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.




Grandparents in the Grass

Grandparents’ Iris

The question for someone who writes memoirs is, of course, “Who am I?” My answer at the moment seems to have evolved into, “I’m my grandparents.”

The wind in a willow began the whole thing: nothing soothes like a willow, in or out of a breeze, but in a breeze, it’s magic. And then too, we had a boggy stretch in the yard, maybe an underground stream, that seemed to need a water-soaking sort of plant. We planted a willow.

The next spring, or the one after, it seemed a most reasonable thing to create a flower plot along that section, beginning with circling the willow and running twenty-five feet or so beyond. My son did the heavy work, plowing up the heavy Missouri soil with the rotor tiller, adding mulch and compost, tilling again. My job is planting. I planted iris and peonies. Not just any iris and peonies, mind you, but Kansas iris and Kansas peonies.

The flowers of grandparent memories. This is how that all came about.

My cousin Howard, who looks just like Grandpa Sunderland, white beard and all, dug up some peonies at his house and gave them to me. I’d planted them in a back garden but they didn’t get enough sun to be really happy and I knew I needed to move them. It was Howard who first told me who I look like. We were out to dinner after I’d first moved to Kansas City and I said, “Howard, you’re one of the oldest cousins and we know you look like Grandpa Sunderland; who do I look like?” And he reared back in his chair, raised eyebrows and all (Howard is a very low-key person so that’s about all that happened to telegraph surprise), and he said, “Well, Grandma Sunderland, of course!” I laughed out loud. “So Grandpa and Grandma Sunderland are having dinner together,” I said.

That was the peonies part of the garden that developed around the willow. Kansas farms always had peonies. We had peonies, Grandma Sunderland had peonies, but she also grew yellow iris.

The iris part comes from years and years of smelling purple iris whenever I saw them, hoping to smell the telltale Kansas smell of grape soda. It never happened until one spring when I was up visiting a farm neighbor, Zita, and her iris bloomed all around the garage, both yellow and purple. I smelled the purple and they smelled like Grandpa Joe’s.

Grandpa Joe Ellis was my mother’s father. I remember him tending his iris and roses. I have roses, too. Grandpa had a huge backyard in Barnes, Kansas, stretching all the way back to the ditch before the railroad tracks. He also had cherry trees and peach trees and apple. And a garden. But the grape pop iris? They smelled like home. As a kid, I love that grape pop!

Zita said her iris needed to be separated anyway, so after blooming she dug up the roots and put them in plastic grocery bags for me. Bags and bags. She separated the yellow from the purple and the hybrids in yet another bag. All told I had some eight plastic bags of iris rhizomes. Stephen finished the garden tilling and I planted. Kansas iris at one end, hybrids at the other, transplanted peonies in the middle. They were all outrageously gorgeous and prolific and early. No peonies and iris for Memorial Day this year.

I cut peonies and iris, arranged them in vases around the house. More bloomed. I took some to church. And every time I walk into the backyard, I remember grandparents.

I didn’t ask enough questions of my grandparents when they were alive and I wish I had. Did you? How do you retrieve your grandparent memories?


Being Willow

The purple iris, peonies, and roses are blooming in the backyard. I’m proud of them – far prouder than I am of myself who seems to have gone into hibernation after daily reflections during Lent and Easter. As if my fingers fell asleep. Or my head. That, actually, seems to be the crux of the matter – a mind that gets through the day and follows the path necessary and even gets papers read and graded, but no exploding creativity.

Someone wiser than I am said something to the effect that it’s just as important to be as to do. I have been being. 

I’ve picked spinach and put it into the refrigerator – spinach does not like 90 degree days and has decided to bolt. Bolt. An interesting word. The asparagus is also bolting if I don’t remember to go out each day and cut it. Bolt – as in to gallop away fast. A colt bolts; so do plants when it’s hot. The rest of us wilt. The peas are wilting. I’m not sure they are going to produce anything this year – too cold and wet earlier to flower, too hot now. The iris and peonies like the heat however – the purple iris the ones I remember from my childhood, smelling of grape pop. Kansas iris rather than hybrids. Kansas peonies.

I’ve been wondering where the “spiritual” in this reflection lies since I’m sounding more like a farmer than a preacher. You may be wondering too.

I suppose it’s too facile to say the earth nourishes all of us if we pay attention. Each day I look out the window here in my little office and measure the day by the willow that’s grown from a 12 foot adolescent into a lady beginning to droop her arms in a most elegant fashion. Today it’s quiet – barely a breeze ruffling the top leaves.

I also suppose it’s possible that Spirit, in whatever form it takes, ruffles our top leaves one day and gusts us over another. Sometimes the change is hourly rather than daily. We humans are being tossed from one extreme to another. But right now, today, I’m sitting quietly watching willow leaves and remembering to be as flexible in my dealings today as this young willow is to the gusts of wind.

I will DO later today – a full day of teaching ahead of me – but now, remembering to BE helps. Maybe that’s enough for all of us – slowing down enough to be rather than do. The doing is never-ending; being ends.

So today I will enjoy the being and avoid feeling guilty for what does or does not get done. The doing will wait for me another day, I’m sure. For this little while, for you, too, we can simply be flexible and bend with the winds.

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?