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Sketches of the Farm: Memoirs and Heritage in Cozad, Nebraska. My grandparents' backyard, the home my mom was born in in the distance, the cellar in the foreground. Clarence and Beulah Maack farm.

 

PREFACE

I drafted these chapters around the year 2001. I had in mind to make a collection of memoirs about my maternal grandparents and my time as a youth on their farm, about my explorations in what heritage means and what it means specifically to me.

Life went on, I became involved in more and more projects, more and more travel, these sketches fell by the wayside, unfinished. Then the other day I saw a solicitation by a literary website for true stories about grandmothers, specifically interactions between the author and their grandmother. This sparked a memory of all I had written about my grandma, grandpa and the farm. I searched for and found the files on my computer, read them all, and decided that, while they are no masterpiece, it was kind of a shame to let them die there on my computer after all the time and thought I spent on them, all the emotional connection.

But I cannot finish them now. My grandparents have both passed, their house and barn sold. I can’t go back there to get in the same head-space again. And I simply can’t go back to the person I was back then, I can’t feel the connections in the same way. I was experiencing a new exploration of the world,  a new appreciation for and depth of thought about how I came to be me, but that was 18 years ago -- the "new' is now my past, I don't really think about these things anymore -- I can’t access the feelings and thoughts the same way. It’s simply impossible to finish, or even edit the chapters in the spirit and mindset in which they were begun. I thought about whether I should at least change the whole thing to past tense since my grandparents are now a “were” instead of an “are.” But then that puts it into the present, where it does not belong.

So I’ve left it as I originally wrote it … present tense, still raw (i.e. never run by my critiquing pals or my editor, whom I had not even met yet; I did not get my first literary essay published until 2005), still immature and perhaps tediously metaphorical – my literary writing has fortunately evolved to be more concise and sophisticated since then – and importantly, unfinished (by which I mean the individual chapters were never brought to a final draft, and I had made no attempt yet to stitch them together, so there is some overlap of the same things talked about in different chapters). As a raw and unfinished product, it's not worth trying to self-publish a book as I once envisioned (even though it's free on Amazon), so I'm putting it up on my self-narrated blog. (It really belongs on my writing website, but I can't upload photos there, so I put it here instead.) It's a bit of a long read to accomplish on a computer or phone, but ... this is how it is. :-)  I've added a few notes here and there, which are put inside brackets [ ]. 

I had a lot of fun reading through the memories and appreciating my wacky family. It’s hard to know if others will find them as amusing. It’s strange that as an adult, my passion is international travel -- I want to see the most different and exotic places, people and animals. But the place that really allowed me to form into this person was a very simple and humble farm in Nebraska. It was my dad’s tales of travel to exotic places, traveling for work, that fascinated me, stoked the curiosity I inherited from him, and made me want to see the world. But it was my time on the farm that made me into a person with the confidence, wild spirit and sense of adventure capable of empowering me to strike out into the world and travel to faraway lands on my own as well as with my husband.

So, such as it is, raw and ragged, this is for the memory of my grandparents, Clarence and Beulah Maack.

The cover photo above is my grandparents' backyard. You can see the cellar in the foreground, which you will read more about later on. In the distance you see the place my grandparents used to live on, where my mother was born. Only the barn still stands. Below, is me standing on the front porch of my grandparents' house. This was well before they built the addition, which you will also read about later, how my grandma found out she was getting one. 

Me standing on the porch of my grandparents' house, early 1970s, Cozad, Nebraska.

*

 

 

1. SEARCHING FOR HERITAGE

The farm lies north and east of the rural town of Cozad, Nebraska. My maternal grandparents are farmers, my great-grandparents were farmers before them, and before them my great-great-grandparents farmed the land. My great-great-grandparents all came over to the American midwest as German immigrants. The farm has become, for me, the icon of my heritage, the symbol of the struggles of all my ancestors, including the ones from my father’s side of my family (who were also farmers), even the ones who had nothing to do with the farm. The farm beckons me and haunts me. It hovers like a giant zeppelin floating over all my psychic landscape. Each new stone I turn over in my life reveals beneath it a patch of the farm.

It seems like the past is somehow tangible on the farm, like all of my heritage has solidified out of the reservoir of time like silt, and fallen to rest on the farm, where I can feel it beneath my toes. Each year a visit there seems more and more like a pilgrimage; the land seems more and more charged with mystical qualities until now I feel like a druid walking solemnly through simple yet awesome structures of a past age. Here the barn, the house, the shop, the corncrib, are the standing monuments, the solid symbols that stand to represent, to remind, one of the events that happened and then disappeared into the vapor of time.

In their earlier lives my grandparents were like characters straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, starting their life together in rural Nebraska during the Dust Bowl years, with orange crates for dressers. They farmed the land and their brothers went to war. Tom Brokaw has called theirs the greatest generation. My grandparents struggled through a poverty I can hardly fathom, not with the miserable cries of the downtrodden but with fortitude and humor. When Grandma talks about the early years of their marriage, she always says, “Those were hard-up times.” Those words always grab me with a hook and pull me into them. I’m intrigued by their lives, by how different theirs were from mine: theirs of hard labor, partly without electricity or tractors, mine of cushioned suburban mediocrity.

We are like salmon swimming upstream: We must find our birth place—not only geographically, but also genetically and historically. The past is often as dark and mysterious as the future. But the past, through diligence, we can illuminate, and it makes our voyage through life a little less scary and our general experience of life more whole, more complete. We cannot truly be a whole without identifying the parts, i.e. the people who make up our heritage, who contributed to the very genes through which our own individuality is expressed. What more intimate connection is there to another human being than through shared genes?

I find that the more I know about my heritage, the more interconnected with the rest of the world I am. Isn’t it fascinating, they say the majority of British men descend from 10 common ancestors. History incessantly builds and yet its foundation recedes to a single point, ultimately an infinitesimal point from which the infinite universe exploded and now there’s seven billion souls graced with humanity.

The web of our interconnections—genetic and historical—with each other is astonishing. Even in recent history I have some unlikely connections.  Somewhere out there, somebody who’s ancestor was a member of one of the Great Plains Indian tribes, shares a small bit of heritage with me, born of a family of German immigrants. Their ancestor kidnapped my paternal great-great-great-grandmother; somebody’s ancestor gave her a Thunderbird pin that she wore to her grave. Weird thing—as a child I daydreamed all the time about being kidnapped by Indians. I wanted this to happen to me.

I recently found a paper I wrote as a kid about if I could be anything in the world, I would be a little Indian girl back in the days before the white man destroyed their world. I fantasized about being kidnapped and taken into a tribe as one of their own. I was 22 years old when I found out that my great-great-great-grandmother had in fact been kidnapped as a child. She was held for a ransom of food. She said the Indians treated her very well, and rather than being angry or frightened from her experience, she gained a very strong respect for her captors, held them in high regard, and cherished the pin they gave her—she requested that she be buried wearing it. I have a picture of her as an older woman, the pin fastened to her blouse at the neck. I set it on my buffet; I like it in a prominent spot where I can be constantly reminded of this extraordinary bit of my heritage. [My first essay of acclaim, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and listed as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays anthology, was on this topic.]

All such knowledge of my ancestors is fascinating, even riveting, to me, but I ask myself again and again, what really can be gained, outside of the satiation of curiosity, the comfort of knowledge, from intimacy with my family history? Everyone says, “You must know your past in order to define your future.” It’s as if the present is a boat condemned to navigate in perpetuity through waters whose depth and breadth are never known. However, with the past as a rudder at the rear of the boat, one could gain some steering and give the boat some sense of direction, rather than sitting dead in the water completely at the mercy of the wind and changing currents. If we come to wonder from which piece of land our boat broke her moorings, we can attempt to find the dock we seek only if we have that rudder.

Cultures with a strong oral tradition firmly believe in knowing one’s heritage, in knowing the stories of one’s elders. It’s a straight-forward matter of identity, of truly knowing who and what you are. It is, in fact, a responsibility: the perpetuation of tradition, which is something Americans of my generation are, sadly, largely without.  Such meager bonds we have, if any, to our ancestors, even to our grandparents, only two generations away. One of my all-time favorite movies is Fiddler on the Roof.

 

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, eh? But here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy! You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you, in one word: Tradition!”

 

The farm is my grandparents’ home. They have succeeded, I think, in squeezing out a simple tune, a light-hearted melody [I say “light” because of their generous sense of humor] despite being composed with an old fiddle and fraying bow, which now pulls ever so delicately across the strings. I have tried to understand my grandparents’ tunes, to be a part of them, to listen and to play them. I have tried to compose my own tune by utilizing theirs, by making harmony with it or stitching our melodies together into a simple fugue. But there are so many things they used to do in their lives before they had electricity and all the modern conveniences that I have no connection to, that I can never relate to, and never use in such a fugue. Their lines seem so full, so melodic and rich, and my line seems scant and tentative, a mere wisp of a melody. I am so disconnected, so lacking in tradition, that my grandparents and I don’t even play the same instruments. Only far into the future will my melody resonate with theirs when I sit with the ancestors where all deep past melts together.

Until now, the concept of having a future guided by knowing the past has rested on tradition; knowing and being entangled in the perpetuity of tradition gave one the boat and rudder that he needed.  If we no longer have a participatory tradition then we must at least continue to forge a link to our past through the quiet accumulation of knowledge, through the exercise of memory.

Many of us who have been brought up without cultural traditions look to other cultures hoping to adopt their traditions, their pride. Certainly, that’s true for myself. When the New Age movement looks to them for answers or adoption, Native Americans say, “Find the beauty in your own culture, your own traditions; find reverence in your own history.” For a long time, this admonishment frustrated me: Western culture as a whole can be so hard to find pride in, with its history of incessant colonization and slavery, its appetite for destroying native cultures. However, I believe I can find pride in the microcosm of my own personal sphere. Perhaps this is one reason why I cling tenaciously and respectfully to the stories of my elders—I can at least find beauty in my grandparents and their grandparents, and revere their personal histories.

Personal histories are far more than a collection of letters grouped into words, far more than idle chattering of elderly people. While I love sitting with my grandparents on the farm, tucked in a gentle blanket of reminiscing, I have begun to feel there is something far more profound behind these stories that they tell. Oliver Sacks writes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, “... for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us—through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives—we are each of us unique. To be ourselves we must have ourselves—possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must ‘recollect’ ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”

One needs an inner narrative to identify one’s self to one’s self, but an outer narrative to identify one’s self to others, to history. It’s as if by voicing one’s story one has contributed himself to the larger community, one has actively inserted himself into history. Once, I had a vision of the faces of the crew members who died on the Titanic. The faces were drifting by me in a deep-black sea—I could hardly make them out; and a voice from some completely unknown place within me said, “It’s too dark ...” The unspoken implication was that their lives were obscured by the darkness, the darkness of unknown history, an unknown narrative. Those who knew of their last suffering moments perished also. They are lost in the abyss of the unknown, the untold. They’ve been compressed under the weight of history with no one to hold their stories up to give them breathing space, no one to light them a torch by which to see themselves in the pattern of time. Poor unfortunate souls.

There are lighted passageways through history, like hallways and tunnels in a labyrinthine castle, connecting various rooms together through circuitous and often secret routes. But so many hallways and corners remain in such complete darkness as to be in a void. To ignore our heritage is to condemn our ancestors to dark, unvisited corners of history. Perhaps this little book is nothing more than my desperate attempt to light a small corner for myself through the untold hours time has yet to march through.

[Since writing this in 2001, I started this travel blog (in 2010) where I’ve now written almost 400 entries on my travels, and in truth I think I keep it up for the reason above … to light myself a small corner in history, so I am not condemned to be one of those faint faces drifting in the darkness … I came away from that vision cold and terrified.]

Does the heritage of a person ignorant of it weigh as heavy as the heritage of one who is cognizant? Is it the act of knowing that gives it its weight? In the subatomic world, the act of observing affects the properties of the observed particle. History is a formless ether until we examine it.

The fearsome Ozymandias* is remembered by only a few who traverse the boundless sands. No one else in what may once have been a vast kingdom remembers. It would seem that history only exists if it is remembered. History seems to exist in quantum flux: It could be anything until someone remembers it, and then it is that particular way, regardless of whether or not the original incident did happen that way. However the incident originally happened is a moot point; it simply doesn’t matter. History is controlled by memory and those who write it (or build monuments to it). I am terrified that clouded thoughts and perceptions will creep in like hoarfrost and cover my once-clear glass of memory, terrified that the stories I learned will become corrupted when I speak them, and the lights that were lit for my ancestors in the tunnels of history will become distorted and discolored.

 

Who knows what unlikely revelations await us. Even now with all we’ve discovered, I sometimes have to shy away, put my hand up to deflect the brilliance of the explanations of the universe. To know and understand facts and theories, to be intimate with one’s heritage, adds to perception almost like sensory input. The feel of my grandmother’s quilt is completely different from the feel of any other quilt: The knowledge of who made it and in what circumstance affects how it feels.

Knowing all I do about my parents and grandparents and the tidbits I know of my older ancestors is very satisfying, and enhances the way I see the world. But when I try to grasp the countless possibilities of what the rest of my heritage is composed of, when I try to feel the true depth of it, it’s simply way too much -- my brain feels like a rubber band stretched to its breaking point. There have been so many people with complex lives, with a lifetime of experiences, without whom I would not be. And then there's me, a little flotsam drifting on this vast sea of my ancestors, a sea full of perpetual drama, of triumphs and tragedies.

The farm has gained its significance through the melding of my ancestors’ experiences with my own. The farm not only embodies my own heritage but also myself as the heritage of my children. [Which I never ended up having.] Though I only spent summer and winter vacations there, I see it as the place where I belong. A line that has always popped out at me from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is a line spoken by Mrs. Joad as the family is fixing to pack and move to a strange land: “How will we know who we are without our past?” She and the farm, it seems, are intertwined; one cannot be defined without the other.

A farm isn’t a farm without someone to farm it; a farmer isn’t a farmer without the land to farm. The farm is therefore more than just a random place in space, more than the physical constituents of dirt and plants, a house and barn; it’s part of the intangible essence of what makes the person. My grandparents’ farm is who my grandparents are. When I tread the soft dirt I tread their spirit. When I breathe the air I breathe their breath. How can I define the people without the farm being spelled out in the definition, like a poem that spells out a word vertically from the first letter of each line?

[My paternal grandparents were also farmers, although my grandpa also did other things. My dad (and his siblings) grew up working the farmland his parents owned and rented, and after he graduated high school, that's all my dad did for one year -- working 160 acres all by himself and helping his folks with another 500 acres plus 80 acres of pasture. He said none of their tractors handled equipment more than 2-row ... so he also knew hard labor and the rhythms of the land, its rewards and heartaches, as the 160-acre place was struck by corn root worm the year he was farming it himself. From his memoirs: "The stalks began falling over as their roots were chewed off.  Our only defense at the time was to water the corn heavily and continuously so that it would continue to grow new roots.  Fortunately for us, the farm had an irrigation well so that we could water any time we pleased.  My only means of running the pump was to hook it up to the tractor with a belt.  The tractor had to be refueled every 3 hours or so.  I couldn’t stop the tractor to refuel because if I did, then I could not start it again for quite some time.  When he overhauled the engine, Lloyd Kaufman had made the bearings too tight, and after running for an hour the engine would have so much internal friction that the starter motor could not turn it over.  Refueling while running was a dangerous thing to do, but it had to be done." 

But unlike my maternal grandparents, after this year of very hard work, assessing the net payout he got, "... it just didn't seem commensurate with the effort expended.  I began to dream other dreams." His path diverged wildly then from that of a farm boy, he enrolled in university and went on to acquire a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and eventually became the project manager of the team that designed the rocket fuel for the Saturn V rockets that sent man to the moon. Later he worked as an alternative fuels consultant, an expert in the field, and this is how he came by traveling the world for conferences and meetings with other countries as part of a U.S. Department of Energy team. 

My grandparents, though, knew nothing but farming, they neither one graduated high school; I believe they perceived there were no other dreams to dream. They forged on through thick and thin.]

The farm is therefore the focal point in my quest to connect with my heritage. My grandparents in their younger years lived lives that will likely never be lived again in this country: without modern conveniences such a electricity, bathrooms and tractors. I can still touch the distant past through them, for they are linked to their past through the mutual experiences and chores that the modern era changed, for example, cleaning lamp chimneys, plowing the fields with horses. So I can be part of a chain, with my grandparents and their farm between me and my deeper past. Anything my ancestors might whisper to me, I will hear through my grandparents.

Ours is a planet sown with beings. Our generations overlap like shingles. We don’t fall in rows like hay in the fields waiting to be picked up, but we fall. … While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s bow slits the crest of the present. If I want to know who I am, I need to know who my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are. And to know them, I must know the farm.

Old Farmall tractor in front of my grandparents' garage. Clarence and Beulah Maack farm, Cozad, Nebraska.

____

  

  

*One of my favorite poems, Ozymandias by Percy Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

*

 

 

2. SKY

I love the phrase Ivan Doig uses as the title of his autobiographical book, This House of Sky. That's a great description. My grandparents, too, live in a house of sky.

The sky was the first thing I came to love about the farm in Nebraska. I remember my grandpa telling me once that he thought it was beautiful where he lived. As a kid from the Rocky Mountains, I couldn’t understand that—the beauty of the flatland farm was too subtle for me to pick up then. But slowly over the years I came to recogni­ze the beauty, and the first thing I noticed was the sky. Its enormity began to strike me until each time I stepped outside I felt submerged in the sky as if it were the ocean and I a lonely little shrimp on the flat bed of the sea. The sky still to me is the most prominent feature of the beauty of the Great Plains. I love the gorgeous sunsets, the sun a giant disk, red with the farmers’ kicked-up dust, and the curtain of stars that hangs over the farm at night.

