Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Nebraska-- Part Deux

Each year, my family goes back to Nebraska. This year we went at Memorial Day. In addition to eating great food and visiting relatives, we went to the small cemetery in Table Rock where my ancestors are buried. My father and grandmother are buried there, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, aunts and uncles all the way back to 1880. We planted begonias at my father’s grave, and geraniums at my grandparents’ tombstone. There are tall pine trees in the graveyard, and it’s shady and cool, even on hot days. It’s peaceful. I am comforted visiting the graves of my people. I will be buried next to my parents: about two years ago I bought a small granite marker with my name and birth date. At this point, more of my immediate family members are dead than alive, and I want to be with them when I am gone. I understand that strange “vampire” longing to lie in my native soil. The earth of Nebraska is my flesh, the trees are my bones, the cool creek is the blood that rushes through my veins.

Life and death are difficult topics. It’s hard to talk about deep things, and the longing I have for Nebraska is complicated. It’s a place of happy memories, and it’s tied to my family, my childhood, and the land itself. Years ago I heard a Nebraska artist say that Nebraska is pretty, not beautiful. It’s understated. I think I know what he meant. The landscape isn’t the drama of the Rockies. It’s the soothing calmness of green rolling hills, trees, and creeks. They say the Platte River is a mile wide but just a foot deep.

Some of my happiest memories are visiting my grandparents’ farm. It is small: by the time I was born they were no longer to make a living from it. My grandfather was older, and it would have taken a large capital investment of expensive new farming equipment to make the small acreage profitable. In the 1960’s, many small family farms were abandoned, and agribusiness was born. The farm house was left standing for about 10 years after my grandparents moved to town. It was vandalized, and my grandmother’s collection of pink Depression glass, which she didn’t have room for in town, was all broken. Reluctantly they tore the house down. The old place was said to be haunted. As a child, it both thrilled and terrified me. There were old bookcases filled with old books, a few bedstands, and lots of small, worn out toys from all the children who had played there over the years. I would walk through the mostly empty rooms of the old place, and bring an old book or toy back to town when the visit was over.

In summer, my grandparents, along with my grandmother’s parents, would take picnics down to the creek near the farm. I was lucky enough to have my great-grandmother alive till I was 30; my great-grandfather passed when I was 8. My grandmother baked homemade bread, and packed sandwiches of summer sausage, the bread slathered with butter. They were delicious. I can still picture those picnics in my mind. We would ride together down the dirt road to the empty farm house, and park the car next to the creek. Then my grandmother or her mother would spread out a large blanket, and we would enjoy the feast she brought. What happy times, what blessed memories.

When we go to the farm now, I become melancholy. I think of those old times. I have regrets, and wish I had been more attentive to my older relatives. The only consolation I have is the thought that “without remorse there is no virtue.” That line, from a poem by Elena Rivera, consoles me with the thought that because I have regret, maybe at least I have become a slightly better person than I was then. Small comfort such selfish thoughts are.

This year the farm has been planted with wheat. For the last several years it has had acres of corn, but apparently that is less profitable. The nation’s food policy is a mess: crop subsidies favor large agribusiness. A few companies like Monsanto set the country’s policy, and are largely responsible for our obesity and poor health. The food that is the cheapest is the least nourishing and our consumption of corn and wheat is responsible for both our girth and diabetes. The farmer that plants the crops for my mother is a kind, good-hearted man. Most all the people in Nebraska are good and decent. They will gladly give directions if you are lost, are eager to engage in friendly small talk, and will always be helpful and generous. Yet the minute the conversation turns to politics, these good folks will spout nasty right wing talking point. Don’t even bother to ask what they think of President Obama. It wouldn’t be fit to print. Yet these same farmers see the mess created by Republican economic policies. But the smirking monkey George Bush did no wrong, and the Dems can do no right, even when they do the right thing. It’s hard to reconcile the kindness of these good farm folks with the ugly politics they spout.

