Farewell

This is my 52nd blog.  And it is my final blog.

I began writing this weekly farm blog one year ago on the advice of a marketing specialist.  It was originally intended to be a marketing tool for my farm book trilogy. 

But very quickly, the blog took on a life of its own.  I heard the phrase “I love your blog!” every time I went to town, or to a party, or a family gathering.  It warmed my heart.  Truly.  Thank you.

But the demands of the blog were sometimes overwhelming.  It wasn’t just the hours spent writing.  It was coming up with new, original ideas week after week.  About three months into it, I asked myself, how many times will I be able to write about a wheat harvest and make it sound interesting? 

It also became glaringly apparent to me that writing this weekly farm blog was inherently ironic.  Every hour I spent in our basement writing about my love of farm life, was one less hour for me to spend enjoying the farm that I loved.  I selfishly needed to know there would be an end.

So, I set a goal for myself.  I would write this weekly blog for one year.  Like my books, this blog represented one year of farm life.  A Year on the Family Farm, set in 1965, depicted farm life from the perspective of a child.  Another Year on the Family Farm, set in 1970, portrayed farm life from the perspective of an adolescent.  The Return to the Family Farm, set in 2010, described re-entry into farm life from the perspective of an adult. 

My blog filled a gap.  The Return to the Family Farm was filled with the excitement and anticipation of a new life on the farm.  That book described the “wedding day”.  But what about the “marriage”?  A decade later, what is daily life like out on the farm?

A Year of Farm Blogs answers that question.  The “marriage” is sound.  There are no regrets.   

Many have encouraged me to “Keep writing!”  I won’t say that I won’t ever write again.  I’ve made that mistake before.  That’s what I said after I finished my first book.  And my second.  But I really meant it after my third.  Until I started writing the blog.  So, at this point, I will only say that I have no current plans to write again.

So, now that the blog is finished, if you ever find yourself wondering what I’m doing out there on the farm, just re-read the old blogs.  Because much of what I wrote will be repeated: 

This spring, I will put back the screens for my windows that I cleaned and stored last fall, and then I will hope we don’t get a late-spring blizzard.  I will plant my beets.  I will snap off a fresh asparagus stalk, shake off the dew, and munch it on my way to the barn where I will collect bucketsful of hair from my shedding horses, dogs and cats.  When I groom Simba, I will wear gloves.  I will rejoice at the return of Fred and Ethel and watch the swallows build their nest in the loafing shed of our barn.

In the summer, I will pick schwartzbeeren, harvest and preserve my beets, and shuck our corn.  Danny and I will share our farm with the many family and friends who visit.  We will bale our hay and, from the shade of our porch, I will watch the harvesters cut our wheat.  I will keep a watchful eye on a thunderstorm building on the horizon.  On a morning walk in late summer, I will pause in the shade of our aging, giant cottonwood tree and marvel at the beauty of a freshly blooming sunflower.

In the fall, I will clear my garden, take my screens back out, and watch the milo harvesters.  I will feed the wild birds and the deer and take long walks with my dogs.  I will ride BJ bareback.  I will find some time to piddle around and not feel guilty about it. 

Next winter, I will do all the indoor things that I dreamt about during the heat of the summer but for which I had no time. I will stare in awe at the Milky Way on a clear, moonless night. We will put on our pajamas after supper and doze in our recliners in front of the TV.

And during every season, I will reflect on my childhood growing up on the farm.  I will think about my ancestors and how hard they worked to turn this prairie into a home.  I will travel out-of-state to visit my children and grandchildren, and cherish every moment spent together.  We will play lots of pinochle. We will take a trip with my sisters and husbands, and we will laugh over stories about our brothers.  I will remember my parents with gratitude.  I will thank God daily that He brought us, late in life, back to our family farm.

And through it all, the sun will rise, and the sun will set.

And another year will pass.

(Each of my three books is available for purchase off my website:  yearonthefarm.com

An archive of A Year of Farm Blogs can also be found on the website.)

Welcome Spring! (A Pictorial Tribute)

Spring is coming. I smell it in the moist morning air. I hear it in the active mating calls of the meadowlarks and migrating geese. I see it in the plump buds on the trees and the mounds of soil where my asparagus, rhubarb, peonies and tulips are waiting to burst through.  I see the sun shifting on the horizon with each new sunrise, minutely lengthening each day.