The farm has such a lonesome feeling about it, a kind of light melancholy, a hopelessness in the vastness of the Great Plains. I think it’s not the sight of all the land stretching on that gives the farm that feeling, but of all the sky. That huge sky gives perspective. And to live beneath it is to know the power and the beauty and the diversity of our planet, our primary mother. To live beneath it is to live in awe.

After having watched many movies and documentaries about NASA’s missions to the moon—a source of continual fascination for me—I visited Kennedy Space Center down in Florida and had dinner on Coco Beach. As we walked down the beach after dinner and looked up at the moon, I saw it in an entirely new way. Looking at the moon from Coco Beach was to realize that men in the past who looked at the moon from this spot, and from no other, knew they were going to travel there and set foot on that celestial body. The moon from Coco Beach was not a phenomenon of astronomy, but a destination. The moon became much more profound there; it transcended its rocky material, its physical effects on tides, and shone in the light of humanity—in the light of dreams and aspirations.

Similarly, the sky and its potential for severe weather looms over me in a much different way on the farm than at my own home. At home, the weather is often a dice whose consequences are shallow, for example, what clothes I need to wear, what mood I might be in; it is the harbinger of my immediate lot, but hardly a scratch on my larger fate. On the farm, though, the weather is the dictator of one’s immediate lot, and the farmer peers ever fervently up into its mysterious folds searching for clues to his larger destiny, searching for the answers to unknowns, for that which is to the farmer most profound. My grandparents’ entire livelihood, their fate, from the day they were born, each on a farm, has depended on the mercy of the weather—especially back when they were dry-land farming.

Even the sun, symbol of joy and happiness, has a sinister side to the farmer and can be death to crops without rain. The sky commands a whole different respect on the farm. Further, all the most extreme experiences I’ve personally had of weather, with the exception of wind, I’ve experienced on the farm. The place where the weather is most relied upon is the place where it has most deeply and awesomely revealed itself, just as the god of the Bible presented to those with the greatest faith the greatest trials. It is easy to understand why so many cultural and religious practices have revolved around gods of weather, around placating and bribing them.

My grandparents lived, at least in their earlier years, what I think of as “naked” lives: so close to reality (i.e. survival); they were not clothed in technological layers or social hierarchies and etiquettes. And standing underneath the Great Plains’ sky, I think one feels naked—clothes and hat can’t protect one from the overwhelmingness of it. Sometimes when I look up I want to cry—cry at the sheer immensity, it’s just too big. Thorkild Jacobsen in his essay, “Mesopotamia: The Cosmos as a State,” calls this feeling which the sky inspires, “majesty,” and goes on to say that “the experience of ‘majesty’ is the experience of power, of power bordering on the tremendous, but power at rest ...” At any given moment one can look up to the sky and know the potential energy that resides just out of view. One is always uneasy, subtly filled with the lurking fear of the sky’s kinetic energy.

The Babylonians called the storm god “Enlil.” All forms of anger and wrath were attributed to the storm god. A horde of invading barbarians was an agent of Enlil as much as a thundercloud. Any destruction was a kind of storm; an army was just a storm masked in human forms, each soldier a breath of wind, each hurling weapon a hailstone. The storm is the ultimate wrath, for it is not the wrath of humans but the wrath of gods and forces beyond our grasp and beyond our protection. Therefore even a perfectly clear blue sky commands our respect when we know the power it harbors, hoards and releases, for “nature stays not her hand; in her full might she cuts across and overrides man’s will, makes him feel to the full how slightly he matters.”

Of the wraths of Enlil, I think the one most feared on the Great Plains is the wind. Tornadoes. Some other forms of weather are two-faced and can be blessing or curse. The violent swirl of the tornado , however, seems only malevolent. When my father was a kid, a tornado picked up their entire corn crib and moved it 10 feet. A number of years ago, 1994, a terrible wind came through the Cozad area, and while not a tornado, did a fair amount of damage. My grandparents and aunt and uncle were without electricity for a month. They had to buy generators to keep the freezers and things going. New power towers had to be flown in and dropped in place by helicopter. Grandma and Grandpa got a little bit of a kick out of that, I think, going back to “the way things used to be”. But I also believe they were happy to have the electricity restored.

In older days my grandma spent a lot of time in the cellar with my mom and all the kids. One of my favorite stories, as Grandma tells it, is of one particular time:

 

In 1947 Clarence was helping stack hay at Grandpa’s when a terrible cyclone came up. I had Donna stay by the cellar door with Gary, who was a baby then, and the other kids were trying to help me get the chickens in the chicken house, but we had to give up and go to the cellar. The men got off their tractors and laid in the lateral until it blew over. Then Clarence came home so fast to see if we were alright, that he ran in the ditch on the corner. He ran on home and he was trying then to get the cellar door open but I had the kids helping me hold the rope to keep the door shut. I thought he was the wind trying to suck it up. We played tug-of-war for awhile, then he finally called to us then we let go. It blew over the windmill, blew away the corn crib and other things.

 

I’ve heard that story so many times—how Grandma and Grandpa were fighting each other and the wind was so loud Grandma couldn’t hear Grandpa shouting at her. It’s one of the first stories I remember hearing as a child. I played around that cellar as a kid, often imagining that scene taking place, and I was continually riveted by the tale. I tried to imagine myself in that dark, dank, cob-webbed cellar hearing the crazed fury of the wind above me. It was frightening just to imagine it. As I grew older, the story emerged from a fearful one into a kind of adventure, and took on the mantle of a familial legend.

The Big Hail seems to have gained similar legendary status, and I was there for that. Some cousins and I were getting ready to go out somewhere (can’t remember where). I was in the bathroom styling my hair with the curling iron, when a very loud “thunk” startled me. Pretty soon another thunk came and for a moment I thought someone was jumping up and down on the roof. But who would be doing that? I’d heard of softball-sized hail falling in places, but it took all of us in the house a minute to realize that it was falling there on us.

Grandma tried to get the pickup into the garage; she ran outside holding a plastic salad bowl over her head. While she was gone my cousins and I heard the sound of shattering glass coming from the bedrooms. It sounded like an army of paratroopers was crashing onto the roof. Grandma came back in the house a couple minutes later with the salad bowl cracked and an enormous black welt on her hand. More windows shattered. The storm passed over within minutes but time always seems to stretch out, mocking, when one is helpless. There was nothing to do but cringe at each thump and document the damage as it happened. We looked out at the corn—late in the season—being battered, and we submitted to the humility of looking silently out the window as the crop was injudiciously destroyed under an uncontrollable force.

My grandma kept a hailstone from that storm in the cracked plastic salad bowl in the freezer for years, until finally it crumbled apart. “Come see how big the hail was here,” she’d tell visitors. And it was like we belonged to a special club, having been initiated by the storm. “... wasn’t it, Shara?” she would say to me as she showed visitors the trophy in the freezer. “Yes!” as we recounted the tale, survivors of such a barrage from heaven.

The following year another hail storm hit. The hailstones were of no unusual size, but they were driven by fierce wind so that once again the crops were in ruin. Again the financial loss. I looked to the sky with distrust and anger that it did not care how cruel it was being.

On the other hand, one of my favorite weather elements has always been lightning. It seems to me it is the sky’s real muscle, its true show of power—raw arcs of electricity splitting the air with their eerie beauty. Fire itself descending from the sky! Fire, symbol of sacred, the most sacred of human discoveries, is made in the heavens to be hurled across the sky. Electricity, the key whose mastery opened the gates to the modern technological revolution. It resides in minute scales in our bodies, bridging synaptic nerve endings, pulsing through our brains. To see it up in the sky on such a massive scale has always seemed to me absolutely incredible, even profound.

The crazy lightning storm I witnessed on the farm was incomparable. It has left a deep impression on me about the awesome ferocity of the sky. The lightning show lasted several hours—the longest continuous lightning storm I’ve ever been in. Every type of lightning I know of was displayed. The sheet lightning alone was impressive in its utter saturation of the sky. For a solid hour we existed under a strobe light. Our eyes burned with the effort of trying to see through the flashing, our eyelids no shield from the brightness. The bolts of lightning that came down to the ground were thicker than any I’ve seen and they stayed, as if tethered to the ground, for several seconds. And through it all the constant roar of thunder, as if we lived on a rocky sea coast with continually crashing waves. The lightning bolts seemed vicious, trying to tear holes in the earth. And then there were the magnificent arcs across the sky, branching many tentacles that reached in every direction to the limits of my entire field of vision—a crazy octopus of fire. The scale of the lightning was so immense I could not confine myself inside the house. I had to be outside, unsheltered, beneath the river of electricity that ran above, spilling fire like waterfalls to the ground, to grasp the true intensity of the storm. My insides vibrated from the thunder, and the ground trembled from the massive bolts that touched down. And when the storm finally vanished, it left in its wake what I imagine would be the feeling if a massive buffalo stampede had finally cleared out of my yard.

There was very little rain in that amazing electrical storm. My cousin and I used to conduct rain dances out in the driveway, chanting out nonsense and dancing in circles. Rain, children are told, is tear drops from heaven or the tears of god himself. What a horrible lie to the child who wants to play in its puddles but fears the salty sadness that may splash upon him if he does!

There was once a rainstorm on the farm that seemed to me then of biblical proportions. It is that kind of rain that must have fallen for 40 days to flood the earth. I was playing at my cousin’s house when it started, and by bedtime it was raining too hard for my uncle to drive me the one mile to my grandparents’ house. So I spent the night there. There were large holes, several feet deep, in the road then, as a steep section of the road was being leveled out. In the cool, gray morning, those holes were filled up like swimming pools with muddy water. I’d never seen such an accumulation of rain water. All those tears ...

But if rain is god-tears falling from the sky, the stars at night are the beautiful jewels of the gods. And it’s always been with unbounded fascination that I have stood to put my eye to the lens of the sky to view the stars. The night sky and the daily sun are the visible framework of world order. Pattern, cycle and order stand out most clearly overhead. One of the most powerful and uniting factors in all human cultures is the emergence in myth of the connection between the sky and cosmic order. In this modern age of technology where we are so remotely and tenuously connected to our ancestors through common experience, the two real exceptions are the practice of tradition for those people who have cultural or familial traditions, and central to all, is the experience of the night sky. Even my distant forefathers saw Orion make his way across the sky, the same as I do; it’s the one thing we all have in common across the millennia of human experience. The unchanging of the stars and planets provides an altar upon which our conception of heavenly beings and of our own immortality might condense.  What is more holy than the night sky? And yet in this day and age so many people can’t even see the sky for the light pollution around them.

I love night on the farm; there is a deep silence that enhances the beauty of the stars. One can tangibly feel the immense depths of space in the beautiful blackness that surrounds the myriad dimples of light. When I stand alone in the farmyard the depth of space seems to yawn right into my very own brain, right into my heart. In the warm summer nights I often crept from my bed to bathe in the enchanting multitude of stars outside, to commune with the moon who, night after night, bore silent witness to my fears and joys. It was under the night sky that I assessed the progress of my life, the things I liked, the things I didn’t. And it was often there and then that I had my most profound thoughts, alone on the farm in the dark. It was there that I first became aware of the mystical realms of emotion and thought and spirit that pervade our lives unseen, the realms that I often try so hard to describe.

But in addition to the cerebral pleasures of a still and starry night on the farm, the nighttime can also weave a magic as splendid as any enchantress. Nature can secretly accomplish an astonishing amount of work while people lay sleeping, unaware, eliciting a singular joy upon waking to an unexpected landscape.

One magical morning while in Cozad for Christmas, we awoke to a lunar landscape. Similar to the rainstorm, I had spent the day with my cousin at her house and by nightfall it was snowing too hard to transport me back to grandma and grandpa’s. The morning dawned clear blue as if to proudly show off the work of its sister night. My cousin and I bundled up and ventured out with glee. In places where the sun had crusted the top layer of snow enough, we walked, otherwise we had to wade, crawl or swim through the snow. Down by the creek the snow hadn’t crusted at all and we fell in over our heads. I laughed with panic. If you’ve ever thrown a cat into a fluffy snow drift, you know what we looked like trying to get out of that deep snow. We laughed and screamed and struggled to get back on top of the snow.

The roads were completely snowed in; for most of the way between my cousin’s house and my grandparents’ house the fence posts were completely submerged. It was eerie—just this completely white, monotonous landscape like someone had taken an eraser and erased all the features. My cousin and I trekked over to our grandparents’ house across the snowscape; much of the way had to be forged on hands and knees, distributing our weight the way snowshoes do. There, a snow drift came up to the top of the chicken coop. We could walk right on up to the roof. There were high drifts against the stack of hay bales behind the barn; we jumped off the stack into the snow like jumping into a swimming pool.

Snow storm at my grandparents' farm. Cozad, Nebraska.Snow storm at my grandparents' farm. Cozad, Nebraska.

Like most of the sky’s guests, however, snow storms have a dual nature. This one of my childhood had a magical nature; it was quick and beautiful and it gave the stage back to the sun immediately after it was done. It was a gift of wonder, a special Christmas toy to play with. But I read a book about the blizzards of ’49. How people’s limbs froze solid. How cows were snowed in and if lucky were detected by the steam of their breath rising from the snow—and how some had to have their stomachs slit to relieve bloating when they were first fed after nearly starving (water first before feeding!). People burned their furniture to stay warm and had snow drifts inside their houses. What a miserable foe that storm was. Grandma, in her typical understatement, writes in her memoirs:

 

In 1949 we had a big blizzard. Clarence was doing Larry and Jessie’s chores while they went to West Virginia to her folks. It lasted for 3 days. All roads were closed so on the 3rd day after it let up some, Clarence rode the saddle horse up there to do chores. All the eggs were frozen solid, so he put them in a gunny sack and tied it to the saddle horn. I put them in a big kettle and cooked them and fed them to our chickens. The kids had to walk to school on top of the snow drifts and could hold the telephone lines, the drifts were that high.

 

In addition to the weather, the sky hosts other guests. My grandparents endured such horrors from the sky as dust storms and insects:

 

When we lived up east we would get the terrible dust storms. They called it the “dirty 30s.” It would get so dark in the summer time at 4pm from dust blowing , that the chickens would go to roost and we would have to light the lamps. I remember one time I had taken one of the kids to Gothenburg to the doctor and one of those dust storms came up. It got so black and bad you could hardly see in front of the car. I was so scared when I got home. The dirt would pile up in the fence rows and around the machinery in drifts just like snow. I would hang a damp towel on the sides of the baby’s crib to help catch the dirt that blew in.

In about 1938 or 1939 was when the grasshoppers came in, and it looked like a big black cloud coming, but instead it was grasshoppers. They ate all of my garden, even ate the tops off the carrots, beets and onions clear down into the ground so I had to dig them all and can them right away. They also ate all the tomatoes and cabbage, and the tip ends of the corn ears, then they would move on.

 

But don’t look to the sky for the scars of its whims. It reflects only the present, holding no evidence of the past, only clues for the future. No ghosts hang in the sky. The sky continually clears its slate, while the earth accumulates and changes, reluctant to release the past, and cannot evaporate like clouds. The nature of the sky reflects the nature of reality: the transience of a moment, the continual motion of time. The sky has been, from the birth of humanity, the guide, the inspiration, the framework for man’s attempt at explaining and justifying the world: mythology, astrology, and finally modern science. Throughout our evolution of understanding the workings of the universe, we have always looked up. Up to where the gods reside, up from where their teardrops fall, up to the blackness where black holes yawn in mystery.

I would be inclined to think that the sky’s instabilities would lead my grandparents to harbor a wary grudge against it, and because of their reliance on its good will, be stained with distrust and fear. But it seems, rather, to lend them a kind of trust in the nature of things, a trust that life is natural and that all things that happen are natural and are to be accepted. Their explanations of “it just happens” are not the sparse words of uncomprehending but rather the terse words of a deeper understanding, an absolute acceptance of the chaotic nature of life. Their farm has lain all these years upon the altar of the sky whose ways are as unfathomable as any god’s.

Again, I believe that the singular feature of the prairie is not so much related to the land but to the sky. House of sky, azure blue, deep and wide, an ocean above, the stars like fish.

 

In private places, among sordid objects, an act of truth or heroism seems at once to draw to itself the sky as its temple, the sun as its candle. Nature stretches out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. R.W. Emerson

 

The moral degradation that I think many people perceive in our modern times that various world religions claim comes from a lack of following their particular religious edicts and ideologies, I believe comes from something much simpler and more fundamental—the separation of man from nature. It's a holy thing to be touched by the sky.  In many cultures the sky the is the source of the shaman’s sacred power. When you can’t see the holy night sky, the sacred and enduring symbols of countless cultures’ beliefs; when you can’t experience the purity of the weather—when the snow is immediately shoveled away from you, the rain drained into culverts and underground tunnels, the hail nothing more than an insurance claim, and the sun muted by sickly haze—you are separated from the knowledge that there is power in the world larger than man. That is to say, a non-denominational power, a power that is and is not all gods. The only wake-up calls for many are the occasional drastic weather disasters, and then people often blame their tragedies on a shortcoming of some human endeavor—buildings weren’t built right, weathermen didn’t predict fast enough, etc. So many people have completely lost the concept that we are not really the top of the pyramid, not, in fact, king of the hill. I believe the first step for the alienated in submitting to moral laws is to first submit to natural laws. If you can just but experience the powers of the sky in purity!

I count myself lucky to have been able to do just that. Of the many treasures the farm has given me, perhaps this particular gift of sky is the most sacred: hinting, revealing and concealing truths both terrestrial and celestial. It has shown me the chaotic nature of its earthly realm in ever-shifting weather; it has given me the profound peace of its silent, starry heavens. We are all made of stardust and I know somewhere in the sidereal depths is a star whose reflection is me. I look for it always on the farm.

