Times Like This aka Little House on the Prairie

  • “I am definitely going to take a course on time management… just as soon as I can work it into my schedule.” – Louis E. Boone
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • Time waits for no one.
  • There’s no turning back the clock. (although if I could go back to the silence of January, I might.)
  • Time is what prevents everything from happening at once. ~John Archibald Wheeler (ah, now here’s a particular favorite! except it may not be entirely true.)

20140710_130801Mid-week, I was caught mid-way between screaming overwhelm and bleak depression, trapped by everything-happening-at-once. Building a home, even an add-on to an old structure that’s been on the farm for forty years, has more details than I could even imagine.

The Little House, as we call it, Dad-built in the early 80’s as an addition to the double wide mobile home he’d bought for Mom and after we’d torn down the old house which set right about where this addition is. Then they moved to town and sold the mobile home. And then they both died. But I’d moved to Kansas. The Little House has been my writing room for years when Cliff and I went up to the farm, staying in the old camper whose nose you see on the left in decidedly poor condition. It was already old when we bought it. That small piece of camper tells little of the story  — the leaks, the held-together-with-duct-tape ceiling, the dying air conditioner. We’ve been going up there and staying in the camper for ten years after I cleaned out dead birds and pack rat nests from the Little House. Now the Little House is getting an 8 foot extension for a bathroom and an office overlooking the prairie and a corner kitchen inside the old structure. It’s a process, as they say.

But time!!! What a monster it is. It took months last fall to get find the contractor (he’s great – a friend of the plumber who put in the rural water lines), get the okay from the rest of the LLC members, get the permits (we’re doing gray lines and composting toilet), and take a loan out with the bank in town.

But once it got started, the guys went like a whirlwind. Above is what it looked like when we got there Thursday noon; this is what it looked like by Friday afternoon: the roof finished and the siding done except for where they are finishing up building the front deck. (That’s the old chicken house in the background.. the one I had to clean waaaaaayyyy to many times. It needs tearing down but I’ll think about that tomorrow….said in my best Scarlett O’Hara voice.)

thursIn the meantime…..yep, there’s that time again, I’d had a huge glitch at the bank that necessitated finding MORE papers and another conversation with the LLC members to sign MORE papers (which of course was crazy-making since construction had already begun), and finding my cousin to see if he could pick up a range in Beatrice (30 miles north of farm) and finding said range and ordering it; and making a list of all the other things we needed; and and and. But by then I was out of melt-down mode and into simply doing.

Probably the only way, really, to deal with chaos. Just do.

So here’s another old proverb for you: a woman’s work is never done. But then, as you can see….neither is a man’s.



Living with Loss # 3

Part One  &  Part Two Here

Part Three

A week later and back on the road, I headed for Wymore in New Blue. Several conversations with the nursing staff throughout the week assured me Mother was doing as well as expected. They had her out of bed and going to meals. She wasn’t eating much, but she was eating. I’d only talked directly to her once and the conversation rambled.

“That big ice storm on the farm, one of the ewes had twins. Your father wrapped the babies in his coat and brought them to up to the house.” Confused by her reference, I didn’t say anything. We didn’t have sheep on the farm. “Little Joe was a baby, so I had bottles.” Oh. The first farm when my father and my brother were still alive. Before me, before any of the rest of us. “I had a new White stove and I’d fixed dinner, so the coals were still hot. He opened the oven door and made a nest out of his coat, put the babies there. He’d go down every couple of hours and milk the ewe. Bring back the milk and we’d feed those babies from the bottles. He took them back down in the morning. Those babies were fine.”

Tell me about the white stove,” I said, thinking color, not brand. “The White had a double oven, new style. Still used wood but it cooked good. I loved that stove. Brand new, but we had to leave it behind when we moved to San Francisco. Too big. But he took my wringer washer apart and we packed dishes inside the tub. We took that.”

I treasured the new stories I heard, even the old ones. “I’m coming up in a couple of days. Michael has music lessons tomorrow.” She said that was fine. And then she hung up the phone, clattering it in the cradle as she tried to replace it. I heard a dial tone.

Light snow melted on the windshield in occasional flakes when I parked at the nursing home. More snow. The almost-February sky sullen in the fading light. When I went inside, I saw Mom just past the nurses’ station, in a wheelchair, facing the closed dining room doors. A few other residents, some in wheelchairs, some sitting on the orange plastic chairs lined up against the wall, waited for the buzzer to announce the last meal of the day.

