When your family history is carved onto land, there’s not much left to tell the story. A waterway through a field, planted with tallgrass, sliding down to the gully at the bottom of the hill; rows of terraces crossing the hillside to guide and keep that same rainwater on dry-land farming land: some of the first terraces in Marshall County after the Dust Bowl days. Dust. Dust you can write your name in alongside “WASH ME.” A name that disappears in the next cloud burst. Sometimes the name stays until it’s covered in more dust.
And headstones, scattered across the northern edge of Kansas, one cemetery just across the state line into Nebraska, which bear family names: Law, Sunderland, Moore, Ellis, Brucker.
Law was Grandma Sunderland’s family name although I don’t know much about them except that there were big family gatherings at their last house in Vermillion. My older cousin Howard remembers the family gatherings, kids running all over the place, and Great-grandmother mostly sitting quietly in a back bedroom. By that time in life, somebody else gets to herd the kids.
On all sides my family tree grows from the land, farmers all except for my Grandpa Joe Ellis who left the rocky hillsides farming of Kentucky to come west and learn to be a telegrapher and a depot agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
Grandpa Joe read books and poetry. His wife, Grandma Margaret, wrote poetry, and was a Moore, the daughter of a Kansas pioneer who, the family stories go, was the first while child born west of the Missouri in Jewell County, Kansas.
Grandpa Joe read rather than wrote. His work as a telegrapher meant writing came from sound, the chattering dots that somehow magically converted into letters in his careful handwriting – other people’s words. Someone else at the other end of a telegraph wire collected his chattering dots and made them into words. I remember standing at the edge of his depot desk, rapt as only a five-year-old can me, and watching him receive and send messages.
Law and Ellis and Sunderland and Moore are all English names. They floated like cotton seeds across the land, restless, ranching, farming, searching, pulling up farming roots in one place to move to another farm. The Bruckers are the ones from Bohemia who immigrated together, farmed together, and stayed put. The farm in Kansas, where I often retreat to, belonged to my step-dad, the Brucker who raised us, and his dad. It’s been in family, the Brucker family, for over a hundred years – more like 130 yrs. or so. A Kansas homestead.
The generation above me was educated in that they had finished high school. My step-dad Ralph even had two years at a business college and kept rows of green ledger figures, written in a hand cramped by arthritis, all the years he farmed. My generation was the first to enter college. My sister Judy as first, going to a bible college in South Dakota before marrying, but my younger sister Jeanne not only finished college but went to graduate school at K-State before traveling all over the world in the years when that was what you did. My cousin Linn Sunderland followed her to K-State, but he was one to stay put and farmed with his dad while his dad lived.
I left hight school at seventeen to marry in a rebellious act of running away from home, and I saw the world as an Army wife, not beginning college until 1966 when I closed up the mobile home outside Ft. Carson, Colorado, and drove my two young sons and myself to Hollywood, California as a running-away defiance against war.
The Law headstone stands up tall and white. A big headstone for a farming family with a name written deep to survive years of cloud bursts. Maybe the point of a family that drifts is to plant the cottonseed, let it grow into a shading tree.