*

 

 

3. CHRISTMAS

Winter was a time of celebration. Our humanity seemed so conspicuous then, with our joy and exuberance popping out from the backdrop of the bleak landscape: empty, flat fields patched brown and dirty white, bare tree branches poking into the cold, gray sky; the animals huddled in the barn or silently next to each other in the fields. And from this dreary scene erupted the blast of raucous laughter. Nature lies dormant, asleep in its nightcap of cold, but humanity rises above, as though we are nature's dream—vivid, colorful, brimming with vitality and the unexpected. Nearly 20 people would cram into my grandparents’ little house with one bathroom. Sleeping bags and cots covered the floor at bedtime. While the adults slept, the kids giggled on relentlessly.

I remember the long car rides back to Cozad. It was about a 6-hour drive then, but to a kid, that's interminable. We had a station wagon and I always got the back seat (3rd row) to myself, right next to the speakers, and we'd listen to music the whole way out. I remember softly singing along ... "Oh Stewball was a race horse, and I wish he were mine ..." and "Well I taught the weeping willow how to cry cry cry ..." I'd be nestled inside my sleeping bag, and for many years keeping an eye out for Rudolph in the night sky. When we finally arrived I hated to get out of the car, out of my little nest. But as soon as I got inside the house I felt excited. Another Christmas!

There are the few Christmases that stand out. But every Christmas was fun. My two cousins, Marla and TJ, and I had a tradition of going out to the barn, swinging open the door to the hayloft and sitting in the "window," all three of us scrunched in together. Then we'd belt out Christmas carols into the night until we got hoarse or cold. Such exuberance we had. I suppose all kids possess it and do similar things. But there was nothing I did at our Christmas celebrations at home that equaled singing in the hayloft. I often wonder why such silly things were so fun to me then and are so fond to me now. There we were in the dark, in the cold, crisp air where only the stars could laugh with us. And singing for all we were worth, to the dismay of the barn animals, I’m sure. I imagine we disturbed even the sleep of the dormant trees. We made up song verses, too. "Jingle bells, Shara smells, Marla let a fart, TJ ran to get a fan and Shelly's awful smart." And we'd giggle ourselves delirious. We were kids being kids in the most innocent way. Even in later years when we started sneaking beers up with us, I would still call it innocent fun. Innocent because it was nothing but living fully in the moment. We were out there for no better reason than to feel the life in our bodies—to see our breath, to hear our voices, to let the cold grip onto our feet dangling beneath us, to feel our insides rattling with laughter. And they were moments we had all to ourselves. It was our tradition. No one else’s.

But all holiday traditions are special. Thinking about them is like remembering the smell of simmering cider, like the warmth of a fireplace. Memories of holidays come while sitting at my mental hearth, and the first flames to lick the logs are the memories of those cold nights in the barn.

Holiday traditions provide a continuity, a framework within which to gauge changes in the family. They’re like a magnifying glass in a way. You notice how the children are growing as over the years they filter into the “adult table” away from the “kids table.” You realize that people are married and are expanding their obligations when they’re missing because they’re with in-laws. And most especially you notice the voids, the empty spaces that people who have died used to fill. I think the reason that Christmas at my grandparents’ house, above all other traditions, is so important and special to me is because it alone constructed this framework.

Before my grandparents got carpet in the bedrooms, they had these oval-shaped purple rugs on the wood floors. Marla, TJ and I would slide around the floor on those and play like the wood floor was full of alligators—one could only get around my maneuvering the purple rugs. I remember running around the living room in stocking feet, my cousins and I, building up static electricity from the carpet and sticking our feet on people to give them a shock. My uncle Dale's bald head was particularly susceptible to this abuse, and we were maniacally amused by this. My uncle must have seen us as a pack of wild dogs; we were, at times, unbridled. But I remember several years where we did arts and crafts all day and then in the evening had a little bazaar and my aunts all came and looked our crafts over and bought everything for a nickel or a dime. And sometimes we did little skits for them or sang songs.

Another occasional winter past-time (when there was adequate snow) was sledding. Nebraska style. There were no hills on the farm suitable for sledding. So what we did instead was tie a sled or two to the back of the pickup truck at the end of a long rope and one of the more fiendish members of the family drove the truck around in the hayfields. This activity was very much like water skiing (or other speedboat-led water toys). But here it consisted of some poor slob connected by a rope to an engine driven by someone intent on getting the "rider" to crash by cutting very sharp corners and constantly changing directions and driving in circles, and when the driver finally succeeds in "dumping" the rider, all the passengers laugh and cheer and then the driver has to come around and pick up the rider for another go-around. When I was real young, Grandpa did the driving. Since we were young, he drove relatively calmly; however, he happened to know that most of us grandkids were scared of the cows and especially the bulls. So I can only imagine how thoroughly amused he was to drive us through the cow pasture, slowing way down as we approached a cluster of cows. So not only were we irrationally frightened that the cows would attack us or chase us, but were also extra worried about falling off the sled since the "active" pasture was full of "active" cow pies.

When we got older, uncle Roger took over the driving. He kept us away from the cows, but he drove with single intent: to dump us off the sled. It's a kind of brutal fun that I always found just hilarious: You're out there on that little disk holding on for absolutely all that you're worth, Roger’s driving about 45 mph, and when you finally can't hold on anymore and crash, you go flying across the field in all manner of catapulting, somersaulting, flipping, and logrolling ways (which is why it's so fun to ride in the back of the pickup watching the sledders). The next day, bruised, battered and aching, I wonder why I insist on doing such things.  And when there's two sleds hooked up, there’s the possibility of crashing into each other. One year instead of the little disks, we hooked up the front hood of an old car upside down, so two people sat on the same "sled."

Occasionally there would be ice skating, either on the creek behind my aunt and uncle's house or on my other grandparents' lake. I remember spending hours at a time out on the lake.

Ice skating on my grandparents' lake (me on right). Floyd and Arlene Sinor Twin Lakes Villa, Cozad, Nebraska.

Then one year, quite unexpectedly, came The Christmas of Infamy. The Christmas my cousins and I secretly hoped would repeat itself. The mother of all Christmases. All circumstances were just right and much to my dismay, could never be duplicated. It all started with football and schnapps. The men of the family began the afternoon watching the Denver Broncos play a team I don't remember. The Lions maybe? Well anyway, they decided they'd have a drink each time the Broncos scored. But the scoring wasn’t very high, and while they perhaps weren't looking to get drunk, they at least wanted a taste or two of the schnapps. So they changed it to a drink every time any team scored. Then somewhere along the way (and it's always here, in the nebulous “somewhere along the way” zone that the magic ingredients for an incident of rarity get thrown in), they began drinking for every first down. And it might have gotten even worse; I lost track at the first downs.

By the end of the game the men were out and out drunk. And these four men provided the critical mass to send the whole family and the whole event of Christmas into utter chaos. Somehow once they stepped over the line, everyone else fell like dominoes. The women thought, well if the men are sauced, we should have something to drink, too. And then the kids thought, well if all the adults are sauced, they won't even notice us drinking. And so it went. So by the time dinner rolled around, no one was willing or indeed capable of putting it on in traditional fashion. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t (don’t) drink, but had just as much fun as everyone playing along with the silliness … for it’s their sense of humor that’s genetically installed in their progeny.

Normally we had two tables set up to accommodate 18 people. One table (half of the seating) had been set up before the drinking started, and when dinner time approached, no one felt like putting up the other table and setting it. So we decided to eat in shifts using just the one table. We wrote out numbers and everyone drew from a hat. Numbers 1 through 9 got to eat first and they got clean tableware. Numbers 10-18 would eat second and had to use the same tableware as the first shift—no clean dishes or silverware. (My grandparents do not have a dishwasher, hence the aversion to “doing” dishes.) Then one of the men decided that since we were running such a first class joint here, no one could eat unless they had a tie on. Well, few people had an actual tie with them, so there was a mad scramble to create one. Several people fashioned one out of toilet paper. One of my uncles got the most laughs when he came parading around with one of grandma's bras dangling from his neck.

So once we all had ties, the first shift sat down to eat. The second shift stood around the table wailing out Christmas carols. Then when it was the second shift's turn, we turned out the lights and lit the big candle wreath in the middle of the table in hopes the dim light would lessen the second shift's cognizance that they were eating out of dirty dishes. You may be thinking by now what disgusting pigs we were. But wait. When second shift was done, two of my uncles came around the table with a big coffee tin, which is what my grandma stores the cookies she bakes in. They set something on the table in front of everyone saying this was a special dessert. In the dim candlelight everyone was intrigued by this new dessert, a departure from our traditional ones. One or two people tried to cut into theirs with knife and fork. And then a terrific shriek pierced the air and my mom fell out of her chair in near hysterics. Somebody hit the light switch then and we all realized that everyone had in front of them a frozen road apple, "fresh" from the corral. (I.e., if you don’t know, a horse turd.) Low-brow humor is somehow always the funniest, and it's hard to say whether or not the whole entire family has ever been simultaneously so convulsed with laughter as we were then. The little house heaved with our revelry.

Christmas had disintegrated into complete madness. We dispensed with the usual polite package-opening ritual and when all the packages were opened, immediately launched into a wrapping paper fight. At one point I remember we were playing frisbee with the lid to the ice bucket, and if you didn’t catch it, you had to do several pushups. I remember a couple of my uncles received decoy ducks (for hunting) as gifts and were sitting there quacking to each other.

Coarse and even a bit shocking, and yet this is what I perceive as innocence—launching into the moment just for the sheer exhilaration of the madness you're creating. Like when you're a kid and you run down the street as fast as you can waving your arms in the air like a maniac. Like when you plead, "chase me," and then you're running and screaming for all you're worth. There's no thought to the future, whether you'll regret it or not. There's only now. These are the moments I love. They just happen. They spring from the background of our normal lives with pure and vibrant colors.

[Our family was always full of pranks and silliness. I don't remember Grandma ever initiating any of these, but she was always a good sport, always laughing. After all the grandkids were grown, we stopped exchanging normal presents at Christmas and had a "white elephant" pass-around instead, which also led to a lot of laughter. Grandma and Grandpa ended up with a lovely pair of noses one year.] 

Grandma and Grandpa wearing fake noses at Christmas.

Then there was the year of the outhouse. Grandma and Grandpa finally bought the house they’d been living in for over forty years, and Grandma said what she wanted for Christmas now was another bathroom. Unbeknownst to Grandma, Grandpa had blueprints drawn up for a multi-room addition to the south side of the house that included a bathroom. But Grandma had really only asked for a bathroom, so her two sons decided that’s what she was going to get. This prank had to have been the most large-scale one ever pulled off in the family. Everyone was in on it except Grandma. Uncle Roger obtained an old wooden outhouse from someone in the area, and during the course of Christmas Eve, it was trucked into the back yard and set down, decorated and filled with presents.

Grandma is always in the kitchen after dinner doing dishes and putting food away. But since the kitchen is adjacent to the backyard, we had to keep her out of there. My cousins and I were charged with this duty. We all jumped up after dinner and volunteered to do all the dishes (that had to have been mighty suspicious). Grandma kept trying to come into the kitchen, but my aunts kept pulling her away with some excuse or another, convincing her to let the grandkids do some work. And us grandkids were in there singing Christmas carols at the top of our lungs so Grandma couldn’t hear the truck. By prearrangement, everyone put their gifts to Grandma in a secret location (I don’t remember where) and then they were taken out and put in the outhouse, which was then furnished with a fur-lined seat and a scandalous poster of a male model, and was wrapped in a giant red ribbon.

The hardest part of the prank was watching everyone open all their gifts while poor Grandma didn’t get a single one. There were several that were addressed to “Grandma and Grandpa” but none for just Grandma. And Grandpa kept opening one after another for him. Grandma must have felt hurt, but you wouldn’t ever know it. Then after all the presents under the tree were opened, we told Grandma she had a gift waiting for her out back. And when she walked out the back door and saw the outhouse, she laughed so hard she almost peed her pants. Then she opened the door to find the inside piled with gifts. What a great moment. We had such a good laugh. And of course, at the very end of it all, she found out she was getting a real, honest bathroom and a whole new addition.

Grandma's Christmas present, a brand new outhouse!Grandma laughing at her Christmas present, a new bathroom!

There were always pranks of one sort or another being played on someone or another. As kids, my cousins and I were always switching the salt and sugar and other similar foods. I remember one particularly amusing little joke Marla and I played once on her mom, aunt Peggy. Peg was out of the house and—who knows where we came up with the idea—we decided to decorate the house with her bras. Turns out she had quite a number of them. So we draped them all over the Christmas tree so it was just covered with bras, then put a few others around the house, hanging from various other decorations, and finally a bra and pair of her underwear on a little reindeer she had standing in the front lawn. Then we sat back and giggled. When Peggy came home she shrieked. She couldn't help but laugh, but she was mortified because (little did we know) she was expecting company in a very short while.

The prank for which I am most infamous, though, is the Elephant Ball Scandal. I've never understood why I alone have suffered all the blame. Perhaps because I was the eldest of the three thieves. Or perhaps unbeknownst to me my two accomplices betrayed me and portrayed me as some kind of mastermind of the whole operation. I suppose I shall never know. ...  The incident was simply this: "Elephant balls" are like homemade Reese’s peanut butter cups, only even yummier, and they have always been the piece de resistance of my grandma's Christmas cookies. One year, when we were teenagers, Marla, TJ and I "broke in" to the storage closet at the beginning of Christmas Eve and stole the whole lot of them.

It was a beautifully executed robbery. One person was stationed at the door of the closet as a lookout. One person went outside and the third person handed the elephant balls out through the window to the outside person who stashed them in Marla's car. We then came up with a legitimate excuse for the three of us to leave the house and drove the loot over to Marla's house and hid it there. We were even smart enough to prevent double-crossing within the group by making sure the person stationed outside didn't have keys to a car, so they couldn't drive off with the loot for themselves.  Back at the "hideout," the three of us laughed ourselves silly (partially, I'm sure, from being on such a sugar high, having eaten so many balls), but it would appear that we blackened everyone else's Christmas joy with our hooliganism—everyone was upset at the loss of the favorite Christmas treat. Had I died within the next few months after that, I'm quite sure my cheap little cross would have been emblazoned with the spare words, "Here Lies an Elephant Ball Thief."

Every year we drove into town to see the Hart’s house. A couple on the edge of town spent months each year decorating their yard, and people came from all over to see it. They kept a guest book for people to sign and a bucket full of candy canes. They truly were part of the spirit of Christmas. It took them literally a couple months to put up and take down all the decorations for each Christmas. They supplied countless candy canes over the years, and I can only imagine the monstrosity of their electric bill. But they derived their joy from the joy of others in seeing their creation. As a small child, going to their house was truly a magical tradition; I loved it. Even as an adult, after seeing it so many times, I still enjoyed going—it really brings out the kid in a person, seeing all those lights.

I’m sure my parents dreaded the end of the Christmas holiday as much as I did, for they would inevitably have to deal with my begging and pleading to stay longer. Please just another day or two or three in Nebraska. Please just a little longer. But it always had to come to an end.

These are my own Christmas memories from the farm; my mother’s childhood Christmas memories from that farm are of hamburgers and soda pop for dinner—a big treat (apparently they didn’t normally eat hamburgers). It seems so funny now, but the piece de resistance of her childhood Christmases was store-bought ice cream—they thought it was much yummier than homemade ice cream! And they got oranges and nuts, and a puzzle they all put together. My grandparents’ childhood Christmases were even sparser. Grandma still recalls the thrill she had when one year she received a rag doll for Christmas—a major event.

As the holiday season draws nigh each year, I find myself thinking equally about the current, upcoming Christmas and those of the past. So many bright, shiny moments, tiny ships drifting along the tides of my memory. Each winter they are plucked from the ever growing sea of my past, put into small glass bottles and hung delicately and joyously as ornaments on my personal, internal Christmas tree.

We still have fun each year on the farm, and now there’s a new generation of children forming memories. But I think nothing will parallel for me my own childhood Christmases. I can still hear the Christmas Eve of my childhood. I can hear the many different voices, the laughing and shrieking, and my own voice bellowing out of the barn into the night, into the air which circles the globe. Perhaps by summer the air molecules that were pushed from my mouth as I sang Joy to the World, or that hovered near my heart as it beat in the cold, had made their way to my house in Colorado and drifted past my window. Perhaps by now they are over in Israel or Japan or Australia, and I will have spread Christmas joy around the world.

*

 

 

4. SUMMER

Summer was when I really got to know the farm. I went there every summer growing up, each subsequent stay being longer than the last. So much time on my hands to wander about, to explore, to play. In my mind I can conjure up immediately the summer sun, the hot dirt soft as powdered sugar, the dirty irrigation water, the suffocating humidity. It was over the course of the summers that I really began to love the farm and each summer the tether between us grew stronger, until it became attached to me like a limb. Even after I left to go back home, the farm stayed a part of me. Summer was a garden of flowers, fruits and vegetables. While at the farm, the vegetables grew plump and ripe and colorful. Then they were harvested, cut off the stalk, the memories brought back home to savor throughout the fall and ultimately to miss and pine for through the winter and spring.

I slept in my mother’s bedroom, which she had shared with her two sisters, in my grandparents’ house. At night I went to sleep with the window open to the muggy night. I listened to the sound of large, flying bugs being zapped in the light outside. In the morning, my grandpa woke me up by lifting the end of the blanket and tickling my feet.

