Another Year, Another Memorial Day.

 Kansas Cemetery
            Kansas Cemetery

Today was hot, finally, and I spent some time in the garden which had suffered from neglect: first from a cold spring and second from my two and a half weeks in Hawaii. I missed the red bud tree’s blooming and most of the Texas bluebonnets, but now it’s iris and peonie time, both gifts from my childhood.

I don’t have the hybrid kind of either iris or peonies. My cousin Howard gave me peonie roots his mother had dug from her yard and my cousin Linda gave me yellow iris rhizomes from Grandma Sunderland’s yard. Vita, an old neighbor from the farm years, gave me bags and bags of those purple iris that smell like grape pop. That’s the kind I remember from the garden my Grandpa Ellis tended.

From as far back as I can remember, each spring Mother worried. “Doesn’t look like the peonies will open in time!” or “If I don’t cut these now, there won’t be any on Memorial Day.”

Good years, they bloomed right on time in mid to late-May. This is a good year.

Peonies are what you’ll see in any small town cemetery in Kansas. At least the part of Kansas I’m from. Masses of peonie bushes, in bloom, all at once. Makes a trip to the cemetery worthwhile. And this weekend, you will also, if you’re a mind to go traveling cemeteries, see cut peonies, stems wrapped in paper towels or aluminum foil, or stuck into a fruit jar with water, resting in front of stones. Once in a while, you’ll see iris but they don’t keep so well.

You won’t see many artificial flowers.

Our run goes through four cemeteries: Barneston where my mother and step-dad lie alongside the rest of Dad’s family-the Bruckers homesteaded the place we call The Farm; Barnes to my father and older brother’s graves; Frankfort to say hello to my mother’s Ellis and Moore family-the Quaker Moores came to Kansas at the end of the Indian Wars; and Vermillion where the Sunderlands and my grandmother’s family, the Laws, keep each other company-both families immigrants from England in the mid-1800s. These the stories that follow me as I pruned my garden.

After pulling some weeds, moving a flowering plant I’ve forgotten the name of but  overcome by a burgeoning hydrangea, and planting some wildflower seeds in an empty space, I cut the first bouquet of white and pink peonies and set them on our dining table.

“Those peonies?” my Baltimore-city-born husband asked when I brought them in. “Yes they are,” I said. And we smiled.

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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.

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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?