I’m ready to spend my afternoons under a warm sun instead of in front of a warm fire.  I’m ready to take off my thick winter gloves and get my hands dirty in the soft garden dirt.  I’m ready to spend hours with my horses rather than with my sewing machine.  I’m ready for a change.

I don’t think I could ever live happily in a place where there weren’t four distinct seasons.  Just when I begin to tire of the indoor winter activities that I had looked forward to with such anticipation last fall, Spring arrives. Just when, instead of seeing a glistening white wonderland with every snowfall, I begin to see “work”, Spring arrives.

So this week, I thought I would show you why I am so eagerly looking forward to Spring. As with my fall and winter photos, every one of these photos was taken somewhere on our farm during the past decade while we have lived here. Happy Spring!

(All three of my books are available on my website, yearonthefarm.com)

Next Week:  Farewell

Mooving On

Back in the 1980’s, when Danny was first establishing his oil business, I took a trip with him to San Francisco where he met with several potential investors.  One of those meetings occurred in a fancy restaurant, where the tuxedo-clad waiter raved about their steaks – the juiciest, most delicious steaks available anywhere, he claimed.  “I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of it, but we use only 100% Prime Black Angus beef.  It’s flown in, direct to our restaurant,” he told us.  Danny and I gave each other a knowing look.

We didn’t tell him our freezer was full of home-grown, black angus beef back in Kansas.

Kansas may be known for its wheat production, but this is also the heart of cattle country.  Grassland where the buffalo once roamed is now dotted with quietly grazing cattle that lift their heads in curiosity at the combine harvesting wheat on the other side of the fence.  Those grasslands composed of short, tall, or mixed grasses comprise the largest vegetation formation in North America.  Yet only a small fraction of the original prairie remains untouched.  The rest has been plowed up for crops, or buried under cities and highways.

About 105 acres of that original, unbroken prairie lies on our farm.

During the Great Plow-up from 1900-1930 which eventually contributed to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, our 105 acres of grassland were deemed too rolling or, near the creek, too easily flooded to raise crops on.  The acreage was left as undisturbed prairie and used instead to pasture cattle.  Before I tell you about our local history with cattle, I would like to share a little history about the land upon which those cattle graze.

My great-grandfather Herman did not homestead the farm on which we now live.  He couldn’t.  No one could. 

We live on Section 16, Township 14 South, Range 16 West of the 6th Principal Meridian, Ellis County, Kansas.  The Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln after the secession of the southern states, designated that Section 16 of every township be sold by the U.S. government, not given away, in order to pay for the establishment of a school in every township.

The land we now own was initially purchased from the U.S. government by Francis G. White, an Englishman residing in London, on May 27, 1890.  It is doubtful that White ever lived on what is now our land, because on October 28, 1891, he deeded the land to Alexander G. White, also a resident of London, with no exchange of money.  Most likely, Alexander was Francis’ son.  A few days later, on November 1, 1891, my great-grandfather Herman purchased the northeast quarter of Section 16 from Alexander White for $1920.  In 1900, Herman purchased the southeast quarter as well, for $2080.  My great-grandfather then owned the entire east half of Section 16.

Francis White probably purchased the land as an investment, paying only $2190 to the U.S. government for the entire section.  And since the land was purchased, not homesteaded, White was not subject to the 5-year residency requirement of the Homestead Act, which allowed him to remain in London.  I will never know whether Francis White was one of the original colonists of George Grant – the man responsible for all those amazing black angus steaks I was talking about earlier.

George Grant was a wealthy Scotsman who made his fortune in the silk industry.  Intrigued by reports of America’s untamed grasslands, Grant toured the Great Plains in the spring of 1872.  Toward the end of his journey, after passing through Fort Hays, he continued east across Ellis County.  He became enraptured with the endless rolling prairie, blooming wildflowers and abundant buffalo grazing contentedly on the lush prairie grasses.  He yearned to settle here, and dreamed of establishing a colony of wealthy, stock-breeding Britishers.

In the spring of 1873, a contingent of sons and daughters of England’s most noble families set sail for the American frontier.  They settled in the eastern part of Ellis County and named their new settlement after the British Queen Victoria.

George Grant brought four angus bulls with him.  When he first showed two of his bulls at the Kansas City Livestock Exposition in the fall of 1873, many people considered them “freaks” because of their hornless heads and solid black color.  But Grant bred his bulls to native Texas Longhorn cows and proved that the cross-bred calves survived the winter better and gained more weight.