I can still hear Grandma’s radio playing as we ate breakfast. In those days Grandpa was up early doing various chores around the farm. Grandma waited for me to get up then fixed me breakfast. I have tried for years to simulate Grandma’s pancakes to no avail. Church came over the radio on Sundays. On weekdays there was a local program that was very popular, listeners could win money through some little contest they had. There was Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” Sunday afternoons Grandpa came in to the living room and sat in his chair to listen to polka music on the radio. Grandpa’s chair was his throne and he sat there and nowhere else, and any interlopers would be expelled.

When I was a child I was mostly only there with others of my cousins. So we’d do things together as a group. We’d get the little swimming pool out, we’d run or ride bicycles up over the little hill formed by the cellar, and I recall of particular fun was trying to get on top of and sit astride the propane tank. In the fall we loved playing in the corn crib among the hard kernels of corn. We climbed on the tractors and machinery in the shop. For many years the old outhouse remained beside the shop and we peeked in it with fascination.

And of course there were always horses to ride. Grandpa would saddle up the horses for us. I can remember distinctly just the way grandpa said “whoa” to the horses in a low, gentle voice. I loved feeding the horses despite my fear they would bite my hand with their big teeth.

Horses on my grandparents' farm, Clarence and Beulah Maack farm, Cozad, Nebraska. 1980s.Horses on my grandparents' farm, Clarence and Beulah Maack farm, Cozad, Nebraska. 1980s.

There was a hollowed-out tree trunk next to the house where momma kitties frequently had their babies. Against Grandma’s warnings, we just couldn’t resist reaching in to touch and hold the tiny balls of fur. To our distress, this often prompted the momma to move her kittens somewhere more secret.

There was an old, broken-down, abandoned house half a mile down the road from my grandparents’ house. I wasn’t used to seeing abandoned houses in the middle of an area of lived-in houses, so as a kid that house had a particular air of mystery about it. Grandma tried to keep me out of it by repeated warnings of rattlesnakes. It worked pretty well.

But the real fun started in my early teens. I started staying in Cozad by myself (meaning, independent of the rest of my cousins or parents) in the summers, and I experienced a metamorphosis on the farm. At home I was locked in a cocoon of shyness and timidity; I was reluctant to interact with the world. But my adolescent struggles to define myself became wrapped around the shape of the farm. Cozad was a wonderful isle of exile from the fears and reluctance at school and home. And it led to me forming a two-pronged self, which only several years later would fully integrate into one.  

For those teenaged years, I really experienced the farm, felt its rhythms and melodies and interacted with my world. When I go back there now, I’m too analytical, I have too many thoughts about the farm and heritage to be able to just experience it very well. As a child I experienced more the comradeship of my cousins. As a teenager, though, I just lived in the moment and felt the farm from day to day.

What Cozad really did for me was provide another life. I was afforded a dizzying freedom from my usual self. Summers there were not just a vacation, but my other life—other friends, other activities. At home I felt like a nobody, but in Cozad I had special status as “the visitor.” People seemed to like me, even boys seemed interested in me. I felt like a novelty because I was from Colorado. I was a shiny penny when I lived on the farm. This is primarily how Cozad ingrained itself into my psyche, I think: by virtue of providing the stage for me to have another life, another me—a me that I truly liked. There are two spheres of importance into which the farm falls. One is the aspect of family history and roots and heritage, and the other is my own personal history, the making of my own self.

I can remember so clearly lying at night in the little bed, alone but not alone, away from everything that knew me, but not from everything I knew. I had already, through my childhood, come to be familiar with the structures of the farm, its physical self—the house, the yard with its tall and hollowed out trees, the barn and hayloft, the corral, the pastures and corn and hay fields, the shop, the pig and chicken houses, the irrigation ditches and the flume—then as a teenager I became familiar with life on the farm. I was much more observant of its rhythms and even participatory; sometimes I helped set water, on at least one occasion I cleaned out the barn, and did other various chores. Before my cousin Marla could be set free to be my partner in crime, we always had to tip mounds of beans from aunt Peggy’s garden.

I seems like practically every day Marla and I relieved the pressure of the heat in the irrigation ditches. Usually we went to the flume north of her house, but for a while we had a giant inner tube from the rear wheel of a tractor, and we would take this to the ditch behind my grandparents’ house. It took two people to carry the inner tube, and when TJ was with us, we’d all three carry it on our shoulders. It was endless fun to try and get all three of us standing on the inner tube at the same time. Marla and I eventually got pretty efficient at standing on it just the two of us, locking arms across the middle. As soon as we were both up, then we’d start singing songs to see how far we could get through a song before falling off the inner tube. There was endless comedy in this, but I recall the efforts of three of us to be considerably more hilarious and unsuccessful. We’d come home with red legs from the stinging nettles we had to climb through to get out of the ditch.

Occasionally we’d go over to my other grandparents’ place and swim in one of their lakes. My grandpa had two lakes built on his property and called their modest estate “Twin Lakes Villa.” My grandpa was the first one in the area to build a swimming pool in their yard, built at their other house where my dad grew up. My dad has said that if he learned one thing from his dad it was not to be afraid of trying something new and different. So after his success with the swimming pool, Grandpa had the lakes dug. They had a paddle boat and we’d take it out to the middle of the lake with inner tubes. I always swam with the lurking fear of snapping turtles and the great gobs of moss that could grab your legs from beneath. Even now I dream of horrors lurking in their lakes (which are sometimes turned into swimming pools in my dreams).

But by and large, the flume was the focal point of summers. It consisted of a concrete half-pipe stretching over a valley like a bridge, and over the top was a wooden walkway supported by beams spaced every few feet down the length of the pipe. The concrete had become mossy and slick and the water pressure was great enough by narrowing down from the wide irrigation ditch into the narrower pipe that if you jumped in upstream (wearing tennis shoes), the water would just push you along through the pipe. When it was running high, we ran off the plank and took a flying jump into the water so that we’d be far enough away from the flume’s entrance to not be immediately sucked into it. The water pushed at our backs and we ducked our heads under the water to make it underneath the first cross plank, where the water surged up. Then the water would just push us along through the pipe. [These pics are from 2007 when the family was all back in Cozad for Grandma's 90th birthday. Of course we had to go to the flume! My husband took the pics of me.]

Flume in my aunt and uncle's pasture. Cozad, Nebraska.

We’d lay out on the walkway tanning until we got too hot, then we’d run down the wooden planks and jump off into the cool water. If there were several of us up there, we’d often come through all together, linked to one another in a train.  Pretty much all of us cousins have some especially particular experience with the flume. My brother once, when the flume was running high, hit his head on the end beam and had to have stitches. We still laugh about the time Shelley took a poop in the ditch, thinking it would be inconspicuous, only to have the little brown log pop up to the surface and bob along the water until it drifted out of sight. I’ll never forget the time TJ clawed her way upstream back through the flume, beam by beam. Marla and I gave up about half way, but TJ, who was the scrawny little one least likely to complete such a task, kept at it, her little arms red and scraped from the beams until she reached the other end. I felt that was a momentous occasion for her.

But from the time we were old enough to swim the flume alone, it was our place, a sanctuary, a reward, for me and Marla, and TJ when she was around. It was our clubhouse. Others came around from time to time, but primarily it was ours. It seems to me now that we went there every single day in the summers, for the weeks that I spent there on the farm spinning around like a top between my grandparents and Marla and my aunt and uncle, and accumulated friends. But maybe it wasn’t every day; I can’t tell now.

We climbed the metal gate, walked a stretch of pasture, and crawled under or hopped over the electric fence. Grasshoppers and locusts flew around in a scattered chorus of summer, parting the heavy, still air with their wings, bringing the heavy, still air to our attention.

The creek ran below, through the undulating pasture. In the winter we ice-skated up its length to the house where my grandfather was born. For a long time, it was the only place in Nebraska I thought was actually pretty, that gentle creek, those banks of butter through which it sank in soft and secret babbles.

We sunbathed along the narrow plank, lying head to toe, talking about whatever mumbo jumbo teenagers talk about—it’s hard to remember now—or we lay still and quiet, or we sang the songs on the Top 40 list, or sometimes made up or our own songs. Then when we couldn’t take the muggy heat anymore, we sprang up and ran down the plank, yelling silly phrases as we sailed off the end into the smelly water. “Cowabunga!”

We pushed sticks and large debris out of the way before ducking under the plank. One time we mistook a snake for a stick. Sometimes we held unto the edge of the long plank, which stuck out into the ditch a little ways beyond the first cross plank, for as long as we could, letting the water build up behind us until we couldn’t hold on any more and then slipped under into the flume. When the flume was running high, only our heads were above the water in the small space between the water’s surface and the bottom of the cross planks.

Entering the flume in my aunt and uncle's pasture. Cozad, Nebraska.In the middle of the flume in my aunt and uncle's pasture. Cozad, Nebraska.

Then we were shot out of the flume but were still pushed forward so that we had to immediately stand up straight and wrench ourselves out of the current to the side where we could climb out on the cement wall that extended 20 feet or so past the end of the flume, putting our palms on top of it and pushing ourselves up with our arms until we could lift a leg onto the wall. Sometimes the current was so strong we were carried out past the cement wall and had to scale the vertical bank of the irrigation ditch by pulling on the weeds or the outstretched hand of a cousin. [The metal grate extending to the right did not used to be there.]

Shot out the end of the flume in my aunt and uncle's pasture. Cozad, Nebraska. I successfully went through with a beer!

We were warned by uncle Roger not to swim further down the ditch because there was a grate a little ways down and we’d get stuck against it, the force of the water drowning us against the metal bars.

We went through the flume facing forward and backward and sideways, in trains holding onto each other’s hips or shoulders, spinning in circles, and any other way we could think of. The water was thick and smelly and made us gag if we accidentally swallowed some. Sometimes at the front of the flume, before ducking into it, we could feel crawdads crunching beneath our feet.

My most notorious “flume incident,” when I was 16 or 17, actually had nothing to do with the water itself. After a night in town drinking a bit too much, my friend Todd drove me back “home” to Marla’s house, where I was spending the night. But somehow when we got there we ended up going to the flume instead. Subsequently, we lost track of time. I don’t even remember much about actually being at the flume except that I somehow got tangled up in the barbwire fence and cut my legs and that Todd forgot his hat there. The real bummer about the situation, and what turned it into an incident, was that we showed up at the house about an hour after curfew and incurred the unpleasant wrath of my uncle.

That was not a good summer for me and uncle Roger; a week or two later after the flume incident, a bunch of us (cousins and friends) were hanging out in his basement and got started jumping off the stairs onto uncle Roger’s bean bag at the bottom of the steps. Well, on my highest jump I landed feet first and burst the bean bag. That’s become a classic scene between me and my two cousins—we even have the event on cassette tape; for some reason we had a tape recorder going at the time and Marla was narrating my daring feats. So that moment lives on in infamy, through Marla’s strained voice, “Shara ... broke the bean bag!” And then the peals of laughter. Funny until I had to break the news to uncle Roger.

One of our favorite games to play -- Marla, TJ and I – was the card game “bullshit.” TJ, bless her heart, had no talent for this game of lying, and always ended up with a ridiculous number of cards in her hand. Once she had so many she had to lay them all out on the pool table. We’d laugh so hard she’d get the hiccups.

When I think back to those summer days, I remember so much laughter—side-splitting laughter. I look back and see myself as a toy top, whose string had been wound up all winter and spring, and as I stepped foot on the farm in the summer, the string was pulled free and I went spinning around deliriously the whole time I was there. Once, the three of us cousins spent the afternoon in the pasture behind the flume and laughed so hard that both of the other two peed their pants. I didn’t realize until then that it wasn’t just a phrase peopled used … it actually happened to people.

The nights I spent at my grandparents’ house, I would often wake in the morning to my feet being tickled by my grandpa. Grandpa and I were worse than two little kids, and incessantly battled each other in various wrestling matches, much to my grandma’s vexation. The most common things I’d start a match about were his dirty fingernails or his baggy pants. The most common things he’d start a match over were how much chapstick I used or over cutting my hair. Grandma would come in the room to find us wrestling each other with scissors or fingernail clippers, and utter the perpetual warning that someone was going to get hurt.

One day when he gave me a hard time about putting chapstick on, I said that his lips were too dry and we got into a match as I tried to put some on his lips. As my chapstick was getting demolished in the battle, I said, “OK fine, I won’t try to put chapstick on you, but your lips are so chapped that I’m just going to have to cut them off.” And I went and got a paring knife as a joke. But Grandpa wrestled me with the knife for awhile, and I finally got hurt. Grandma humphed at the inevitable and gave Grandpa a deadly look. Grandpa and I snickered about it, as we thought it had been a rather hilarious fight. One thing about our wrestling matches—Grandpa never let me win, so the few times I did win were all the more enjoyable because I knew it was a genuine triumph.

I liked this a lot about our relationship and I think it gave me a bit of spunk, or at least that’s what other people say I have … something I absolutely did not have before spending so much time on the farm. 

Grandpa and I never rested from our shenanigans, dear Grandma always trying to settle us down. The dinner table was a particularly favorite arena for us. I can’t believe Grandma actually continued to serve peas for dinner after all the times we flicked them at each other. Grandpa and I were always messing up each other’s food, trying to pepper the other’s jello or something like that. Poor Grandma tried to put up with and discipline us, but one day when Grandpa and I started throwing spaghetti at each other, she just threw in the towel and picked up a fistful of pasta. She missed Grandpa and the spaghetti went splat on the wall and stuck there. We all laughed so hard. I’ll never in my life forget that.

[Grandma put up with so much being married to my grandpa, whom she often referred to as "an ornery ol' cuss," and then bearing children, especially her boys, who were just about as ornery, and then some grandkids like me who carried it on. For example, my uncle Gary and I got into a big cake fight with Grandma's lovely cake at her 90th birthday celebration. Bless her, she just laughed.]

Grandpa was always making me laugh. He’d say the most off-the-wall things in a perfectly serious manner. He once tried to tell me that after his tractor accident all the skin came off his butt (I think this part is true, he was burned with battery acid), and he used it to patch his boots. Butt-skin boots. Even now half the things he says to me, I have to ask, “Are you serious?”

He used to insist to me that he was magic: The light in the kitchen used to be finicky about turning on, and grandpa would reach up and touch it saying, “hocus pocus,” and then it would turn on.

Grandpa and Grandma really endeared themselves to me during these summers. They were not at all like any other grandparents I knew of. Because of their candidness with me and the way we could joke and play around together, I thought they were so cool, even as a teenager, when most kids are embarrassed by their elders. Even now, if Grandpa is in the room, it doesn't matter who else is there, I always gravitate toward him. One of my best memories is him swinging me around the dance floor at my wedding. 

 

Marla and I would often go out at night and catch lightning bugs and put them in a jar with holes in the lid and bring them inside, set them by the bed. I remember one morning waking up horrified to find the jar tipped over and the lid off. The bugs were crawling all over our blanket and the floor. The only reason I could catch and handle those bugs was because in the dark I couldn’t see what they really looked like—they were just flashes of light. But it gave me the heebie-jeebies to see them in daylight.

I’ve always been a bit prissy about critters other than cute, furry mammals. Crawdads were also seriously creepy. I could swim in the irrigation ditches fine because, although I could sometimes feel them crunching under my blind tennis-shoed feet, I couldn’t see them. They taught me, though, how predictable, how constant some factors are in farming . There are always crawdads in the irrigation pipes. They’re a constant drumbeat in the farm’s rhythm. At first I was horrified at the crawdads stuck in the pipes, and at the notion of having to deal with them. Remove the sock, hammer open the hatch door and let the crawdad out.

I got used to doing this after awhile, and I was so happy with my liberation from my repulsion of them that I habitually went out and checked the pipes near my grandparents’ house just for the fun of it. It always struck me, though, the irony of their freedom coming at my revulsion. That their freedom was of value to them, was completely incidental. When I was in college I took a religious studies class and the professor described the mentality of the Old Testament as a giant waterworks or plumbing system for how to keep world order. I oft wondered, what if individual salvation and eternal life is in fact available, but it’s completely incidental. What if we’re all just flowing through these huge pipelines of life and some of us happen to get stuck halfway through a window, and as a matter of chores a god opens the hatch and some of us go flying through to the other side.

The most terrifying thing, however, that I had to deal with on the farm was ... cue dramatic music: dun dun dun … the shower. Down in the dark, creepy, cement basement, it was perpetually inhabited by big, black spiders. Whatever progress I made with lightning bugs and crawdads, I remain an incurable arachnophobic. For many years I avoided the shower and took baths instead and washed my hair in the sink. But by about my mid teens when I started going out a lot at nights with my cousin and friends, that routine really became impractical. So I learned to venture into the shower. I would scout out where all the spiders were and then take extreme precautions not to get any shampoo or soap into my eyes so that I could keep them trained on the spiders the whole time to make sure they didn’t leap from their webs and land on me. I’m sure it sounds silly and trite to most people, but these confrontations with creepy crawly critters were major hurdles and subsequently major accomplishments for me in my continuing adolescent struggle to emerge from my cocoon of fear of the world.

Grandpa had an old yellow Honda 90 motorcycle. As kids, Marla would ride the 3-wheeler and I the motorcycle. Around and around the hay fields we’d go. When the hay was cut in rows, they were like highway lanes. We’d play cops and robbers, chasing each other around the hayfields, mimicking the siren on the cop vehicle. Some days I rode until I had blisters between my thumb and forefinger from holding onto the handle grip all day.

Grandpa appeared to believe strongly in the power of the potato. (He used to pick them for work in younger days.) He was always telling me that my scrawniness was due to a lack of potatoes.  He said he’d give me free reign of the Honda when I could lay it down gently on the ground and lift it back upright again. To which I replied (exasperated), “But it’s really heavy.” To which he replied, “Well, eat your potatoes.” So I did, and eventually I got the keys to the bike.