Tom Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas” offers an explanation of how and why good, decent people will eagerly vote for a corrupt party whose economic policies hurt them. Republicans have successfully used social issues like gays, guns and abortion as hot button topics that get otherwise sensible people to vote against their own pocketbooks. You see the same thing even in mainline churches. Conservatives use the issue of gays to divide and change religion. In my grandmother’s small American Baptist church, a new pastor came to town and tore her church in half over the issue of gays. Now, how many gay people actually live in Tecumseh, Nebraska, and just how exactly do gays pose a cataclysmic threat to the rest of the town? Please, please explain it. My grandmother stopped going to church, and never went back. She knew the brouhaha was ridiculous, a tool used to create a diversion from more pressing social issues.

After visiting the cemetery and the farm, I went with my mother to her ?th year high school reunion (she wouldn’t be happy if I told what decade it was). There were 24 in her high school class. The school was so small they hold all the reunions together. The oldest alumnus was from Table Rock High School Class of 1936. The event was held at the Table Rock Hotel, where the downstairs once housed the movie theatre. Unlike most banquets where you choose between leathery steak and tough chicken breast, the meal featured both meats, and both were delicious. There was an actual salad, not just a wedge of iceberg lettuce. There was fresh fruit. The cost was $11. The caterer was the same person who cooks the lunch at the senior center, where those well-fed oldsters can eat for $3. The conversation was fine as long as we stayed away from politics. One old geezer felt compelled to say how much he supported Arizona’s discriminatory SB1070. He had nothing to worry about, this old white guy driving a Buick.

There was an “illegal” immigrant scandal recently in the Nebraska state prison. It turns out they had been hiring undocumented Eastern Europeans as guards, and one was a drug-dealing kingpin. These immigrants, however, where white, so I guess that made it OK. People in rural Nebraska tend to look alike: big, tall, stocky, white, elderly. Nebraska is one place I can go to and feel young. I also feel elfin, as most folks tower over me and outweigh me by a hundred pounds. They are mostly blond, and it’s creepy being surrounded by giant Aryans. I have to confess that those Gerber blonde hair blue- eyed babies chill me to the bone. Yikes.

Mostly, Nebraska fills me with a sense of loss. I miss my loved ones who have passed on. My great-great grandparents moved to the state in 1871 to build a Utopian paradise. My great-grandfather was an officer in Nebraska’s Socialist party in the 1930. Those days are long gone, ended with the hysteria of the McCarthy years. Looking across the gentle, rolling hills, I feel a deeper loss. The state was founded on a forgotten crime. The land never belonged to the Europeans. It was stolen from the Indians. Abraham Lincoln, the sainted man, enacted the Homestead Act shortly before his assassination. It was believed that the native peoples didn’t deserve their land because they hadn’t developed it. Sure, they had lived there since time immemorial, but they hadn’t made any capital improvements. Where were their houses, factories, farms? And now the peaceful Ponca, the hunting Pawnee, the colorful Lakota are gone, all gone.

The prairie grass is mostly gone. When the native grasses were gone, the buffalo disappeared. The first nations were rounded up and exiled to Oklahoma and the Dakotas. Now the land is dotted with farms. You can see where the small farms are: they are surrounded by trees. There are few native trees in Nebraska, tree were brought in by the legendary Johnny Appleseed and other Europeans. The majority of the old farm houses are in disrepair, and the land is dotted with crumbling houses and barns. Small family farmers have left, replaced by factory farming and agribusiness. Sadly, too many have gone along with these changes, and even voted for the politicians that displaced this way of life.

In the last hundred years, two ways of life have left the prairie. The Indian nations were displaced by small family farms. Small family farms have been replaced by agribusiness. With a smile, we’ve voted for gangsters who have stolen the land yet again, diverting us from their crimes by telling us the real problem is gays and abortion. So we’re eating poisoned food, and spreading pesticides everywhere. But at least the gays and “illegal” immigrants have been put in their place, thank God. At this rate, all life will be gone from the prairies in the next hundred years.

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