Unfortunately, his countrymen did not fare as well.  After several years of poor crop yields, meager water supplies, grasshopper infestations, winter storms and theft of their prized breeding stock, most of the British returned home.

George Grant was one of the few who stayed.  He died in 1878, and is buried in Victoria in a grave marked by a monument commemorating his contribution to the American cattle industry.  Several miles away atop a rolling hill sits his limestone two-story Victorian home known as “Grant’s Villa”.  After Grant’s death, it was sold to Danny’s great-grandfather Moritz Baier and is still owned by a Baier descendant today.

Also in 1872 – the same year Grant first visited – my own great-grandfather, Herman Berens, came to America from Hanover, Germany with his young wife, Elizabeth.  They settled in Junction City, Ohio where their first four children were born.  In 1878 – the year Grant died – Herman migrated with his young family and his unmarried brother, Ulrich, to Ellis County.  Herman and Ulrich shared a homestead in eastern Ellis County.  During the 5-year residency requirement, they supplemented their farm income by purchasing excess livestock from area farmers and riding the rails with the cattle to the stockyards in Denver and Kansas City, where they sold the cattle for profit.

In the ensuing years, Herman and Ulrich amassed a small fortune, mostly from the cattle trade.  Herman sold his half of the original homestead to his brother Ulrich in 1885, and began buying other area farmland.  After his purchase from White in 1891, my great-grandfather built a large, two-story Victorian farmhouse on the new land into which he moved with his wife and then-eight children.  His last two children, one of whom was my grandfather William, were born on the land which we now call “home”.

My own experiences with cattle aren’t nearly as riveting.  When I was a child, my father’s cattle herd consisted of mostly Holsteins for his dairy, and Angus-Hereford crosses for beef.  But since our move back to the farm, Danny and I mostly see Black Angus graze our pasture.  One of our first years at the farm, we decided to purchase eight young steers in the spring, graze them all summer, then sell the fattened steers in the fall for a profit.  With our lush pasture grass, there was little overhead.

The problem was that the small herd of eight quickly became domesticated.  In fact, in the photo you can see our granddaughter hand-feeding the largest of the herd, a curly-haired angus steer that we affectionately called Brutus.  Selling Brutus and his companions that fall proved more emotionally difficult than we had anticipated.

Since then, we simply rent our pasture to an area farmer.  At the completion of calving in the spring, he brings a herd of one bull, and about twenty-five cow/calf pairs.  All summer, we get to watch the playful calves frolic and buck, we get to watch the nurturing cows graze and nurse their babies, and we get to watch the protective bull supervise his herd and bellow menacingly to the bull across the road.  Come fall, we get to say goodbye to any winter work or worries. 

It’s kind of like being a grandparent – we get all of the fun with none of the fuss.

(I learned long ago that it’s not a good idea to name cattle.  Read about Cinnamon the Calf in my first book, A Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Welcome Spring!  (A Pictorial Tribute)

Grandpa’s Still

There is an old still buried somewhere on our farm.  Most of the time I don’t think about it, but sometimes, when I am walking with my dogs through the tall prairie grasses, and I am in a particularly contemplative mood, I do think about it.  And I wonder, where would they have buried it?

In the January chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm, I wrote about my father’s father, William, and how he became a bootlegger during Prohibition.  I also wrote that he eventually became his own best customer.  And I alluded to the devastating toll that his drinking took on his family.  But I didn’t tell the story of the buried still.

My grandfather William was buried on my sixth birthday, November 12, 1962.  I barely knew him and have limited memories of him.  It wasn’t until 1995, when Danny and I purchased the family land on which we now live, that I began to pay attention to the family stories of Grandpa’s escapades that began during Prohibition and ended at his burial.

Getting caught bootlegging meant fines and/or jail time, and Grandpa got caught plenty.  But he also had some loyal customers whose supply would be gone while Grandpa was in jail.  So, if one of his supporters got wind of a potential raid, he tried to give Grandpa enough warning to allow him time to hide the evidence.

Grandpa’s modus operandi was to bury the still and hide it below ground.  One family story described Grandpa quickly digging a hole in the dirt floor of his barn stall, then covering the hole with wood planks and straw.  He moved a cow into the stall on top of the planks.  It never occurred to the authorities to search beneath the cow – probably because the cow’s deposits on the floor provided a natural deterrent.