I always looked forward to the kitties and the horses, especially when there were colts. The kitties I loved with all my heart. There were several litters of kittens throughout my childhood, and it was sheer joy to behold and to pet those tiny little critters. Feeding time was always fun to witness, when Grandma brought the slop pail outside and the kitties ran in from all over. For awhile when I was older they had “mad kitties.” When Grandma brought the slop pail out, the kitties would get so frantic running around in circles that they would bump into Grandma’s legs and run into each other.

Most of the time growing up, I took the farm in through the eyes of fun and entertainment. I have so many priceless memories. But there were times when I walked over the cellar that I thought of the tornadoes I’d heard the stories of. There were times walking the fields when I thought of Grandpa lying there beneath the tractor, the battery acid eating into him. I knew there were sorrows lingering in the air. There were times when I imagined my mom playing in the yard and looked up the road to the spot where she was born, where only a broken-down old barn remains. And I believe the reason I have such a close attachment to the farm is because not only is it the home of my grandparents’ stories and the home of the mom’s stories, but the home of so many of my own most favorite stories as well. It was the home of my favorite self, the me I really liked who did such fun things. Never a summer goes by that I don’t reminisce about those days of my youth when summer was not just a season, not just a measure of time, but a place, a farm, and a huge, laughing gulp of dusty air.

*

 

 

 5. MUD

Out of the ooze, out of the ancient boggy tidal waters, came our ancestor “the snout.” In the form of a mud-wallowing, gasping, ugly fish, our brain first took its hemispheric shape; we gasped for air and struggled to propel ourselves with our weak, stumpy fins across the mud—our first steps upon a new world hitherto unseen, a world who’s vastness could never have been comprehended.

I have an affinity for this triumphant little character. He emerged into a larger world through the same medium as I: mud. And he was just as incognizant of the rewards as I was. He could never have dreamed from his muddy little beach of the mountains and meadows that were nevertheless there, closer to him than to anyone else.

My empathy for the slimy little mudfish, gasping for oxygen, gasping to escape his watery prison, springs from the fact that I can trace my own emergence back to mud—the year the flume broke. The pictures reveal me with braces on; I was 14. This is an age at which most people are exploring and trying to assert their own identity, beginning to feel their place in the world as an individual, gain vision, shape their personality. The same for me, and I think that whole process began with a thunderous crack as concrete gave way under the pressure of tons of running irrigation water. The flume collapsed and water crashed down onto the valley floor, gouging out a hole the size of a house, and flooding the valley.

I consider my childhood not so much innocent as restrained. In retrospect I see myself as a wimpy, little hull of a child. I lived my life as if on a museum-house tour, passing through the halls but halted by ropes of red velvet, cut off from most of the rooms so I couldn’t interact with the furniture or see out of the windows anything but the monotonous sky. I had a fun and maybe even somewhat interesting childhood living in a neighborhood with lots of other kids surrounded by open space with streams and prairie dog fields, and backpacking every summer in the wilderness with my family. But I was still painfully shy and reserved. Except maybe when I was backpacking, I often interacted with the world not only from a distance behind the red ropes, but also through a clear glass that gave the illusion of a real interaction. The way that snout fish must have slunk just beneath the water’s surface, suspecting the world that wavered in the water’s distorted window, he must have seen the world like I did. He was too shy to jump into that world until suddenly one day out of the blue, he sprang from the vast cage of the ocean onto a little patch of water-free mud – perhaps the tide simply receded further than it ever had before that day -- and there in all his glory he wheezed and gasped, poor unlikely hero. But what an epiphany his tiny little brain must have suffered.

My mud-caked incident happened at a critical juncture in my life, as I was passing from one phase into another, and it altered my behavior and sense of self radically. It was just a simple experience and yet its consequences still echo through my life today. It was really the timing that was key—it happened at the right time to affect a turning point. When I look back at myself prior to that point I merely look back on memories, but it’s more like opening a glass cabinet and looking at them on display and having to reach out to feel them. But after that point I can pull memories up from within and they fit into the internal framework of what I conceive of as myself.

When I arrived on the farm for my summer visit, the flume had been repaired and now the torrid Nebraska summer heat began to suck the water up out of the flooded valley, slowly, slowly over numerous days, leaving for a few, a valley of thick, deep, gelatinous mud. We came to look at the flume in our shorts and shirt, my cousin, Marla, and I. Since I had just arrived in Nebraska, I wanted to survey the damage. We began walking down into the valley to get underneath the flume and began sinking steadily into the mud, ankle deep, then shin deep, knee deep, and then whah! One leg sunk and sunk until I was in mud almost to my waist. I panicked and tried to pull my leg up. I floundered as if for my life from quick mud. Then it stopped. My leg wasn’t going to sink forever, just half-way up my thigh.

Well, I can’t now recall the exact sequence of events that followed. I don’t recall the transition away from fear and repulsion (for thigh-deep mud whose water element is irrigation water and land element is used as a cow pasture, lying still under the midsummer sun is, for most senses, repulsive). But soon we were sprinting to the house to put on swimsuits. Then we sprinted back and launched off the valley wall into the mud, like we were jumping into water. We explored the whole valley and immersed ourselves in all the different textures of mud. Some was thin and soupy, other was more thick and gelatinous. We sat in it up to our necks, and rolled in it like hogs. We threw great globs at each other and matted it into our hair.  When we sat still in the mud, quietly lounging in the tranquil, wooded valley -- the buzz of the locusts and grasshoppers surrounded us, and the occasional bird twittered. We pretended we were at a health spa having a mud bath. We tried to swim in the soupy mud like it was water, and with the thicker mud we tried to mold it into various objets d’art.

We were like wood nymphs in the little valley playing and romping so sweetly in the horrible, smelly muck. In the wood, wrote Emerson, is perpetual youth. In the bottom of that wooded valley it was like we had found the very spring of it.

We found one particularly thick batch up against the slope of the valley wall, the wall being fairly solid so that we could climb uphill a bit and launch ourselves in a belly flop, arms splayed out like airplane wings, down onto the thick mud, where we’d hit with a thud, mud splashing up onto our faces, and hydroplane across the slick surface. What hilarious fun that was. I’m sure I can’t even remember now all the silly things we found to do in that playground of mud.

It lasted for about three days until it began to harden up too much to really play in it. We’d come back to the house those three days caked in mud from head to toe, our swimsuits so full of mud that the crotch hung down half way to our knees. And then aunt Peggy would get the garden hose and hose us off with the freezing cold water as best she could before we came in with chattering teeth to shower.

Me (right) and Marla caked in mud after the flume broke.

The exuberance of that experience changed and liberated me forever. My grandma told me years later that she couldn’t believe it when she saw me. She wasn’t surprised at my cousin, being a country girl, but me she was shocked at; me, always spit-spot clean, who up till then had been suspended in a cage of fear and timidity, locked behind the velvet ropes. Who would have thought that mud could fashion itself into a key? I threw open the doors and emerged into innocence. A look in the dictionary finds innocence defined in terms of silliness, foolishness, simplicity. These are the virtues into whose arms I fell as I belly flopped into the deep, fetid ooze. My shell of mud was too thick to let in convention, reservation or fear. After all these years, the purity of that experience still resonates within me. On that day I got my first meaningful notions of how I wanted to shape my own future, my own essence.

The farm subsequently became not just the usual playhouse, but an island of adventure, a symbol of spontaneity and vibrancy. It became a haven for me to create a new self and it also served as the launch pad for this new self, where I could catapult into a new me.

For several years I wore the mud experience like a badge of merit. It was something I’d done that seemed truly unique and a bit crazy, and therefore admirable. I could point to it and say, “See, I’m not just a dull drone.”

Clarissa Estés calls the female psyche Wild Woman, with the word “wild” not used in its modern pejorative sense, meaning out of control, but in its original sense, which means to live a natural life. Estés says the words “wild” and “woman” cause women to remember who they are and what they are about, and that by naming the feminine psyche as such, we create for her a territory of thought and feeling within us. She puts forth that when women reassert their relationship with the wildish nature, they are gifted with many things, including a guide who will suggest and urge vibrant life in the inner and outer worlds. She claims that timidity, fears, reservations, and retreat into domesticity are because of severed links with Wild Woman. Wild Woman is intuition and freedom, the wild feminine. In her guts a woman knows there is a deadliness in being the too-sweet self for too long.

The mud was like a sour pill to counteract my too-sweetness. It follows me now like a faint shadow, always reminding me that I have unleashed Wild Woman and now must sustain her.

Estés talks about not letting the “too-good mother” control us for too long so that we become frail and scant; we need to take risks. That is exactly what I fear in my life now. I have to constantly check my pulse to make sure it’s beating hard enough, to make sure I’m always over the speed limit and always reaching out to something new.

She talks about not just choosing from what choices are right under your nose, but of looking inside yourself and asking, “what do I want to do,” and then seeking the path that your inner self is looking for, not limiting yourself to what the outside world presents to you, but exploring your inner self first and then going to the outside world to fulfill your wishes.

I have always been an incessant dreamer. Much of my childhood (and regrettably, even my adulthood) was spent gazing longingly into my imagination. I always wished for adventure and a life out of the ordinary. But after the mud, I began to realize that I had the power to create, in reality, the life I wanted. I realized that a fun life did not have to be left to a matter of uncontrollable circumstances such as being in the right place at the right time, but rather it depended on a frame of mind to be free and open enough to mold outside circumstances into whatever adventure I wanted.

I had emerged into a new world, crawled up onto a muddy beach whose potentials I could hardly guess. Before, I had been hiding beneath the surface, just like the little snout fish, aware of a larger world above me, seemingly unreachable. But after basking in the mud, I strove to define myself, to become a unique individual. I had vaulted above the murmur of everyday existence to hear a crystal clear note, a note that put me face to face with my own spirit.

I believe that my “unleashing of Wild Woman” could only have happened on the farm. In fact I think, at least at that age, the farm was the only place in which I could discover her, the only place where I could even perceive the hint that she existed. The entire nature of the farm had a wildish tint for me. Everything I did was a different experience, different from anything I did at home. Being on the farm was such a stark contrast to my suburban life at home, and I think that only a place so different from my usual environment could have facilitated first contact with Wild Woman.

I found this quote I had cut out in a pile of papers, but there is no source for it. So I don’t know what it came from. “Shepard goes on to note that a relationship exists between mind and terrain, an organic relationship between the environment and the unconscious, the visible space and the conscious, the ideas and the creatures. In the forest the visible space was sharply limited; in the prairie things opened up and we awoke. Was Shepard saying that during human evolution our minds expanded with the vista? I know my mind is more open and limber and without limits when I’m out in the wide open than when I’m in a confined space.” I would certainly argue that my mind expanded out on the farm, out of the suburban forest, on the open land and sky of the Great Plains. The farm’s wide vista was more than just space, it was also a wide vista of experience. I looked out upon both land and possibility. It was out there in the open that I began digging into the real meat of life and discerning the depth of the world and the depth of my own character.

A few years after the flume broke the road was being rebuilt outside my cousin’s house to flatten the grade so it no longer twisted and dipped into the valley. This process created great mounds of dirt and great big holes in the ground. One evening it began raining so hard that I couldn’t make it back to my grandparents’ house one mile away for supper. It rained so hard all evening that I had to spend the night; it was raining too hard to drive the pickup down the road a mile and back. When we woke up the next morning the rain had ceased and there lay, in the chilly gray morn, shining to us like hills of gold ... mud. Glorious mud! It was too much mud for the construction workers to be able to work. I was old enough then to understand the exhilaration of abandon, and to realize that to live without it was to ensure myself a slow suffocation. So remembering the futility of our sagging swimsuits last time, we came out of the house in only bathrobes, and shed them at the end of the driveway. We frisked about in the mud like we were cherubs, not crazy teenagers.

That day ended in a bit of a scandal when the construction workers came to survey the muddy mess, and saw us frolicking in the buff. The day the construction workers came back to work, while they were sitting down having lunch, we came out of the house to move the sprinkler on the front lawn, and they clapped at our appearance.

The skinny dipping experience was the first domino in a domino effect. A whole chain of skinny dipping hilarities and scandals befell me for the next several years. Again, a landscape of mud had become for me a key to open up further access to an even wilder woman.

There are many other things that I did in and around the farm, both by myself and in the social arena, that further facilitated communication with that wild spirit. A lot of defining moments in my teenage years took place there in Cozad. Of the many reasons why the farm is so prominent in my psyche, that has to be one of them: There I discovered, or uncovered, the parts of me that I now most cherish.

And it all started with mud.

*

 

 

6. DREAMS

I dream of the farm in so many colors, in so many shades. There is no single place, no single set of people that are more prominent in my dreams than the farm and my family who live there. I dream of its melancholy skies of brightest, blinding blue. I dream of the soft, hot dirt as fine as powdered sugar, the scent of the hay bales and how they feel on a frigid winter day, and of the brown, murky waters coursing through a network of irrigation ditches. I dream of the fur of the tiny, soft kittens that we found in the hollowed-out tree trunk, of the coarse fur of the momma kitties who moved their kittens after we touched them, of the velvet hide of the horses.

I dream of the twinkle of lightening bugs we caught in jars, of the twinkle in Grandpa’s eye when he was about to initiate some orneriness. I dream of breakfasts with Grandma, pancakes or chocolate donuts, while the radio plays news or church service.

The farm is so prominent in my psyche that my mind has chosen it as its favorite staging area to reveal its nightly visions and revelations. It’s like there’s a special reservoir in my head where the farm lies and infiltrates my thoughts in many different ways, and at night, asleep, smells and sounds, sights and memories seep into my dreamscape and form a special dream-farm, one that has continuity between dreams, but is a bit different than real life. My oft subconscious hopes, aspirations, fears and shortcomings show up on this internal farm, waiting for the cover of sleep to descend so they can creep into my dream-world. I wait out the day with impatience to visit my secret dream-farm where so many things are revealed. The dead come to visit me there—in the warmth of the darkness of sleep, we reunite; they have settled into the dream-farm, taken up residence, and whisper things to me that they never dare tell me in my waking. Perhaps it is because the farm was like a secret world to me even in my waking life, a world where I could assess and redefine myself, that it is so prominent in my secret dream life, where my mind continues to assess and reveal things about myself I might not otherwise suspect.

The dream farm is a contiguous, self-contained entity. There is cohesion between dreams—if something happens in one dream, it will often be reflected in subsequent dreams, and can even influence my course of action in the dream. So the dreams all relate to one another in some way. The real-life farm is so ingrained in my psyche that any change to it is immediately registered in some way on my dream farm. For example, one of the hallmarks of the farm is the oppressive summer heat, and my grandparents did not have an air conditioner. Finally in 2001, my mom told me one day that my grandparents received as a gift an air conditioner and that they installed it in the middle bedroom. Only a couple nights later, I dreamt that the whole family was at the house for some holiday occasion, and we were trying to squeeze a table and chairs for 20 people into that bedroom with the AC.

There are so many textures to the dreams of the farm. Silky, cloudy, velvet, raw, crushing, sharp ... With the farm as the backdrop, I’ve never had the same dream twice; I am always being shown new things. Sometimes I awake from whimsy, sometimes from a crushing profoundness. The farm is as prolific in my dream life as in my real life. Dreams that take place inside my grandparents’ house are usually about interpersonal relationships, either good or bad. Dreams outside in the yard or pasture or on the dirt roads have the broadest array of happenings and circumstances, not always involved in farming but very often so—there are often irrigation ditches to be dug, re-routed or fixed. The flume is always a vehicle of fun or of escape.

If a church is involved in a dream, it’s almost always the church in Cozad that my grandma attends. Most of the funeral services I’ve been to in my life have taken place in that church, as Cozad is the seat of both sides of my extended family. Maybe that’s why the dead always speak to me in Cozad.

In my dreams I’m very often walking on the gravel roads either going to or from my grandparents’ house, something I often did in reality. I liked to walk around the section (a 4-mile walk) to clear my many confusing teenage thoughts; I also liked to walk around to exercise my imagination—I’ve wasted so much time throughout my life enveloped in my imagination, but I allowed it guilt-free free reign while I walked the section.

My dream mind has conjured a cave which is always a secret from everyone but my family. In my dreamscape it’s just down the road from my grandparents’ house, and the opening is well hidden. It is large enough to grow crops in, and we have grown them on several occasions, hoping to live in there unseen by others, to grow and eat our crops and be self-sufficient.

Once when I was on the dream farm, a different massive cave existed. A red door sectioned off the main part of the cave from a little entry alcove. An enormous spider web of thick, golden threads covered the alcove; there was an egg sac right in front and I was petrified the spiders would hatch and bite me. The web was somehow a representation of my life and it was only in front of me (not behind). I wanted very, very much to go through the red door into the rest of the cave. I asked my dad if we could, but he said we had to wait for the rest of the dead people (my relatives) to arrive, then we could go in. My dead uncle moved very slowly and the anxiety was killing me as I sat in front of that red door, fearful of the spider sac.

I often dream of the flume, but it’s never the actual flume; instead, it’s a very convoluted metal tube, similar to a slide at a water park except that it’s flat and covers a significant bit of ground, and it’s also often more shallow than the real flume. Why is the flume especially prevalent in my dreams of the farm? My first jump into the real flume would have been a big deal (don’t remember my age), as I was for some time very scared of it. The water was so icky and smelly, and who knew what all floated in it; it seemed to be moving too fast—what if I was swept downstream all the way to Kansas in the current? And what if I didn’t duck down far enough at the exit and cut my eyebrow like my brother did? I actually don’t remember my first ride down the flume; I just remember all the pre-existing fears. But once I learned to enjoy the flume, the sheer number of times I went through must be an indicator of why I dream so often of it.

