by Elisabeth Reinkordt
Early November, 2007
I’m sure Nebraska isn’t the only place people call a huge magnet, mercilessly pulling its expatriates back into the folds of its equally merciless climate. There is among the repatriated, however, a certain attitude that while sounding somewhat like defeat actually has more of an air of defiance to it. Yes, we got out. Yes, we came back to Nebraska, goddammit.
As I biked to work against a strong north wind this morning — after having heard that Tuesday’s morning low will be a mere 23 degrees — I had already forgotten how my mother and I spent yesterday afternoon in nothing more than light jackets, wandering the epicenter of the field’s pull.
“Vapour Trail” — Josh Ritter (mp3)
In the 1890s, my mother’s mother’s parents moved onto a farmstead one mile west and a quarter mile south of where my parents live today. My grandmother was the third youngest of three daughters and three sons. Frances was the head seamstress at the Miller & Paine Department Store in downtown Lincoln.
(My husband Ande and I are currently living in an apartment in the so-called Miller Mansion, the grand house built by the Miller family, big enough to split into 11 large apartments.)
Frances was engaged to a man who they said “wore his pants funny.” They were never married, but he did buy her a very nice engagement ring, which I now wear. Betty became a teacher, and moved west.
Ravil was an engineer, a perpetual tinkerer. When he was deployed in North Africa during the War, he figured out a way to roast coffee, which earned him a job with Fleetwood Coffee in Tennessee after the war was over.
There is a shed on the farm — Ravil’s shed — and when he would drive his Thunderbird up from Chattanooga to visit, the tall, quiet man my mom and aunt called Uncle Whiskers would spend hours in there going through the drawers in his desk, reading old letters.
“Piece of My Heart” — The Killers (mp3)
My mother has since discovered, upon inheriting the desk, that the letters were in fact ones written by my grandmother, her sisters, and their mother about what was going on back on the farm, sent to him when he was overseas. There was the year they couldn’t get new tires for the tractor; there were still crops to be planted.
When you drive along long stretches of North-South highway in Nebraska, as in many Great Plains states, there is occasionally a jog in the otherwise straight road. Why? To compensate for the curvature of the Earth. These are the things you learn from Uncle Ravil.
My grandmother, born in 1909, ran over the fields 2 miles to get to school in Denton. She went to the University of Nebraska Teachers’ College, and taught the length of the state from Bayard — home of Chimney Rock and at least a 7 hour drive west on the Interstate — to Aurora to Lincoln. She was tall, proud, and outspoken, and her brother Ravil made her take apart and reassemble the Model-T before letting her take it on a road trip back East with her friend Irma. She and my grandfather bought the place a country mile away from the old Smith farm, which is the same land my parents farm today, minus 20 acres.
Ernest was a cowboy, and became a rancher in Wyoming, living just a few miles from Devil’s Tower along the Snake River. My mom and her brother and sister remember fondly going to the ranch, swimming in the river, having a cowboy uncle. Harry, another tinkerer, co-piloted a C-47 during the war, and returned to work at Gooch’s Mill, maker of Gooch’s pasta and right by the Weaver Potato Chip factory.
These six siblings and their parents lived in a beautiful house nestled away from the road, six bedrooms on the second floor. The years were too tough and the debt was too much, though, and the family lost the farm after the Depression years.
In 1968, the City of Lincoln and the regional Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Game and Parks Commission arranged for a dam to be built and a lake and Recreation Area to be put in in between my grandparents’ 80 acres (an eighth-section, one section being one square mile, every mile being the incrementation of roads in the country) and the old Smith place, which had at that point already changed hands many times. The dam would provide flood control for the city, and the lake and surrounding wilderness would provide hunting and recreation areas for weary city dwellers. There was no arguing, and 20 acres of the farm went to the state, adding a jog in a East-West road not necessitated by the curvature of the Earth.
And on the west side of the new lake, the beginnings of Salt Creek — the dreaded flooder — that ran through the old farmstead became public lands, accessible to the family once again.
Every fall, bittersweet — a curling vine with bright, deep orange-red berries — springs out in the otherwise graying brush. My mother goes every year, often after Thanksgiving dinner (dinner here refers to a large meal in the middle of the day, generally on Sundays), and advertises it guests as “The Bittersweet Walk.” Generally, this means the Germans go — for the fortitude that walking in the brisk air brings; the women go — in solidarity, in good company, to walk off the big meal; the children are dragged along — it’s good for you, you’re going; my father, my brother, and I often manage to hide out, this being an inevitably long and meandering adventure, there being sardonic jokes to be made, trouble to get into elsewhere.
Ah, what newfound appreciation moving back to Nebraska, borrowing a nice camera, and having a retired mother brings!
“L-O-V-E” — Natalie Cole (mp3)
After venturing into brush that my mother verified had never been thicker, we found bunches of bittersweet, brighter than ever. When the sun started to go down, we climbed Bunker Hill, which has been sledded, skied, run, and biked on by 4 generations of my family. When she told me she and her brother biked over it, I knew I’d have a long winter of bike commuting ahead of me.
More photos on flickr.
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
My friend says, I was not a good son.
We willingly humiliate our brother.