For years, I had heard bits and pieces of a story about a still that had remained buried somewhere on the family ground.  But the details were vague and they varied depending upon which family member told the story.  It was supposedly a good-quality still with a copper kettle, so even though more than a half century had passed, the kettle should still be intact.  I developed an urge to find it.

During a conversation with one of my students at Fort Hays State University, she described to me how she had taken part in an underground search as part of a university-sponsored field trip.  I mentioned my desire to locate the buried still.  She suggested that I contact her instructor in the geophysics department to see if it were possible to use their sophisticated equipment to help me find it.

In exchange for a donation to their department, a professor from the geophysics department agreed to bring their equipment and three graduate students to our land to conduct a search.  But it was impractical to search all 240 acres.  By that time my dad had already passed away, so I asked Uncle Alvin for guidance as to where the still might be buried.  He suggested the area around the old barn.

On April 9, 2001, the professor and three students conducted an electrical resistivity survey to search for conductive metals such as copper.  They also conducted a magnetometer survey to search for iron bearing material.  Sure enough, two anomalies were discovered.

The first anomaly produced an old rusted tin can, not a still.  The second anomaly was more interesting. 

Digging to a depth of two to three feet, the rather large anomaly produced a small piece of curved copper plating and some steel mesh.  Both could have been from a still.  But the family story implied that a still had been buried in its entirety.  The geophysics team was convinced they had found the still for which we were searching.  I wasn’t so sure.

Later that summer, at a family wedding, conversation turned to our recent search for the buried still.  We described the search, and what was found, to a number of family members.  The information spread like wildfire through the wedding hall.  At one point, a cousin came up behind me and touched my arm.  I turned to face her.  “Aunt Caroline wants to see you,” she said.

Caroline was the youngest of Daddy’s siblings, one of only two girls in the family.  The two girls were the oldest and youngest of nine children, with seven brothers between them.  Daddy was the third oldest child.  As the youngest child, and the last to leave home, my mom always said that, “Caroline had it the worst.”  After my grandmother, Caroline’s mother, died in a tragic car accident in 1942, young Caroline was left at home without a protector, without a buffer against her father’s alcoholic rages.

I sat beside Caroline at her table.  She wanted to hear first-hand about our search for the still.  She listened silently as I relayed the details.  When I finished, she told me matter-of-factly, “You didn’t find it.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because Alvin didn’t bury it.  Pete and I did.”  Pete was the second-youngest child, the brother nearest her in age.

She continued.  “We buried that still where no one will ever find it.”  And then she told me the story.

One day while their father was gone, she and Pete took his still and – together – they buried it where they were convinced, he would never find it.  They concocted a story of a thief, someone they only caught a glimpse of from a distance, who came to their farm and stole the precious still.  They swore to each other that they would never, ever, tell their father the truth, or tell anyone else where it was buried.

They knew the risks.  If their father didn’t believe them, they knew they would feel his wrath.  They did it anyway.  Until the day he died, Grandpa believed that someone had snuck onto his farm and stolen his copper still.

I asked Caroline if she wouldn’t now, since her father was gone and so many years had passed, share the location of the buried still.  I told her it might act as a cautionary tale to the younger members of our family.  I quoted George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Caroline responded, “You feel that way because you didn’t live through it.  You couldn’t possibly understand.”  Then she added, “You know, Mary Kay, your dad once asked me where the still was buried.  I told him, ‘Herman, I can’t tell you that.’”  She paused.  “Your father respected that.”

Then she looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Don’t ask me again.”

I never did.  Caroline is gone now, along with Pete, Daddy, Alvin and the rest of their generation.  And the still remains buried.

Some may consider Caroline and Pete’s burial of the still as an ineffectual act of defiance from two desperate children.  After all, it didn’t stop their father’s drinking, it didn’t resurrect their mother, and it didn’t repair their family.  For many years, that’s the way I saw it.

But with the passage of time, I now see it differently.  I see it as the empowered triumph of a little girl over the demons of a dysfunctional childhood.  The still – and all it represented – may have destroyed the happiness in Caroline’s family, but it did not destroy her fighting spirit.  It may have stolen the innocence of her youth, but it could not steal her spunk.

The still will stay buried on our farm in an ignominious, unmarked grave.  But the tale of the fearless little survivor will live on.

Next Week:  Mooving On

It’s More Than a Game

My family plays pinochle.  No, wait.  That wasn’t quite emphatic enough.  My family lives and breathes pinochle.  Pinochle is our family heritage

There.  That’s more like it.