Once I dreamt that my family and I were vacationing in England except that it was the farm—they were somehow one and the same thing. We were not getting on the road to visit a castle fast enough to suit my brother, so he ripped a tire off the car and went over to the flume. The picture of him with a tire around his waist always cracks me up.

In one dream, I was riding in the back of Grandma and Grandpa’s pickup with my friend, Todd, and I was very volatile over many issues. He gave me a glass jar and said if I truly meant those things to throw the jar. I threw it immediately and it smashed against a tree. Then he gave me another jar with a white lid and said the same thing. I nearly threw it out again, but I got ahold of myself enough to realize I may have been acting irrationally. Todd, meanwhile, was running outside the pickup and falling behind, and the only thing I could think to do to save my sanity was to lay down on top of the jar.

Once I had a dream I was at my grandparents’ house, and I was putting away all of Grandma’s knick-knacks and noticed that the one I had given her was not there. I was very upset at the thought that Grandma didn’t like my knick-knack. Then somehow I got trapped underneath a piece of glass, I believe I was trapped under a coffee table. I was petrified I would suffocate beneath the glass and tried calling for help but could not make any sounds. I was actually in reality sleeping at my grandparents’ house at the time, in the little bed. It was Christmas, and I awoke to my mom staring intently down at me—she had been drawn by the terrified look on my face.

In retrospect, the meaning or significance of a dream often seems so obvious and transparent. But then there are the ones that just seem completely nutty. Once I dreamed that aunt Peggy had this huge, gargantuan thing for a washing machine. It took up the entire living room wall and consisted of a massive tub thing (green tile) with different compartments and a conveyor belt that carried the clothes through the machine. Water was being supplied just by gushing from overhead pipes in the ceiling. This whole thing was an absolute monstrosity, but Peggy insisted it was more water-efficient than a regular washing machine.

In general, though, dreams are a more serious matter and are given a sacred title, different cultures assigning them varying degrees of importance and sanctity. Often, shamans dream to gain their power. Dreams are an integral part of vision questing, and many cultures attach great significance to dreams. Dreams are portals to the soul. Most of my dreams of the farm are like visions and I revere them—they tell me who I am (for good or bad), what barriers I’ve crossed and which I need yet to cross, and most important of all, they tell me where I belong.

Dreams of the farm are like an inkwell into which I must periodically dip the pen that draws my inner life, my inner map. It’s like a gas station I have to stop at now and then to refuel. The dream farm is so vivid, and the visions it hosts have a heavier feel than those of other dreams. These dreams are so velvety blue or red, sometimes I awake with the taste of color in my mouth. While dreams of the farm are certainly more prevalent, are they more profound than my other dreams? It’s hard to say—they would first have to be deciphered, and that’s only sometimes possible. But they often have that rich hue of profoundness.

What I am waiting for, though, what I’m really hoping I will be blessed with, is the dream where I am the farm. I am the dirt, the air, the barn, the horses. I can quest eternally to see the farm through my grandparents’ eyes. But only in a dream can I hope to see my grandparents through the farm’s eyes.

So I will keep dreaming away. I will perpetually visit this place I love and respect, even if it leaves our family’s possession, even if I can no longer travel. Because of my unique experiences there, because of the mental and spiritual breakthroughs I’ve had there, because of my love for my grandparents and their home, because it is my own special heritage, I dream of the farm. I will always dream of the farm.

 *

 

 

7. THE SECRET

Grandma and Grandpa standing next to an old tractor they had refinished. Inside their shop, Cozad, Nebraska.

The farm means completely different things to me than it does to my grandparents. For me it was the stage for a kind of alter ego and a place where only fond memories were formed. My grandparents, though, struggled through years of hard times and made the land and the farm what it is now. The farm is deeply ingrained in them; they are tethered inseparably together. They have been as married to the land as to each other.

Emerson wrote, “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” On the farm my grandparents have changed from young and vital people to old and weathered. As a kid, the farm, like its keepers, was active, pulsing and vibrant. Now the farmyard has taken on the humbled, sparse shape of my grandparents, most of its trees cut down, the outhouse gone; the house and barn and outbuildings are now spartan, the wood covered over with aluminum siding. The yard seems to wait silently, slightly wearily, for a new life, a new owner, while my grandparents wait quietly in their slight frames for a newborn soul.

This difference between how I and my grandparents see the farm always bothers me. I can only see it the way I do because of my own experiences. But I wish for just one minute to be able to see the farm through the eyes of my grandparents, to feel firsthand what it means to them, to live the poetry of another’s existence. One can see and read a poem, understand it intellectually, but there is often an ambiguity that has the distinct impression of being the actual meaning, the kernel of truth nestled in among the words. My grandparents are definitely harboring some kernels in them, and no matter how many layers I try to penetrate I’m afraid I can never reach the core of secrets, for it is enclosed by the length of time my grandparents have lived through, by the width of their experiences, by the weight of their personalities, and by the extensive tentacles of the social network they have perpetuated around themselves.

I think I can never know the true nature, the true identity of the farm unless I can feel it as they did. I want to know how my grandparents came to be the people they are with the ideas they have. But of course that’s impossible to know firsthand. Even if I could somehow become a farmer, I could never recreate the Dust Bowl years or the locusts and tornadoes my grandparents lived through. So I am relegated to the task of trying to dig up evidence I can understand, hoping for the magic piece to be uncovered that will unlock all the things that seem like secrets to me. I wait impatiently for the things I seek to find me. In the meantime I observe my grandparents closely, like a naturalist hidden in the bushes with binoculars. I often feel like a detective when I go to visit them; I’m constantly sleuthing about for clues, asking myriad questions, dragging out the old photos, listening to the stories again and again.

I want to dissect my grandparents and extract all their experiences, put them in clear glass jars for observation, put them under the microscope and inject them into my own veins, like trying to understand Christmas through scientific experiments with ornaments and toys. I want to understand the way they see the world, but they can’t help me. I want to know what secrets of life they know.

What makes me think they know a secret? Their quiet acceptance of everything. I continually cry out “why?” “what for?”  “how so?” “it’s not fair!” against my witness to life. I want to know where their serenity comes from.  They don’t, unlike me, plead for justifications or explanations of why things happen. Things just are. They did what they did. It’s maddening. It makes me restless. I am compelled to look for more detailed answers. I want everything explained in excruciating detail from every angle, as if anything put into enough words, will by default be able to be swallowed and understood.

Their views on life are so different from mine; they seem basic and even small. But I have discovered that their small-circumference views are really the biggest views of all, the most encompassing. They are resigned to nothing but accepting of all. They have witnessed so much of life, I think, being on a farm where living and dying are continuous cycles, that they accept all of life as natural. And nothing is too much out of the ordinary.

My grandparents lived their early lives at the brink of poverty. They grew up that way and began their own family that way. They were dry-land farmers then and at the mercy of the weather. Survival was a horse whose reigns they continually gripped, trying to steer an unfathomable animal of fate toward their fortune. By virtue of this dependence on fate, by their proximity to poverty, their life of labor, and their intimacy with the land, it seems they are closer than me (than most) to some kind of truth, this elusive secret that I often talk about. Is it really a secret or just a fanciful perception of mine?

There is an old well-known saying, "Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old, seek instead what they sought." So I try to think about what my grandparents have sought. I think they sought nothing more elaborate than to survive, to live to farm another day, to raise their children. Their goals were so clear and so pure, they were simple but not simple-minded, in fact they had a certain nobility owing to their purity, clarity and simpleness. If only I could have such clarity of purpose. Those days Grandma and Grandpa were running two farms and helping on a third during the War, they wouldn’t have had time to consider what they might be seeking, only to live with that simple goal to keep the farms alive and running, to keep the family alive and fed. How could I possibly simulate seeking that when I’ve got so much free time, so many options available for the direction of my life, so many goals to choose from?

Perhaps the thing that closest resembles to me what farm life has been to my grandparents, is backpacking. One of the things I like about backpacking is the reduction of life to a narrow focus funneling your options down to very few, sometimes only one. You must make it back to camp, you must find water, you must crawl out of the canyon, you must endure the weather. Rain, snow, heat, bugs, aches and pains, exhaustion, none of them matter; they're moot and simply must be overcome. It's so simplistic. It's mentally uncomplex but the mental game is keeping your body and spirit going. Whereas at home, there are so many choices and one does mental acrobatics to figure out how to save oneself from too much effort. It feels good sometimes to get away from the possibilities of pampering. Perhaps through backpacking I can glimpse the life of continued labor my grandparents led. I can see that if I led my whole life, or a significant portion, that way, I would be a different person, perhaps even more like my grandparents.

It makes me feel stronger and more whole when I use my mind to encourage myself through the choiceless hard times rather than figure out a way to avoid them. My grandparents led a full-time life like backpacking, with few choices but the fortitude to do what they must. That takes a certain strength; it builds a certain strength. Weak has to be conniving. Strong can be moral. "We done without," Grandma says about a lot of things.

One of my favorite Grandma stories is the time a stranger came to their house asking to water his horse. Grandpa and Grandma invited him to take breakfast with them while his horse was at the trough. They made room for the stranger at their table, and when he left he offered to pay for the breakfast. My grandparents said no need, but the stranger gave Grandma a silver dollar to keep for good luck. That was back in the 1930s when a dollar would have gone a long ways, but she still carries that coin in her purse to this very day. It’s the simplicity of this story that gets me. It’s rich in so many ways: what it reveals about men and women’s characters and hospitality and mind-sets. There were times they went without certain groceries they couldn’t afford while the lucky silver dollar lay in Grandma’s purse. Grandma kept the spirit of that gift against all reason that told her she should spend it.

"To love life through labor is to be intimate with life's inmost secret." I found this sentence at my grandparents' house as the quote of the day on the daily calendar in my bedroom. What is life's inmost secret? And why through labor? Well, I believe my grandparents must be privy to this secret, but whatever it is, they would never be able to tell me because they are not even aware that they know it and probably couldn't be made aware, because their knowledge of it is intrinsic to them. Whatever the secret is, it was not bestowed in one single message blurted out all at once, but was slowly whispered one letter at a time over a lifetime. They’ve grown the secret like antlers.

So I sit there hanging on to my grandpa’s spare words as if suddenly he will open his mouth to yawn, and the secret will gush out in his breath: he inhales the farm air, and exhales the secret. It would have to be revealed accidentally like this because if Grandpa thought he knew a secret I wanted to know, he would never tell me. But Grandma would tell me the secret if she knew it.  She putters around the house; I watch her wrinkled hands. Maybe someday she’ll inadvertently, subconsciously stitch it into a quilt. And there it will be, written in thread.

“To love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.” My grandparents are not philosophers, they would not consciously commit their lives to the pursuit of any transcendental goals. But I believe their lives have been cleansed by the soap of hard labor, that their spirits have been granted a kind of purity. They have lived part of their lives at the brink of their limits.

Grandma talks about the exhaustion of the early years. Cooking for a 20-man crew the morning after bearing her first child. Working three farms around the clock during the war. “I don’t know how I did it,” Grandma says. Their exhaustion reminds me of a vision quest. Native Americans used to voluntarily starve, fatigue and pain themselves to touch truths: spirits, visions. Grandma and Grandpa were fatigued and pained by necessity, but isn't their closeness to these truths just as valid?

Then the exhaustion could be rendered meaningless by the weather. All that work to have something utterly out of your control have the ultimate decision of whether or not you reap any benefits from your labor. Year after year. I don’t think I could ever endure this.

Tom Brown, Jr. says the only truths are in nature. My grandparents live attached to the natural world, directly affected by cycles of birth and death, of nature's nature. They know how things grow and die. They don't question, they accept. They have molded themselves into the seasonal patterns of nature; their lives sway to natural rhythms. Paul Sheppard and others have argued for a necessity of relationships with animals, and that the consequences of removing ourselves from (this part of) the natural world are a dysfunctional society, that relations with the animal world are necessary for a healthy and balanced life. Grandma and Grandpa loved their horses. Even as a kid, Grandpa favored horses. His love for them grew from his respect for them. Before he had a tractor, they were invaluable as work horses to plow the fields. He had to depend on them for his very livelihood.

My grandpa, Clarence Maack, plowing the fields with 12 head of horse. Cozad, Nebraska.

So many of us are removed from the experiences that get us where we are. In an academic way, humanity as a whole knows more about how the world works than it ever has. But individually, so many of us are completely removed from the elements. Given an empty patch of land a lot of people couldn't feed themselves if they had to. Grow and harvest a garden, raise and slaughter animals, preserve the food, give birth to your children in your own house. These are the elementary particles of life, so to speak. We look in physics for the keys to the nature of the universe at the most elementary particles of nature. We are convinced that to break things apart into their most basic constituents and to know those constituents, is to get a glimpse at the truth of the universe. The ultimate truth. The ultimate fact. The secret, the key to understanding the physical universe is in those elementary particles. So perhaps the secret or key to understanding the anthropomorphic universe is in the elementary particles of anthropomorphic existence—raising your own food and holding hands with the rhythms of nature. Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, “It is by borrowing from the world’s structure that the universe of truth and of thought is constructed for us.”

My grandparents report facts with little personal interpretation or commentary. Why do things happen the way they do? "I dunno," they say, “They just do.” Things just are. For all the enormous amount of time I spend actively contemplating such questions, reading books and mulling things over, I have no better answer. Perhaps they appear not to seek a deeper meaning to life because they know there is none, other than the truth, the structure, of nature.

While I can only manage to circumscribe these truths, so that they seem to me like secrets, the fact that they and my grandparents’ proximity to them are part of my heritage is comforting. My heritage encompasses these remarkable people who led a life that allowed them to personally touch these truths. And that’s something for me to be proud of.

[I got them to pose in front of their old barn with a pitchfork, like that old classic painting, and Grandpa grabbed an ear of corn. Not sure of the exact year, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s.]

Beulah and Clarence Maack, Cozad, Nebraska.

 *

 

 

8. EXCERPTS FROM MY GRANDMA’S MEMOIRS

The past can seem so inaccessible. Things were so vastly different even just 100 years ago. Even just 50 years ago. One of the reasons my grandparents are so valuable to me is they act like a telescope into the past -- I at one end, the times that seem so remote at the other, and my grandparents linking us together. Through them I learn first-hand accounts of historical events and the day-to-day living of the past; they have one foot in the past and one foot in the present. Below are some excerpts from my grandma’s memoirs which she hand-wrote out in 2000, just a casual recalling, at my request. I tried to keep my grandma’s voice her own and did not correct any grammar, only changing a few things for the sake of clarity. When she refers to “Grandpa” and “Grandma” Maack, she means my grandpa’s parents, not his grandparents. She always talked about people in their relation to her kids. So even talking to me, she often referred to Grandpa as “daddy.” So his parents were “grandma and grandpa.”

 

My folks had 4 children.  They also had a baby boy who died at birth. When I was a kid growing up at home, I really had no one to play with as Ed, Floyd and Albert were 5, 10 and 15 years older than me. But one day I remember I was up in the haymow of our barn and they were shooting their beebee gun. So I pestered them to let me do that, too. So they told me to shoot that old hen down there, so I did, and believe it or not, I killed it. They made me take it in to mom and tell her what I done. That ended me wanting to do things they did.

[Pics of my grandma's grandparents, her parents, and two of her older brothers.]

My grandma's grandparents. Gothenburg, Nebraska.Frank and Carrie Groenewold, my grandma's parents.Grandma's brothers. Gothenburg, Nebraska.

I always had to walk to school, which was a mile through the field; if I had to walk on the road it was two miles. If Ed wasn’t with me I was afraid to walk by the neighbor’s cows. If the weather was too bad sometimes dad would hitch the horses to the wagon and take us. The school house is now by the park in Cozad. District 86. It always had a big coal heater for a stove, so sometimes we would take a potato to school and put it into the ash tray and it would be baked by noon; also could set soup on top to heat. Our dinner pails were mostly syrup pails or the boys took paper sacks so they could throw them away. We always had a school program, and we drew names for Christmas and Valentine’s Day. We had a picnic for the last day of school.

Clarence tells about the time he, Roy and the girls were walking to school and one of the big boys would always pick on Roy on the way home. So one day Clarence hit him over the head with his dinner pail and made him bleed. But he didn’t pick on Roy anymore, and would you believe it, he and Clarence became friends and Clarence was even a pallbearer at his funeral. They had enough students in their school—District 34—to have ball games. The eighth grade students always had to go to Lexington court house to take their last exams to see if they passed. Clarence didn’t go to high school. He stayed home and helped his dad with the horses and farming. They tried to get him to come in to play football but he said no.

My first year in high school I stayed with my grandpa and grandma Brownfield. They lived in a little house on the corner where our post office is now. My second year I stayed with the Guy Adams family. Their daughter, Mildred, and I became good friends in our freshman year, so I paid them for room and board. We always walked to school then—6 or 7 blocks—and came home at noon for dinner, then back to school for the afternoon and home again. I couldn’t continue school the next year as my folks couldn’t afford to pay for it. Dad was on dry-land farms and my brother, Albert, got sick, and they were paying all his medical bills and keeping the family in groceries, etc. Albert had 2 children. He died just before Clarence and I were married.

So I quit school and went to work doing housework for different families. I first worked for the May family. They had a new baby so I was doing all the cleaning, washing and cooking for seven people. I baked seven large loaves of bread every other day and was packing lunches for four to take to work. I got $3 a week. I then worked for the Jensens. I remember one time I had baked an apple pie for supper and when he came in and saw it he asked if there was any cheese slices. I said no. Well he said, “keep supper warm while I go to town for some; we Danes always eat cheese on our apple pie.” He gave me $4 a week. They had a new baby, too. When I worked for Milo Germans, I accidentally washed a $500 check in his pants pocket—he was supposed to have cleaned them out. Luckily they replaced the check for him. The Yorks were nice people to work for. They had a new baby and two little girls, and two school teachers were staying with them. They were a lot of fun to work for. Still got $3 a week. I worked for several other families who always treated me as one of them, except one family so I didn’t stay there too long.