I came up behind her and leaned around her head to kiss her cheek. “Hi, Ma.”

“Oh, Janet,” she said, and lifted a hand to cup my cheek before pointing to the brown fiber broom closet door some few paces ahead in the wall. “Let’s get out of here.”

And before I could answer, before I could explain it was a closet, her lips began the rhythmic smacking, indicating a Petit Mal seizure coming on. I’d seen those seizures for years. They’d come on in times of stress or sometimes just because. Her hands began twitching. Still leaning over, I gave her one of my hands to grab and laid my other arm over her shoulder to brace her head. Twisting behind me as much as I could, I saw two of the staff. “Help me get her to her room!”

We trundled down the hallway, a nurse pushing the wheelchair, me walking alongside, my hand still clasped by Mom, the aid rushing ahead to open the door and be ready to help at the bedside. We moved her into bed, covered her feet and legs with a blanket, her lips still smacking and her head twitching.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” the nurse said.


I couldn’t send her back to the hospital. I couldn’t! She’d told me she was ready…I had to let it be…I had to trust her. I didn’t know what to do. Either she’d pull out of it or she wouldn’t. The smacking lips quieted. The twitching stopped. The nurse brought a chair to the bed and I sat, holding Mother’s hand. Her breathing ragged and slow. The nurse flipped off the light as she left.

The next hour crept by on silent feet. The wall clock ticked. I prayed. Sometimes silently, “help me help me help me.” I brushed back her bangs, saw again the deep dent in her forehead that had been there since the car accident when Little Joe died. I held her hand. Said, “shhhhhhh….” when she twitched or gurgled. “It’s okay. You can go,” I said over and over. Once I said, “Take Jesus hand…he’s there…” And she whispered the last words I’d hear, “I can’t see him…..” I was drowning in tears. But I wouldn’t sob. When I unclenched my teeth, I said, “Then take Dad’s. He’s waiting….”  What did I know. I didn’t know anything. All I could do was hold her hand, say inane things, wanted to help. A snow gust shook the window. I didn’t know what to do. One hand holding Mom’s hands, the other picked up the phone and called Cliff in Santa Fe. He was still at work.

“Mom’s dying, Cliff…I can’t do this….I don’t know what to do…I can’t help her…I’ve told her it’s okay….I’ve told her to take Dad’s hand…please help me!”

“Shhhhhhh…” I heard. “You’re doing the right thing. You know what to do. Breathe.” I took a deep breath. My neck relaxed and my jaw unclenched. “Sometimes, it’s hard for someone to leave if a person they love is right there. Your mother loves you.” The tears began again. I clenched my jaw to keep from sobbing. “Just back up. Give her the space she needs…”

“Please pray with me,” I said. And he prayed, my ever-constant protector, the priest in him with the right words, always, for my mother, for me. “Now just back up,” he said. “That’s all you have to do now. Just move your chair back from the bed a little.”

“Okay,” I said and hung up the phone. I pushed back and saw someone in the hallway light, framed in the open door, sitting in a wheelchair. Laverne, Mom’s oldest friend from church. I got up and went to the door.

“How is she?” Laverne asked. “Mom’s dying, Laverne. I’m sorry.”

She nodded and backed up her chair to turn down the hall. At that moment, I heard the wall clock sing. My mother loved birds, had watched them all her life, on the farm, when traveling with Dad, and she had a wall clock of birds, each different one singing on the hour. The Nightingale sang. I turned back to the bed. Mother no longer breathed.

It was just like her to go so quietly, no bother at all. I sat beside her for a while. Just sat. Then I got up, filled her basin with warm water in the bathroom, brought back a towel and washcloth, and I bathed my mother. Gently. No trouble at all. I covered her with a blanket and called the front desk. Two nurses came down and did what they had to do. I sat and waited until the mortician came with a gurney and a big black body bag. I couldn’t watch. I went outside through whipping snow to wait.

Prairie Storms

Tonight, after you died, a nor’easter blew in.
You didn’t know—you’d slipped out
early on a nightingale’s song.
Now I sit in the car, blasted
into childhood, no stop for my fear.

Prairie storms were never unexpected.
Dad stood at the fence, smelled ruin
in the wind’s icy claw. He called us outside
(you tied bandanas over our faces) to secure
barn doors and chicken coop against the fury.

We stamped into the kitchen—popcorn, hot
chocolate—and stood our turn on the floor grate.
I played checkers with Grandpa—worried
my red plastic chip (he always played black)
until he growled, “Can’t get there thinking about it.”