For those of you have never played pinochle, here’s a brief description of the game:  It is played using a special, 48-card deck with the four standard suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades – and twelve cards in each suit.  But instead of the typical ace through king, in a pinochle deck, all the twos through eights have been removed.  The remaining six cards – nine, ten, jack, queen, king, and ace – each have a double.  Play consists of two parts: points given for random combinations called meld, followed by points for tricks taken during rounds of play.

I counted the number of pinochle decks we have in our home right now.  We currently have seven unopened decks still wrapped in cellophane, and two used decks at various stages of griminess.  But a new deck will not be opened before its time.  There is a certain amount of ceremony required before one can open a new deck.  It goes something like this:

A player will proclaim a misdeal after being dealt eleven, not twelve cards.  Someone else at the table then counts thirteen in his hand.  Someone else says, “But this is my best hand of the night!”  All the players shake their heads and toss their cards into the center of the table with an obvious display of disdain.  At this point, the dealer becomes defensive saying, “It’s not my fault! The cards are sticky!” which is more than likely true because it is impossible to play pinochle for hours on end without snacks.  In order to keep the peace, a new deck is reverently brought from the “card drawer” and carefully unsealed, with the inside of the box lid hand-labeled “Born on (that day’s date)”.  Inevitably, on the next misdeal the dealer will defensively proclaim, “It’s not my fault!  The cards are too slick!”

Pinochle is challenging, addictive, and extremely satisfying.  Yet I refused to learn to play pinochle until I was an adult.  You will understand why after I describe a typical pinochle night during my childhood.

Our lone family phone, a wall phone in our dining room, would ring around 10:00 on a Saturday morning.  Depending upon whether The Monkees or Superman was on TV, either I or my sisters would get up off the couch and answer the phone. 

“Mom? It’s Aunt Millie,” would be yelled towards the kitchen where my mother had already begun working on the noon meal.  It was at this point that I could feel the excitement building in my chest.  A Saturday morning call from Aunt Millie, the wife of my dad’s brother, could only mean one thing:  pinochle!

“Yes, we’ll be home tonight,” I could hear my mom say from the dining room.  Of course, they would be home.  There were only two things important enough to get my parents off the farm on a Saturday night – a wake or a wedding.  “Visiting” was reserved for Sundays after church.  On Saturday nights, it was Uncle Alvin and Aunt Millie who traveled the fifteen miles to our farm.

Popcorn would be in the kettle and cards on the table before Uncle Alvin’s car even made the turn into our farmyard.  It wasn’t the pinochle that excited me, it was an entire evening spent playing in the basement with my favorite cousin, Kay Ann, having virtually no adult supervision because our distracted parents were consumed by pinochle in the kitchen.

Although Kay Ann and I tried hard to stay under our parents’ radar, there were times when a door would slam a little too loudly during a rousing game of hide-and-seek or tag, or a thump! could be heard all the way upstairs when our feet hit the floor after jumping off the bed.

 A “WHAT’S GOING ON DOWN THERE?!” coming from the kitchen always caused Kay Ann and I to immediately freeze.  This accusatory question always came from either my mom or Aunt Millie.  Never our dads.  Our dads couldn’t care less what we did as long as it didn’t interrupt The Game.

“Nothing!” we always quickly responded.  Then we waited with wide eyes and bated breath until we heard either adult footsteps on the stairs which meant we were in so much trouble, or …

“BAM!”

…a knuckle rap on the kitchen table hard enough to shake the basement light fixtures.  Kay Ann and I smiled at the sound.  It meant that pinochle play had resumed and we were once again off the radar.

My dad and his brother each had strong, thick, muscular hands and fingers.  As they dramatically brought down onto the table a card that took a trick, particularly if it were a surprise to everyone else at the table, they loudly rapped the table with their knuckles.  Until quite recently, I thought their knuckle rap was an ultra-competitive, “In your face, Suckah!”, type of endzone dance.  Turns out, it’s quite possibly how the game got its name!

One online source on the history of pinochle suggests that the name derives from the German words “bis” meaning “until” and “knochel” meaning “knuckle”.  A rap of knuckles on the table indicated the end of the game.  Another source confirmed the game’s German roots.  It stated that the game was brought to America by German immigrants and that during World War I, anti-German sentiment ran so high that Syracuse, New York went as far as outlawing the game of pinochle.