Beulah Groenewold (Maack) as a teenager, Cozad, Nebraska.

Clarence always took me to work on Sunday nights and came and got me on Saturday night. Mildred [his sister] was also working like me for different families, so he would do the same for her.

There was League on Sunday nights for boys and girls at the Walnut Grove Church, and Queen Esthers for girls. Also a lot of neighborhood parties. I always had to walk to church and on Sunday nights to League and Queen Esters, as my folks didn’t have a car. So one night Clarence asked to take me home, and after that we went together nearly four years before we were married.

We went to Julesburg, Colorado, to get married because I was only 18 and you had to be 21 in Nebraska. No one at that time had big weddings. Everybody was too poor. The ladies of the church gave me a shower and Mrs. Maack had a dinner and shower for relatives. Showers and wedding gifts were much different than now. A pie pan, a rolling pin, a cake pan, a casserole, etc. When we were coming home from Colorado there was a train wreck by Hershey. It was loaded with grapes, apples and oranges. They were selling the fruit for 50¢ a crate, so we brought home grapes and oranges for everyone—all that we could fit in the car.

We moved into the house up east (quarter mile east of where our house is now) when we were married, as Clarence was farming that place. It had a kitchen, dining room and two small bedrooms. No closets and no cupboards. We had a kitchen cabinet, table and chairs, and a cook-stove in the kitchen. My folks gave us a new dining room set and his folks gave us a new linoleum rug for the dining room. We had a bed and a “dresser” that I fixed from two orange crates with glass across the top and a small mirror above. Clarence fixed a closet behind the door to hang our clothes. We had a hard time keeping the house warm in winter with just the cook-stove and a small heater. We always had to drain the water at night to keep the pump from freezing. If the doors were shut on the bedrooms it would get so cold in them that Jello would freeze.

All the kids were born in the little house up east except Gary. Kay was taken to Gothenburg hospital for 10 days as she was premature—I had fallen the day before. Gary was born in the Lexington hospital—there was no hospital in Cozad. We lived on this place by then. [Below, my grandma holding my mom.]

Grandma holding my mom as an infant.

We had a school teacher stay with us one school year. We gave her one bedroom and put the kids on a rollaway bed in the dining room. She would walk to school at 8am so as to have the fire built and warm by 9am. She got $40 a month and paid us $15 for room and board.

In about 1940 Earl Luethke stayed with us to help shuck corn. While he was with us we had gone up to Kratzensteins for dinner one Sunday, taking Grandpa and Grandma Maack with us. As soon as we saw it was starting to snow, we started for home. We like to have never made it. When we finally got home the chickens were sitting out all over the yard. The storm had come up so fast that it froze snow on their eyes and they couldn’t see to get to the chicken house.

In 1934 and 35, Clarence picked potatoes all day for Landercaspers using the belt that we now have hanging in the garage with our antiques. He only got a few dollars a day. Also about then we were selling eggs for 5 and 6 cents a dozen and corn for 80 or 85 cents a bushel.

One time Clarence bought a work horse from Everett Kruse, who lived up in Roten Valley. He brought it home, and the next morning it was gone. We went back up where he bought it but they hadn’t seen it. We looked everywhere, called all over and finally put an ad in the Callaway and Oconto paper, and after about a week a man from between Callaway and Oconto called and said he thought maybe the horse was up there. So we went up and sure enough it was our horse. Decided it was a fence jumper, so Clarence got on it and rode it bareback all the way home, making it jump every fence like it did when it ran away. He got home just in time to change clothes and go in and pitch softball that night. He sold it again real soon, as he had paid $500 for it.

Another time Clarence said if I would walk out and get the milk cows (they were always in the farthest northwest corner of the pasture), he would do the dishes and watch the kids. I jumped at the chance, but when I got back, guess who was doing the dishes! He had set the two dishpans on chairs, and Donna [my mom and eldest of the children] and Kay were doing the dishes. Then when I went in to check on Roger (who was about 7 or 8 months old) I found he had a box elder bug in his mouth.

There was a time a man was walking through the country selling magazines and wanted to stay all night with us. We told him we only had two bedrooms so had no room for him. So he took some blankets and a pillow and slept in the haymow of the barn. During the night a terrible wind and rain storm came up. He was really scared, as he said the barn just shook. Floyd and Mable had come over to get chickens and couldn’t go home the weather was so bad, so they had to stay as well. He did come in and eat breakfast with us.

Another time when we lived here a man riding a horse through the country had slept in our pasture over night. He stopped and wanted to water his horse, so Clarence asked him in for breakfast. He offered to pay for it but we said no, so he gave me a silver dollar and said to keep it for good luck. I still have it in my purse.

Then there was a time when Clarence had a run-away with the team of horses and the hay wagon. The horses started running while he was loading hay onto the rack with a pitchfork, and when he tried to stop those horses he didn’t drop the pitch fork, so he ended up running it in to his arm several times. The horses ran all the way to the house and got in the barn door, but the hay rack sure didn’t make it in. Clarence had to take a trip to the doctor for a tetanus shot.

Another time Clarence had 6 head of horses hitched up and ready to go to the field when I went out to feed the chickens, and Kay (who was 16 months old) followed me out and I didn’t know it. Clarence didn’t see her until she started crying. He stopped the horses and swung them around but one of them stepped on her. Another trip to the doctor, but she was lucky no bones were broken. Just a badly bruised little girl.

Seems like there was always someone selling something—papers, magazines, Raleigh and Watkins dealers. If you didn’t have the money they would take an old hen or two for payment. They always had a chicken crate on the car. The Raleigh vanilla and liniment were in the same kind of bottle. I always kept both in the kitchen cabinet.  One day I made a mistake and put liniment in the cake instead of vanilla. When it started baking I knew what I had done.

I washed our clothes by hand on the washboard until Kay was born. Then we bought a Maytag wash machine with a gasoline motor on it. In about 1942 or 43, when we lived up here, Mrs. Smith (Bill worked for us and grandpa during the War) and Mrs. Wollam (who lived up east where we used to live) would come use my machine. Seems like we were washing every day. It was done in the kitchen; had to heat the water on the stove and use homemade soap. I still have a package of it in the garage.

One Saturday night when Roger was a baby, Larry wanted to go to town with us so Donna and Kay were in the back seat with him, and Kay was standing up in the seat (this was before we knew about seatbelts). Clarence had to put on the brakes quick and guess where Kay landed: head first in 15 dozen eggs, breaking most of them clear to the bottom. Luckily she wasn’t hurt and I had diapers along—but what a mess to clean up! We probably went home without a few groceries that night as what the eggs and cream didn’t pay for we didn’t buy. Everything happened to Kay.

We lived up east until March 1941. That March we moved to a place west of Cozad near the railroad owned by Otis Brownfield. Don’t know if I should put this in or not, but what the heck. When we lived by town, the people before us had built a new outdoor toilet. They had made one great big hole, the next one average size and a smaller one for the children. When I saw that I told the girls not to use the big one as they could about fall in it. So one day Donna and Kay came running into the house and said Norma had fallen down the toilet hole. I dropped everything and out the door I went. I couldn’t hear Donna and Kay yelling “we didn’t mean it!” They thought it would be a good joke. We nailed a board over that hole anyway.

There were always a lot of bums riding the rails and they would come and stop there wanting a handout, but I would never feed them. I always got the kids in the house and locked the screen doors if I saw them coming. They told us when we moved there that if we fed one they would have a way of marking the place, then they all would stop.

We only lived in that place one year. Then Roy went to the army and the Boyles wanted us to move back up here in 1942. It was very cold and stormy the year we moved down by town in 1941. Roger was a baby then; Donna had pneumonia that year. Clarence bought his first farm tractor and made a cab for it out of plywood. He put windows in it and had it fixed so he got heat from the motor, and it had a canvas curtain for a door. We had to be moved by March 1, so it was a big job getting all the machinery, livestock and furniture moved. So he used the tractor to pull the wagons one behind the other.

In 1942, the year that we moved back up here to this house, lightning struck our barn and burned it down. Donna saw the bolt of lightning hit the barn and saw how fast it burned. The kittens jumped out the haymow door but they had all their fur burned off. Also had two little calves in the barn that burned. From then on if we weren’t home when the kids got home from school, Donna would keep them all outside if there were any clouds in the sky in case the house would burn so fast.

Larry (Grandpa’s brother) went to the service in 1942 and was stationed in Alaska. So we were helping his and Clarence’s folks a lot. We had to have gas and sugar rationing cards during the War. We were allowed just so much sugar and gas for a certain length of time. If you used them up beforehand, too bad; you done without and waited until next time. I done a lot of baking with honey and syrup as I was fixing a lot of lunches for haying help and the kids’ school lunches. That’s when we all learned to drink tea and coffee without sugar. I still have one of our gas rationing books we didn’t use.

We had to help Grandpa Maack with all his work and also had all of ours. When we put up the hay, Grandpa drove the stacker team, Bill Smith stacked the hay while Clarence and I run the rakes and sweeps. Then at night we would take off the sweeps and put on the 4-row and go to the corn field. I would usually run it from after supper until about 11 pm. Then Clarence would take it until Bill came. Then in the morning as soon as we could hay, we’d all go to the hayfield. Grandma always watched the kids. We worked very hard trying to keep all the places so Larry and Roy would have a place to farm when they came home from the war. The day the War ended we were stacking hay on Savin’s place. About supper time Grandma came over to the field, bringing the kids with her, and set up supper in the hay field for us. She was so happy, she said the war was over so we had to celebrate. Roy and Larry came home from the service then, which made it much easier for us. 

After the War was over Grandpa and Grandma Maack had a farm sale, and in the spring of 1946 they moved to town. We got electricity shortly after we moved up here. No more cleaning lamp chimneys and carrying a lamp every time you went to another room! We only had four rooms and a pantry. In 1946 the Boyles told us we could build on a kitchen and bathroom. Hays Atkins and Grandpa Maack did the work. When I came home from the hospital with Gary, Clarence had painted the cupboards for me and bought an electric mixer which I used a lot and even churned butter in it.  They had to use army surplus lumber for the cupboards and an old used bath tub with legs on it.

["Grandpa Maack," i.e. my mom's grandpa, holding her on his lap and her sisters beside him.]

Frank Maack, my mom's grandpa holding her on his lap. 1930s, Cozad, Nebraska.

The next few years were much better. The kids grew up and all went to high school. Norma and Gary went on to college. The boys both played football. Gary also played basketball and got a trophy. The girls were all cheerleaders.

When the kids were in country school they always had rural field day each spring. All the schools would go into the high school in the morning and take tests and compete against the other schools for ribbons. Then at noon each school had their own picnic dinner, and in the afternoon they all went out to the football field to compete in sports. Roger was practicing for jumping, and tried jumping over the fence at school and broke his ankle, so he went to rural field day on crutches, and Roger Loibl, the only other boy in the school, had a broken arm at the same time.

One time in about 1947 or 1948, when Gary was a baby, by the red school there was a big bump in the road. When we got up there we saw a car upset on its side and 2 boys standing in the road—they looked more like ghosts though. It was the two Strumpler boys from Roten Valley and when they hit that bump they lost control and upset. They had 30 gallons of cream and some eggs to buy the groceries with. Of course the lids flew off the cream cans and covered the boys and the inside of the car with cream. They were so worried what their folks would say, but lucky it was a used car from Albert Wells Ford garage while theirs was being worked on. Again we used the diapers I had with me to wipe off some of the cream and they rode to town with us on the running board (yes, cars still had 7- or 8-inch running boards). We took them to the alley behind Eggleston’s clothing store and they cleaned themselves up and bought new clothes to put on. We still see them once in a while and they still remember it and can laugh about it now.

In 1958 I had encephalitis (sleeping sickness).

In 1960 Clarence had the tractor upset on him pinning him between the seat and steering wheel. He had been closing laterals over by the flume. All the acid from both batteries run out on him. He spent one week in the Cozad hospital and then a month in Clarkson in Omaha. Had to go through the kidney machine to purify his blood. The acid burned him very bad on his stomach, hips and legs. It also left him so he couldn’t walk, but with therapy and much determination he came home and started farming again, along with Roger’s help. They had a corn picking bee for us while we were still staying at Grandma’s after we got out of the hospital.

Another thing about the day Clarence had his tractor accident. It was real early in the morning and Roger (who was working for Sinor Oil at the time [my dad’s parents’ business]) and I were eating breakfast when we both heard a rooster crow by the north window. We both knew that we didn’t have a rooster, only had 1 old hen that laid us an egg every day. We both looked out the window and sure enough that old hen crowed just like a rooster. And just a few days before that I had read in Cappers Weekly where a woman wrote and said if you ever hear a hen crow like a rooster it was a sure sign of bad luck. It was that day that the tractor upset on Clarence. September 24, 1960. Guess what! When Roger came home that night he shot that old hen. Said she wouldn’t crow again. We started buying eggs then and after a few years started buying milk.

In 1980 we picked up corn on the Maack and Maack place. It fell off so bad and it was $3.50 a bushel so we couldn’t afford to leave it in the field. $2,700 worth. I always unloaded the ear corn in the cribs. Kay and Dale came home from Lincoln once on a Friday night. It was dark and Dale came to help me finish unload. He lost his wedding ring in the 2,000-bushel crib. But when we shelled corn, there hung his ring on a wire on the sheller. Gary also lost his wedding ring while helping me one night, and believe it or not, we found it also when we shelled the corn.

Clarence had a horse fall on him in 1983 and break his legs and ribs and vertebrae. That was while I was gone with Doris to Gothenburg. Then in a few years after that I went over to the Walnut Grove cemetery to pick up some flowers and when I came home there he was with blood running from his hand. He was trimming the horse’s hoof, it got spooked and he got his little finger caught in the rope—it took part of the finger off. Another trip to the doctor. He fooled the nurse then; when she came in to take the bandage off his finger, he had already switched it to his good finger. Clarence says ,“You should’ve seen the look on her face” when she thought that finger had grown back, fingernail and everything. Dr. Sitorius always teases him when he sees him—says the only time they get to see him is if he has an accident.

Christmas is a lot different than it was when we were little. I can’t remember us ever having a Christmas tree but we always got candy, nuts and apples and oranges in a bowl; we didn’t have stockings to hang. One Christmas when I was real little I got a homemade cloth doll and clothes. I still have the doll but not the clothes. We always had a Christmas program at the school (District 86) and at the Walnut Grove Church and the parents would take a present for Santa to give out. One year I got my first boughten [store-made] doll. Clarence still remembers the little iron threshing machine he got and played with.

Our girls usually all got a new doll and the boys got trucks or tractors or something like that. And of course candy, nuts and fruit. When they were growing up the business people always made up sacks of candy, nuts and an apple that Santa gave to each child. Our kids always got a new jigsaw puzzle to put together. They always thought it was such a treat to get hamburgers and store-bought ice cream and a bottle of pop for Christmas Eve.

When we were first married and lived up east, our Christmas tree was a small artificial one about 3 feet high and it had to sit up on top of the buffet; there was no other place to set it, and also that kept the kids from bothering it. Not many presents in those days; they could all fit on the buffet. We usually went to Grandpa and Grandma Maack’s on Christmas Eve and had oyster soup. Then we went to my folks’ on Christmas Day. We continued to do that until we moved to this place and then we stayed home and had our own Christmases.

Once we took a train trip to California with Grandma and Ernest and Esther. That was when Donna and Jerry lived there. When we came home we got off in Las Vegas for a couple days sightseeing. And of course gambling a little. Grandma won $90 playing Keno (we had picked the numbers for her), and Ernest said she didn’t even offer to buy us a drink. We went out on the strip that night and when Clarence and I got to the room, Grandma was asleep but she had her purse under her pillow. She told us on the way home that she said if she won anything she would give one-third to the church. Which she did. We didn’t say that, so we didn’t win! But sure had fun.

We’ve had one airplane trip, which was to Florida. Clarence remembers going to North Platte with Roy Gardner in his small airplane and they got so many watermelons in it they couldn’t get the plane off the ground. So Clarence had to go to the back of the plane and throw out watermelons until they could fly.

Clarence and his dad always liked horses, while Roy and Larry could of cared less about a horse. So Clarence and Grandpa always fed and harnessed the 6 or 12 head of horses and worked them in the field while Roy and Larry helped Grandma milk the cows and separate the milk. There was an oblong tank in the well house by the windmill and all the water to the tanks ran through it. That’s where they kept the milk, cream and butter to keep it cold before electricity. Clarence and his dad went all over the county buying, trading and looking at horses. He still likes them. He used to ride them in the Hay Days parade. Clarence was president of the Gothenburg roping club. They used to put on rodeos.

Clarence Maack riding a horse in a recreation of the Pony Express mail route. Cozad, Nebraska.

[Above, my grandpa rode in a recreation of the Pony Express mail route, which used to run through Gothenburg. Below, Grandpa was always with the horses, even with his kids. I especially love the first one below, he's holding my mom.]

My grandpa and my infant mom with the horses, 1936. Cozad, Nebraska.Grandpa set my mom and three siblings on a horse. Early 1940s. Cozad, Nebraska.

Clarence and Grandpa both used their horses to help build the flume when it was put in in the 1930s. Clarence also used his horses to work on the railroad when it was put in out by Armours feed yard. It was when we lived west of Cozad in 1941. We also have an old surveyor that Hiarm Savin gave Clarence and wouldn’t take nothing for it, said just make use of it. That’s where we got the old railroad bar that they still use today for prying and lifting heavy things.