If a door slammed open, Dad took care of it.

No preparation for this storm—didn’t know
it was coming. Snow batters the windshield,
tugs at wiper blades struggling to clear my view.
The nursing home door opens; they wheel you
to the hearse. Someone closes the door.

Remember the year it snowed so much
we couldn’t reach the barn? You and Dad
off in Florida. Kenny Divorak tramped up
the hill. We dug tunnels through soaring drifts
high as the grain bins. We were safe; you were safe.

The hearse pulls away.

Wind blasts my car. I turn up the heater, thaw
my cold feet, think about the calls I must make
from my cousin’s warm kitchen. Can’t
get there thinking about it. I put the car in gear,
inch forward into prairie winter.

Postscript: a happy (almost) ending: I returned to my Kansas City apartment two days later, drained. The apartment in chaos because of a leak in the bedroom ceiling, no bed to go to, so I pulled out a bedroll and lay in on the office floor. While nowhere near finished with grief, exhaustion pulled me into sleep. Just as I drifted off, I felt a touch on my cheek, light as a mother brushing away a sleeping child’s tears. That night, I dreamed I was at a gas station, filling up my car, and at the pump across from me, my mother, getting into a newly gassed up car. Once seated, she looked at me and smiled. She lifted a hand and waved as she drove off. And beside her in the passenger seat, I saw a young boy. Little Joe had come to travel with her. I woke, sobbed and smiled.




I’m a memoirist, and whether I’m writing poetry, essays, or book-length pieces, I write memories. My style, as such, comes from loving words: words that define meaning more precisely. I spend a lot of time with the thesaurus, and my favorite right now WordNet, an electronic source out of Princeton University. So even when I write prose, I want my words/sentences to sound right. I’ve spent more years reading and writing poetry (most of it badly done) than I have publishing poetry.

The below poem from the collection At the Boundary may say more about my style than any words I can write about “style.” When I wrote this poem, I was working with the concept of writing lines as phrases and clauses that would only require commas and no full stop until the end of the poem. I don’t always write like that. Often my sentences are short and blunt, again for sound and rhythm. I don’t listen to music as I write but I like my sentences to have music in them. The below is one long sentence and related to the time after my mother died.

The Virtue of Beauty

If I’d remembered each fall flinging itself
hard at my chest with this same aching beauty,
the red not just red, rather revolution
and blood, flames unfurled against a sky blue
no painter could paint without its looking false,
impossibly real, perhaps, to an artist,
without one imperfect cloud suspended
there, beyond towering oaks bronzed green-gold
by Hephaestus, forging eternity,
as if to remind me of beauty lost
between Duluth and Des Moines in last year’s
dirty snow stacked against some highway
entering or leaving winter, my eyes
scrived with grief, blinded to any virtue
in dying to live again, the loss fresh
in the blood’s flow severed from your heart
to mine (I am a child abandoned, in the end,
as each child must be) I might have recalled
beauty and glory, not dried as leaves will dry
flung from the tree, but lifted and yearning,
in a fresh flood of color filling my wings.


Where’s Home

Night comes to the prairie.
Night comes to the prairie.

When someone asks me where I’m from, my stock answer “Tell me a year and I’ll tell you where I was,” works pretty well. In this case, the prompt was very specific: describe the house you lived in when you were twelve. But if someone were to say where did you live when you were thirty, for example, I’d have to add thirty years to my birth year and then I’d know where I was. That’s why tell me a year is more effective. I know where I was each year. Otherwise, I have to add. I just added. At thirty, I was living in Germany in Army family quarters.

However, twelve? That’s easy. By the time I was twelve, I was only on my fifth residence. By thirty? I’d have to make a list. We moved to the farm when I was nine so by the age of twelve, I’d stayed in one place for three years and would be there for another five.

In those years, the house we lived in was built in the late 1800s by Grandfather’s father. The farm, a hundred and sixty acres of original Kansas homestead, had only one owner before Grandfather’s father and that for only three years. Probably a Carpetbagger (did Kansas have Carpetbaggers?) who claimed it during the land rush and sold it at a profit. We still have the farm and the original land grant deed.