My dad’s overly-exuberant knuckle rap actually frightened me a bit as a child.  That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to learn how to play.  My mom’s reaction to his knuckle rap was always an angry, “You’re going to break the table!” although I suspect her response was less concern for the table and more frustration at the lost trick since every match-up was always “guys against the girls”. 

The whole idea of a game-ending knuckle rap intrigues me.  Perhaps chess would be a lot more fun to watch if, instead of a polite “checkmate”, the victor announced his winning move with a knuckle rap on the table that knocked all his opponent’s pieces off the board.  This would, of course, be even more entertaining if it occurred in combination with an enthusiastic “In your face, Suckah!”

Another reason I didn’t want to learn to play while I was growing up was because both of my parents were such amazing players, and they were both highly competitive.  Quite frankly, I was afraid I would disappoint. My mother, if she were alive, would vehemently deny being competitive.  My dad, on the other hand, would take it as a complement.

At any rate, I postponed learning to play until I married Danny.  It was actually his family that taught me to play.  (Of course, his family played.  My parents would never have approved a mixed marriage.)  They never yelled at me when I committed the unavoidable, rookie errors although I do recall occasionally seeing a vein or two pop out on my in-laws’ temples.

Years ago, when our brother-in-law arrived into our family, it was made very clear to him that avoiding pinochle is not an option.  He is a native Texan and had never been exposed to the game before he married my sister.  We all quickly forgave him for being Texan (one has no control over one’s birth, after all), but not for his reluctance to play pinochle.  In recent years, I have been pleased to notice that, not only are his skills improving, but he appears to genuinely like the game! Another convert.

Since then, we have taught both of our daughters-in-law how to play and we taught our oldest granddaughter to play.   They are all quite good at it.  It occurred to me recently that it is time to start teaching our second and third granddaughters the game as well. 

Because in our family, pinochle is more than a game.  It’s a rite of passage, and it’s a bridge that connects the generations.

My brother Delmer, my mom, and my dad in our farm kitchen in the 1970’s.
My non-Texan brother-in-law has his back to the camera.
Yes, they are playing pinochle.

(My cousin Kay Ann plays a prominent role in all three of my books: A Year on the Family Farm, Another Year on the Family Farm, and The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Grandpa’s Still

I’m Rooting for You!

Recently, on one of my walks with our dogs along the creek, I found what I recognized to be a cottonwood sapling.  In the middle of winter, there were obviously no leaves on the small, spindly baby tree, but the buds were unmistakable.  I smiled at the possibility of another beautiful, majestic cottonwood tree that would give shade and shelter to all the creatures that call our farm “home”, but I am also realistic.

It probably won’t survive.

Even if it did, it’s life would be very different from the life of a sapling in town.  A young tree planted in someone’s manicured, well-kept lawn would be routinely fertilized and watered.  It would be watched closely and immediately treated at the first sign of insect damage or disease.  The trunk would be staked to protect it from wind and wrapped to protect the bark from rabbits.  I know this because we did all of those things when we still lived in town.

But since our move to the farm, my perspective has changed.  I am now a firm believer in natural selection.  Nature has a way of eliminating the weakest members in a population so that only the strongest and fittest live to reproduce.  A wild tree that cannot thrive on our farm without human intervention probably shouldn’t be here.

I don’t say that lightly.  Trees on the prairie are a precious commodity and I rejoice at the sight of every strong healthy tree growing along our creek bank.  In addition to cottonwoods, we have creek elm, willows and even a few mulberry trees.  These trees have all planted themselves, and they now nourish themselves from the native soil and water themselves from the creek water.  During dry times they go dormant early and during floods they extend their roots and firmly entrench themselves in solid soil.  They bend during massive storms, but do not break from the wind.

In one of my previous blogs, Bracing Up, I described the loss of two of our trees during a major thunderstorm.  What I didn’t tell you at the time was that both of those trees were redbud trees.  And that we had originally planted six redbud trees when we first built our home on the farm.  And that three of those trees had either died from disease or been lost in earlier storms.  We now have one redbud tree left.  If it dies at some point, I will not mourn its loss.  For whatever reason, redbuds do not thrive at our farm, and we will not replant.

The irony of this is that in the last ten years, I have spent vastly more time nurturing and coddling those six redbuds than I have the double-digit multitude of wild trees growing along our creek. 