Back in the 1930s and 40s women always wore dresses and hats when they went out and most of the men had a new pair of overalls; they would wear a white shirt, tie and their new pair of overalls to dress up. Sometimes wore a suit coat with them.

Grandma Maack always made dresses for the girls, usually all alike. A lot of the kids’ clothes were made from chicken-feed sacks and flour sacks. They were printed material and the flour sacks were nice, soft cotton. During the War there was no elastic (the rubber was all used for making tires and such) so had to use buttons on everything, including underwear. She would use good scraps of material left from the older people’s worn-out underwear to make the kids’.

Clarench and Beulah Maack and family in the 1940s. Cozad, Nebraska.My mom and all her siblings, three girls dressed alike in clothes their grandmother made for them. Maack family, 1940s, Cozad, Nebraska.

Another thing I will tell you young folks about is how house cleaning was done when Clarence and I were living at home and even after we were married. You cleaned house “good” every spring and fall. My folks didn’t have boughten mattresses for all the beds, so they were made out of straw or newly shelled corn shucks. As soon as they threshed the grain or shelled corn, the new straw or shucks were put in the bags, or “ticks” as they called them. The feather beds were all hung on the clothes line to air. Also the carpets were all took up and hung on the clothes line and beat with a carpet beater if you had one, or a broom. Newspapers were put down on the floor under the carpets every time you cleaned (usually spring and fall) and we would tack the carpets down with tacks; then you had to pull the tacks out when you cleaned next time. I still have mom’s old tack puller. Curtains were all taken down, washed and ironed and put back up. Sometimes we would repaint or put up new wallpaper. Also the heating stoves were taken down and the stove pipes cleaned of soot and then polished and put away until time to put them back up in the fall.

Roy and Larry usually helped Grandma do the milking while Clarence and his dad always cleaned the barn and took care of the horses. Usually 12 head.

Roy and Larry also helped Grandma clean the chicken houses. Clarence always hated to clean the chicken house or to milk, so I got that job when he would go threshing early in the morning. Always had to feed the skim milk to the calves—now people drink it! So in about 1944 or 45 Clarence said if I’d do all the milking and feed the calves, I could buy a new bedroom suite. I milked a lot of cows for that. We had it until 1983 when the horse fell on him. He even lucked out the night Uncle Lew was staying with us. He suggested we draw straws to see who milked and who cleared the table and done dishes. Guess who milked the cows: it was Uncle Lew and I, and Clarence had the kids doing the dishes.

We also used to raise some hogs. I always raised a big garden. One Sunday the hogs got out and rooted up all my garden. So I said either the hogs had to go or no more garden! The hogs went to the sale, as I always had to raise a big garden and do a lot of canning to feed us all.

Here are a couple of the funnier things that have happened as we were told about them.

After Grandpa Maack bought his first Ford Model T, he drove it home and didn’t know how to stop it. He was going around in circles in the yard, so he called to Grandma to open the pasture gate and he drove it into a straw pile to stop it. Then Clarence remembers they drove it up to Kratzenstein’s one Sunday and he drove through a flock of chickens out in the road. When they got up to Kratzenstein’s there was a chicken hanging on the crank. (The crank was something you would turn to start the car with.)

At Halloween the neighborhood boys often did things besides upsetting outhouses, so one time they took our neighbor’s new buggy and put it up on top of the entry way to the Walnut Grove church. He was so upset when he called my dad, so dad went and helped him get it down and back home.

This is kind of a mixed up memory book, jumping from one thing to another, but at least I can still remember! (sometimes ...)

The first 15 or so years of marriage were pretty tough going, as we were on a dry land farm. It was during the depression years and the dirty 30s, so we worked really hard and had to save our money. Some months Clarence would go borrow maybe $100 to $150 at the bank to get by, then maybe we could sell something or he would get a job like picking up potatoes, baling hay, or maybe shelling corn. Then he would go pay the bank back. We were both taught to pay for what you buy, not to go in debt or charge everything like people do nowadays—sometime it has to be paid. I guess that is why it bothers us now to see so much money spent foolishly in the world nowadays. But I guess that’s what you call progress.

We would always have a good breakfast together and most of the time everyone was home for supper together. Nowadays so many families meet each other at the door coming and going.

I will say it sure doesn’t seem like it’s been 65 years we’ve been married. I guess you can say it’s been a good marriage. We always worked together, and when we went places we went together, and when there were decisions to be made about something we made them together. I think we have raised a wonderful, loving family.

*

 

 

9. SHOOTING STAR

I recently went to visit my grandparents for a week. They kept asking, “What do you want to do?” and saying they weren’t sure how to entertain me for a week (even though they entertained me for years growing up). They didn’t seem to understand that I just wanted to be with them, exist with them, soak up their presence. That’s all I wanted. I had come to feel the air, to see the farm, with hopes of gleaning more stories from them. These last few years I’ve been trying desperately to somehow capture my grandparents’ lives inside me somewhere. Every time I look at them, I see sitting on their shoulders little bottom-heavy hourglasses. I want to be able to grasp in some tangible form their essence, clutch it to me like a rag doll. I want to breathe them into my lungs, etch them into my skin like a tattoo. I can’t just entrust their beings to the indifferent, vacuous air. They’ll float away, up into the stratosphere, out into space. They’ll be lost in the vast nothingness, break apart and return to their native star dust. It’s fearful. I must hold on. I must wrap them tightly around my wrist like a colorful balloon.

So I came to visit, just to be with them.

But I suppose I came also with the ridiculous hope of a revelation of some sort: that I would somehow succinctly understand why it is that I am so compelled by my grandparents’ lives, why I’m so fascinated with all the faded generations of my family whose lives seem ever more remote, ever less accessible; that all my vague feelings about the depth and meaning and sacredness of my personal heritage would somehow materialize into something more tangible; that I would understand why the land speaks to me, why it incessantly haunts my dreams. I keep writing as though I might know why, but there’s something missing in my understanding.

Whenever I visit the farm, I am flooded with my own personal memories, fond, of spaghetti fights and kittens, snow storms and lightning bugs, tubing down the irrigation ditches. Everywhere I go I bump into memories, and I feel the bruise right at the center of my heart. My own memories seem to decorate the farm like furniture wherever I sit, stand or walk. But then there are the stories of my grandparents, and they tug at me from some unknown depth; they permeate the place like heat from a radiator. The very air bulges with them. It’s as if the humidity is not composed of moisture but of memories, a residue of events past. I feel a stirring when I’m on the farm somewhere inside a pocket of memory that isn’t solely mine, but somehow collective.

Nothing touches me the way being on the farm does. Is it just because I know a lot of the stories, of tornadoes and dust storms, lost crops, my mother’s birth, the endless hours of toil to be left at the mercy of the weather, of God? Is it because I know how my grandparents and mom grew up here, know how they struggled and came of age in different ways from different experiences, and that I too grew up, in essence, here on the farm?

Despite the profuse happy memories I have of my own experiences here, somehow everything about my grandparents’ farm exudes a sense of lonesomeness. It’s a light melancholy that gets its substance from the juxtaposition of the overwhelming vastness of an indifferent land against the knowledge that on this one little pocket of land human lives were played out in a raw struggle for existence. It gives one the feeling that life’s “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; ... a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The immense plain upon which the farm nestles, like a nail in the floorboard, is the stage, and I know those who were the poor players, and that they indeed fretted a good part of their hour upon the stage; I know the stories that portray the sound and the fury, and somehow the vast, open plain stretching on endlessly seems to crush the meaning out of it all, until all that I know and feel signifies nothing.

That’s lonesomeness.

[This is an aerial view of my grandparents' farm. You can see the side of the house that is the "new" addition, built the year after Grandma got her outhouse for Christmas.]

Aerial view of my grandparents' farm. Clarence and Beulah Maack farm, Cozad, Nebraska.

My dream mind seems to have adopted the farm as its homeland, the Motherland. And in waking I feel the farm pulling at me constantly, beckoning. So I came to visit one week in September. It was warm, but not too warm, not that fetid summer heat. The nights were like a gentle bath. I slept in the same bed I always sleep in, “the little bed.” Funny thing, no matter what time of year it is or what the weather or temperature is, in that bed, I always sleep with the same covers on. If it’s hot, they’re cool enough, and if it’s cold, they’re warm enough.

One night I lay awake in bed, the window open, listening to the hum of the big light outside and to the occasional bug being zapped in it. I lay there pondering the different textures of history. The history of my very ancient ancestors, who lived on soil I’ve never seen and lived lives I know little of, the history of ancient peoples in general, feels hard and smooth. If I could hold that history in my hand, it would roll around in my palm like a polished gemstone. The history of the small mountain town where I live, whose past and mining heritage I see all around me, I can touch and it feels like a blanket of deep velvet that I curl up on like a cat. But when I’m on the farm, I carry its history on my shoulders, wear it like a sacred white dress. Rather than me reaching out to touch it, it surrounds and touches me, bathes and clothes me. I am continually baptized by the history of my forefathers, and my foremothers continue to stitch their sacred spirits into my dress.

I had been on the farm nearly a week; I was leaving in a day or two. It had been a pleasant stay, and my grandparents had shown and told me a lot of things about their past and about my family history I hadn’t known. But as I lay there in bed I longed for something more. I wanted a deeper experience. I wanted a communion, and a higher understanding. I wanted the indefinable to take shape in me and fill me with things I could never possibly know. I wanted to be struck, as if by a lightning bolt, with the meaning of “it all,” with the true depth of my existence.

I felt it was hopeless lying in the little bed inside the little house. I thought then maybe if I went outside into the night, that somehow the stars would grant me my epiphany, as if the width of the land and the breadth of the sky could help me, as if I could breathe their vastness into my brain, expand it and embrace the centuries and millennia of history that preceded me, and hold all the events that led to my eventual existence in my arms, cradled in my elbows and nestled under my chin. There’s so much hope in the boundless expanse of the sky, so much possibility.

Perhaps in the dark the farm would not realize I was watching it and would inadvertently reveal a river of secrets running beneath it. There are so many feelings I have about my heritage and history that I can’t define or understand, ideas that I can’t quite grasp, sometimes I feel the universe is purposefully hiding things from me. Perhaps under night’s cloak the farm would offer up the thread I could pull which would unravel this great knit of obscurity and reveal those secrets.

So I arose from my bed; slowly, stealthily, I unlocked the front door and padded silently, barefoot, across the soft dirt, across the cool grass. To the horse corral, where I leaned against the tall fence. Now there are no horses. Who would know all that’s happened here? Who could guess at all the horse rides and adventures that this fence held inside of it, or at the fears that were overcome? The barn with the hay and the kittens and colts—who will ever know that I cleaned that barn when it housed three horses, that I sang Christmas carols from the hay loft with my cousins, that in that hay loft I choked down my first beer and played hide and seek among the hay bales?

I wonder, why are we made to live these lives if they are only to be conscripted into obscurity? Why do we accumulate a lifetime of memories that vanish at our death? What is the significance of all of my heritage, when all the evidence of it just rots away? The barn will fall, the fence will fall, the house will fall and the land be plowed over. And what will be left for me then? There will be no place for the ghosts to dwell.

No place but in my head, and in my writing. I feel a responsibility to create a place for my heritage somewhere outside myself—in written words, for example—I feel it should be contributed to the whole world. Yet I often feel alone in my pursuit of the past and my feelings of responsibility towards it. But how can anyone be insensate to the majesty of being on top of such a tower of history? We’re all like the tip of an iceberg: Here we are above water where everyone can see us, and maybe our parents and grandparents are above-water with us, but then submerged out of sight, under water, within us, is our heritage which is composed of the lives, the ironies and struggles suffered by hundreds of people! There are things inside of us—dispositions, personality traits and physical manifestations, maybe even diseases that we have because another person in our iceberg had them first.

Alas, we were not born in cabbage patches. People with heritages and unique personal histories had to come together over and over and over again in order for each of us to have finally made it on the scene. A stroke of luck in a Medieval battle allowed some guy to return to his wife and conceive a child. Some mercy from a Roman ruler allowed a child to live and marry and conceive. Some intricate tribal custom and political alliance matched a certain man and woman together to parent children. Some animal with a random mutation picked a mate and they conceived, causing a shift in evolution. Doesn’t it seem miraculous that we’re here? 

On the other hand, could things be any other way? It’s just so incredible. It’s so deep an ocean. We’re all swimming in an ocean of triumphs and tragedies, of ironies and cruelties, of joys and sadnesses, of evil and good. A frothing, heaving ocean. 

Like so many before and beside me, I am plagued by the eternal Question:  What does it all mean, this crazy vortex of history that funnels down to me? I don’t know, but historically, all things not understood have always been explained by some animistic and non-secular, omniscient force. But is a god-like element in the world necessary to provide a sacred quality to my being? Egyptian tombs and pyramids, medieval fortresses, Stonehenge, they’re sacred to us largely because they represent history. They represent the actions of peoples long, long ago. They represent achievement. They reveal that humanity has existed, has strived. Any historical monument is revered for the simple reason that it represents history. But do I not represent history as well as anything made from stone?

When I think of the many fields my ancestors have plowed, the many roads my ancestors have traveled, and think of them all converging in one spot—in me—I feel my knees buckling from the weight and I feel my feet melting into the earth. So much time funneled down into a little 5’5” spot of space. You might think such a spot would be very powerful and energized with mystical properties. But no! It’s just little ol’ me. And across the yard, sleeping in the little house, are two similar vortices of history known as my grandparents, and across the planet are several billion others.

So there’s all this history behind me and the unknown in front of me, and I’m trapped between the two by the ridiculous nature of existence. It’s like this big snow shovel pushing me along, so I can never experience anything except continual forward motion. Relentless. I try and “look” back but all that’s there is a void. Nothing. There is nothing behind me except evidence: memories, buildings, someone’s writing. History is nothing but a pile of fallible evidence. Memories and writers lie, structures can be misinterpreted. We can know neither past nor future, and if we could, perhaps we would then no longer know the present. So the best I can do is to constantly dig for evidence, as that’s all I can ever hold. Perhaps I stood outside on the farm that night waiting for the past to rip open, to spill out and fall on me, to infiltrate me, to exist—the way an event foreshadowed finally comes to exist.

The lucid moments in life are so few, the haze so thick. So often everything seems undecipherable, undissectable. I look for clarity in reading books, but it doesn’t really help. There’s the Theory of Everything, of superstrings and super-symmetry, but how can that unify me with my immense heritage?  I feel like I am groping my way through life blindly, madly, confused, submerged, trying to reach through it all to grab on to something solid, something true or at least understandable. Each night I crave an epiphany, for just one moment of perfect clarity. But then I should be careful what I ask for. So often when I am gifted with a sudden spark of truth, it’s so stark that it’s tragic in its nakedness. Then it seems easier to let things slip from my grasp.

But this night, my bare feet resting on the earth, I longed for lucidity, no matter how devastating. I determined to peer through the veil of stars in search of the well of answers. Into the night I slipped, like a ghost, over to the corral, and there I stood, looking at the barn—a monument of history—knowing someday all the events that happened there might fall into the void of the unknown. Someday only I may be the well of answers for those seeking its history.

The farm itself is part of my heritage and I am part of its history. I think heritage lies in more than just people and genes but also in places. Places are sponges, they can soak things up. The events are transient and intangible but the evidence of them is stored in people and in places. Author Janet Lembke wrote, “And the earth that is tilled or hunted over, that witnesses the births and weddings and burials of generation after human generation, gains an invisible dimension.” The farm has acquired a spirit, as if all that has taken place there has formed a consciousness, a spirit, something bigger and more cosmic than its material matter.

It breaks my heart to think of that barn crumbling to dust or being owned by someone who does not share its history, by someone who cannot see that invisible dimension or perceive the spirit. The little pictures of horses my grandpa drew on the barn walls as a child on his parents’ farm are revered in my family like Lascoux cave paintings. But they’re meaningless to anyone else. And I feel sad thinking of my parents’ house being sold to some stranger, but I don’t feel the same as I do about the farm. Maybe because my folks’ house has only 25 years and only really four people in its past. But the farm has recorded many more years and many more people in a more profound way. The stories are bolder on the farm, not hampered by suburban mediocrity. I feel myself belonging more on the farm than at my parents’ house. It’s a deeper home to me than the place I actually resided growing up. And I hardly ever dream about my parents’ house, while I dream constantly of the farm, and occasionally of my other grandma and grandpa’s house in Cozad, and their lakes.

So there I was outside on the farm, contemplating my heritage, the nature of history, and what it all might mean. It was a warm, clear night. ‘Twas midnight or past when I’d padded out to the fence by the barn. I was anxious to feel the immensity of the sky, to be alone there in that place but open to everything around me. To ask myriad questions and think myriad thoughts.

And then the star came—shooting brilliantly down, and then down and down over the barn, carving a long and magnificent arc, until it turned a blinding green, extinguishing only just above the low horizon.

I was stunned. It left me breathless. It seemed like such a sign. A divine sign. But of what? I wasn’t asking for an omen. I wasn’t thinking about anything that could be satisfied by an answer as succinct as a single star. The only thing that shooting star seemed to be saying, that piece of rock careening through the earth’s atmosphere, was “yes.”

“Yes, the world is deep and cosmic and beautiful.”

It was kind of like the icing on a cake. I was thinking about how deep and dynamic, mysterious and unfathomable things are, and then the star came like, “Yep, and this, too,” smiling, laughing at me. Laughing at my smallness and my awe.

***

 Old tractor at Clarence and Beulah Maack farm, Cozad, Nebraska.

 

 

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