The high plains were built for spectacular storms, wide stretches of grass which often became prairie fires, high winds, and a lot of sky. The first grandfather, however, found the only hill in northern Marshall County and built his house there. Tornadoes rolled to the south and down a draw (a gully) or around the north side of the hill. Never over the top. Tornadoes, for all their fierceness, are lazy. We could see ten miles in all four directions which is about how far it is to the horizon, and storm days, Dad would stand at the back fence and watch. I only remember being herded into the cellar twice. I hated the cellar. Shelves lined both walls and the door opened from the ground like at Dorothy’s farm in The Wizard of Oz. An awful place where being sent to the cellar to get….well, whatever: a jar of canned meat, beets, beans, or potatoes from the sack at the floor made me imagine rattlesnakes at every step and giant spiders hanging from the rafters. Neither of which I ever saw. Hated the place nonetheless.

The house: no don’t imagine 1870s antebellum columns or colonnades of trees on each side of the road. Imagine tar paper, thick, scratchy, and pebbled, in a brown-to-look-like-wood siding. And the staircase? No wide sweeping curve up from the foyer floor, rather an enclosed narrow and steep flight of stairs that grew up the kitchen wall and made a sharp left turn three-quarters up. You could imagine the occasional spider or mouse if you like, but that’s a little creepy. As were the stairs. Did I mention steep? At the bottom the door opened onto the kitchen and at the top, opened into two bedrooms, one on the left and one on the right. Grandpa slept on the right up two steps off the top landing. We girls slept on the left. I guess that’s how it happened although I’m not sure how we got four girls in one bedroom. We probably fought a lot. But I’ll stick to house. Which makes me wonder how our bedroom over the kitchen ceiling was lower than Grandpa’s bedroom over the living room. Maybe the house had settled.

My older sister went into high school, however, when I was thirteen, and Dad built a separate room for her off Grandpa’s room in what was the old attic. He put up wall board and painted it blue. The room had one window that looked out over the yard and the lane leading down to the road. It’s the room I graduated to. Perfect for a teenager. A sanctuary. No one could go in without permission–my sister started that and hung a blanket across the door for privacy. When she moved to the attic room, there were only three of us in the bedroom with the gas heater for cold winter morning. In that room, we had to lie on the floor and look out little windows that tipped up to find out who was driving up the lane.

Downstairs, a big kitchen, a living room, a south porch perfect for sleeping on hot summer nights, and an east porch that served as a mud room and a separator room (a separator separates cream from milk) and a place to store milk buckets after they were washed and eggs we’d gather each morning and evening. The east porch is where we cleaned eggs – a task I never cherished – and stored five-buckle galoshes for trips to a muddy farmyard.

I don’t remember when Dad added the bathroom on the north side of the house. It may have been a few years earlier when his mother was ill and couldn’t go outside to the outhouse. She died before Dad and Mom married so I didn’t know her. But the outhouse was still usable if you were desperate. By the time I was twelve, I guess we were six kids since Mom and Dad had birthed another girl, so with five girls and one boy, desperation time could come at any time. Grandpa often used the outhouse. Probably just for a little peace of mind.

The south porch was my favorite room–well, not so much in the winter since it wasn’t insulated and winter put frost on the bed–white with windows that stretched around three walls. Maybe not antebellum but close.

I wish I had a photo I could attach, but all the photos are stored in big albums at another sister’s house. So instead, I’m attaching a view from the window on the west side of the Little House. We tore down the old house when Dad bought a new double wide for mother after we all left home. She was tired of living in an old house. I’d moved back from Germany and helped with some of that. I remember pounding plaster off lathe in the upstairs bedroom where I once slept so we could take the house apart board by board and save what was salvageable. After they set up the double wide, he built on a 21’x24′ extension room attached to the west side of the mobile home so there’s be a place to put us all when the six kids and their kids descended for one reason or another. That’s the building that’s still standing and we call The Little House. He built it out of the salvaged timber after digging a full basement just in case for some reason a tornado decided to come over the hill, and in one corner he built a fruit cupboard.

That’s the cupboard I had to clean the pack rat nests from if you’ve read earlier posts. Or maybe that’s in the memoir I’m writing. Words are getting mixed up from one deal to another.

Anyway, this summer we’re building an addition on the addition. An eight foot extension with a composting toilet and a shower and a corner kitchen inside the little room. We’ll have a year round house. Not that we’ll live in it all the time, but it’s there.

You see, you can go home again. It just takes some work to get there.




Daily Post: Journey

???????Some journeys are made in miles and some in memory. And sometime, both miles and memories make the journey together. This week, during our run-away to the farm days, we made a cemetery journey in miles and memories.