This photo appears to be a cluster of cottonwood trees growing together.  In reality, it is one tree.  The original trunk was gnawed off by beaver, so the tree sent up numerous shoots off the stump.  It has a strong root system and the tree is thriving.

This cottonwood tree, on the other hand, appears to be dead.   It lost all its leaves last summer and its bark is peeling.  We’ll give it one more season, but if it doesn’t leaf out, we’ll cut its trunk for firewood.  What killed it?  Disease or insects, I imagine, but I’ll never know for sure.

I see the native trees’ enduring struggles to survive on the prairie as symbolic of the struggles of our ancestors who first braved the hazards of the plains of Kansas.  Not all survived.  Diseases like pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis and diphtheria killed many and accidents killed others.  One of my own great-grandfathers was trampled by a runaway team of horses.

And like my coddled redbud trees, some should never have been planted here.  Many of the noble English settlers who established the city of Victoria in Ellis County found the Kansas prairie too harsh, and returned to civilization in their native country, taking their lace tablecloths and china teacups with them. 

But those who survived and thrived were all the stronger because of it.  And they produced generation after generation of hardy descendants who still thrive here.

I won’t know for several years whether the tiny cottonwood sapling will survive, but I do know this:  I’ll be rooting for it.

(The March chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm, describes some of my earliest experiences with the wild trees on our farm.)

Next Week:  It’s More Than a Game

A Stitch in Time

My mother’s mother, “Grammy” we called her, was an amazing seamstress.  Grammy died when I was eight years old, so I have limited memories of her and I only know this fact because my mother told me.

One of my favorite stories about Grammy’s sewing prowess occurred in the spring of 1934.  As a widow during the Depression, Grammy couldn’t afford to purchase new Easter dresses for her two daughters, so she instead made one for each of them.  My mother and her sister perused the Sears and Roebuck catalog until they each found a style they liked.  Grammy measured her daughters, cut patterns out of old newspapers, and sewed beautiful dresses for her daughters that mimicked those from the catalog.  My mother’s was made of green satin.

I always imagined that my mother looked stunning with her red hair and green satin dress as she ate Easter dinner with her soon-to-be in-laws.

My mom, unlike her mother, never learned to sew because she never needed to.  Grammy continued to sew clothes for her grandchildren, even making shirts for one of my brothers out of the fabric from my mom’s wedding dress.

When I started high school, there were two classes in which my mom strongly encouraged me to enroll: home economics and driver’s education.  At that time, home economics basically entailed learning to cook and learning to sew.  Mom freely admitted that her encouragement was more than a little selfish in nature.  Although she was an amazing cook, she was quite anxious to have easy access to both a seamstress and a chauffeur.

Being a dutiful daughter, I did as requested and discovered that I loved both driving and sewing!  (Cooking, not so much.  I think I am an okay cook, but I don’t really enjoy it.  I do, however, enjoy eating, which is why I cook.)

During my high school years, I sewed many items of clothing for myself including a five-piece Easter outfit (skirt, pants, vest, blouse, scarf) and my junior prom dress in 1972.  (Yes, that handsome young lad standing next to me is my future husband.)

These days I no longer sew my own clothing, preferring instead to sew quilts.  During the winter months on the farm, when there is little outside work besides my twice-a-day animal feedings, I spend many hours in my basement at my sewing machine.  I have made a baby quilt for each of my grandchildren, I have made lap quilts for many of my family members, and I have pieced together several queen-sized bed quilts as well.

The bedding in the photo was pieced together and embroidered by me.  It took me years to finally complete it all because I kept getting sidetracked by other projects (like writing).

A few months ago, I was delighted when I received an unexpected phone call from my oldest granddaughter.

“Grammy?” (Yes, my own grandchildren call me “Grammy”.)

“Would you show me again how to embroider?”

A number of years ago I bought her some embroidery supplies and taught her a few basic stitches.  She was now wanting to embroider her name and a vine-like ring of flowers on her new backpack, but had forgotten some of what I taught her.  I was more than happy to help her, but the fact that she was calling from Phoenix made her request a bit problematic.

“We can FaceTime,” she told me, suggesting a 21st century solution that my own Grammy could not have even imagined.

So, that’s what we did.  Focusing the screen on my hands, I reviewed with her some basic embroidery stitches.  I think she did a fabulous job, if I do say so myself.

I think my grammy would be very proud.  I know this one is.

(Grammy is mentioned several times in A Year on the Family Farm and also in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  I’m Rooting For You!