to all corners of Marshall County, and the center of much of the business in town. There’s a prairie gift shop across the street. It’s funny to think of Barnes, population about 400, as a tourist destination – there’s also two B&Bs.

Returning to the prairie always puts me in a pensive mood. So much space. yet at the same time, so familiar as if from another dream space of life or another century. Not much changes. The hedgeposts, used because hedge is a tough hardwood that resists rot, look the same as they’ve looked forever in my memory. And the layers of rolling hills behind other rolling flatlands under a sky that goes on forever, lends itself to either boredom or pensive. I’ve never been bored in this landscape and have often called myself the “see-far woman.” Most of the places I’ve chosen to live have allowed my eyes to stretch. When my eyes stretch, my memories follow.

I don’t know any other way of knowing who I am. I’d pulled my hair back and secured it with side combs and when I looked in the mirror, I saw my Grandma Sunderland. She is buried in the cemetery outside Vermillion along with several of her children and her parents. Her family name was Law, and after wandering across this cemetery, we finally found the headstone of her parents. I know a little about the Laws, but not much.  My older cousin, Twyla, can tell me stories because she remembers both Great-grandmother Law and Great-grandmother Sunderland. Both names very English. Both families immigrating into Kansas in the mid-to-late 1800s. As did my step-dad’s Brucker family. Not English. And very proud of their Bohemia roots. Generations and generations of families and family stories.  

Along the way, we also stopped in Frankfort, Kansas where my mother’s family is buried. Frankfort family reunions were with Grandma and Grandpa Moore, Mom’s grandparents, and all those collected siblings and cousins that overflowed the park in the summer gatherings. My mother’s name was Ellis and her parents are buried close to the Moores. Grandpa Moore was a paper hanger and Grandma Moore had the most beautiful white hair of which she was very proud. But her’s was wavy, as was my mother’s, and mine is straight, like the Sunderlands.

My favorite Grandma Moore story comes from when I was about six. We’d driven from Barnes to Frankfort for a family visit. At that time, the great-grandparents lived in a long, floor-through apartment on the second floor of a large brick building – a building still standing today.  After we’d climbed the very steep stairs to greet them, Mother suddenly said she’d forgotten something in the car and ushered my older sister and me back downstairs. She opened the car door as a screen and then turned to us. “Don’t say anything about Grandma’s blue hair!” We didn’t. Prairie women, regardless of the family, are a pretty fierce lot. I’ve remembered that story countless times – often when my hairdresser suggests a blue shampoo to hide the yellowish tinges in my own white hair.

And then, after we returned to Kansas City and after our adopted daughter Julie and grandson Navarre visited overnight, we went to Topeka for an Ellis family reunion at my cousin Tom and Kathy’s house. We sat around as we have always, with whichever family of my extended three-pronged history, and told stories. My cousin Connie was visiting from Italy where she has lived since the mid-70s. She looked like her mother, my aunt, who’d died ten years ago. We remembered when we last saw each other – in the year when I’d just returned from living in Germany and right before she moved to Italy. Her two children, now young people, have come to Topeka to live and go to college.

My ex-sister-in-law Jill was there with her mother. And her daughter Jacque who now also has a daughter Josey who has a grandfather Jack, my brother, who was home from Hawaii.

And I marvel at how so much remains the same in a world gone awry.

And I think about who I am and how I have changed and yet, remain so much the same.

These are the forces that have shaped me. These are the families who told stories and laughed and told more stories.

This is who I am.

And I wondered how people become who they are without that connection of family – a family for good or ill. Certainly my history is replete with suffering and sadness and changes and anger and all the things that make up this life. Some people, because of their history, choose to distance themselves from their families and create lives unattached to all that sadness or pain. I understand how important that might be. But I also wonder if the pain, regardless of how it’s distanced, remains. Have we become a culture addicted to things and success in order to fill the vacancies of history and family?

Or is my decision to come back to Kansas to remember and renew simply my part of the family story?