Our family in cemetery life is as scattered as they were in living life. Most, however, are in or near Marshall County so that makes it at least a doable afternoon journey. One set of grandparents lie outside Vermillion, Kansas where as youngsters they grew up and where their parents lie, one set in Frankfort, Kansas, again, where the parents, my great-grandparents, lie. My mother and dad are in Barneston, Nebraska, just over the State Line from Kansas, and my father, John, and his firstborn son, Walter Joe, are buried in Barnes, Kansas which is where we lived as children when our father died.

Yes, the lineage is complicated and even more complicated in the reading since it seems I have two fathers in different cemeteries. And I do.

So anyway, as you can imagine, the circuit around all of those takes the better part of a day. We didn’t do all the grandparents this time, only my double set of parents.

Cliff and I drove to Barneston, Nebraska first, as Nebraska is only three-quarters of a mile north of the farm and Barneston just a few miles north of that. When you’re a farmer, or a farmer’s daughter, you learn to make a clean circuit rather than backtrack across the countryside. Barneston has a small town cemetery, as all the family plots are in for that matter. The gravestones are a little haphazard, some date back to the mid 1800s and in one corner, bounded by a fence with bluebird houses on each fencepost, a headstone rock for the Otoe Indians who were native to the area and with whom Grandpa Albert, dad’s dad, traded when he first moved onto the farm. Grandpa liked to tell us kids “Indian Stories” as he called them.

I also noticed that all the decorations (in the country, by people of a certain age, it’s still called Decoration Day), were plastic. No iris yet bloomed, no peonies, both traditional plants in rural cemeteries. I heard my mother’s old lament from past years in my head, “The peonies won’t be ready for Memorial Day this year.” It’s been a cold spring. When young, we had no plastic flowers, only live, cut flowers from the yard, sometimes stuck into quart jars with water. Hence, not having the iris and peonies bloom was a problem. My mother always wrapped her bouquets in aluminum foil to keep them fresh until at least the end of the day.

I put plastic flowers on Mom and Dad’s graves and on Grandpa Albert’s and his wife Susan’s although she died the year before Mom and Dad married and we moved to the farm. I didn’t know her. But I knew Dad’s stories of her.

And then we drove down to Barnes, Kansas. This is a bigger, neater cemetery. There’s a covered graveyard registry with all the names, and corresponding plots, in alphabetical order. Stones lined in rows, all, for the most part standing straight. Some date back to pre-Civil War days. Those are mostly young children. The cemetery in Barnes puts flags by veteran’s graves in little holders branded by the war of the time. Some held the insignia for a Civil War soldier, some for World War I, some for WWII. I didn’t see any for later wars. My father’s flag holder is marked WWII. I’m glad he has a flag. I guess that if Little Joe had lived, he might have been in the Vietnam War.

For whatever reason, a sunnier hill, or less wind, or a bit further south, or fewer cold storms, the peonies and lilacs were in riotous bloom. I planted peony bulbs by my father’s grave once, but you just about have to live in an area to tend graves and make sure the mowers don’t flatten new and tender shoots. We put plastic flowers on John Sunderland and Walter Joe’s graves.

And then we came home. Our backyard was riotous in color in just the few days we’d been gone. Peonies and iris and roses in full bloom. This morning, I cut fresh flowers and took them to church. The photo above is from that cutting. But these aren’t just any peony/iris/flowers. These have a history of journeys too.

The purple iris are Grandpa Joe iris, the grandfather buried in Frankfort whom we didn’t visit this time. Not that I got them from him, rather, Zita, who was a friend of my mother’s up by the farm, dug up rhizomes and gave me several sacks a couple of years ago. But they aren’t just any old iris. These smell like grape pop. I’d searched forever for iris that smelled like grape pop. Impossible to find in a greenhouse; only possible from a farm friend’s old iris bed.

The yellow iris are my Grandmother Sunderland’s iris, the grandmother who is buried in Vermillion. We didn’t visit her either. But my cousin, who had dug up Grandma’s iris back when, dug up these and I planted them. The peonies are also Kansas peonies, dug up by my oldest cousin, Howard, and passed on to me several years back.

Just as my journey back to Kansas was a twisting turning road, the journey these flowers took has a lot of curves even if not as many miles as I traveled. And they are still in pretty good shape. No doubt they will likely outlast my own journey, when you get right down to it.

And travel into another Memorial Day; another journey into stories.