The Midwest home of our hearts
I was 12 when my mom, little brother, and I moved into my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in north central Kansas. Even though I’d always wanted to live in the country, the move from town to the old farmhouse terrified me.
Without city streetlights, the nights were so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and I lay awake, eyes wide open, night after night, listening as the coyotes howled from the nearby hills, setting our own dogs into a barking frenzy.
However, the move came with an enormous upside: We lived only a quarter of a mile from my grandparents who took my older brother into their home and all of us into their hearts.
Granddad became our father figure while my grandmother became our role model for love.
Granny was pure-blooded Czech, her parents having immigrated from the Czech Republic, or Bohemia as we called it. She stood five-feet-two, brimmed with vitality, and listened to children with the same deep respect she listened to adults.
I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, but no camera could capture her zest for life, her love for others, or her feisty spirit.
A blue-ribbon cook, she always took time from the strenuous farm life to make dinner or bake kalaches for neighbors, friends, and postal workers – even in the midst of ferrying her grandchildren into town for school and activities.
After we moved to the farm, I followed her example and baked chocolate chip cookies in a turkey roaster, the only oven we had.
Although I was excruciatingly shy, six-year-old Doug and I walked the cookies to our nearest neighbors, A.B. Neeley and his sister Mamie. They seemed surprised at the gesture, but graciously accepted our offering and us.
Afterwards, the nights didn’t seem quite as black, knowing they were sleeping soundly in their own old farmhouse.
Because of our grandparents, my brothers and I passionately loved their farm and the narrow river that bisected it. It was the home of our hearts even after we grew up and moved to Utah, but something more than just my grandparents engendered that love.
After they died, my mom and I spent a few months on the farm, sorting through 70 years of possessions.
Every morning before cleaning, I walked down the gravel road to A.B. Neeley’s house, the owners having passed away years earlier, over to the Peters’ home on the Solomon River, and back to the farm along the river.
I was on Sabbatical, so I felt more ease than usual. On every walk, nighthawks accompanied me, swooping down with the characteristic booming sound of their wings.
The land, rich with humidity, released a mist, making everything look luminous until the sun burned it off. I loved the earth, the big sky, and the rolling fields of wheat. I always resisted leaving my refuge.
That was not the case with Mom. When we first moved to Blanding, she felt like she’d come home at last, perhaps because she’d read Zane Grey books as a teenager and devoured the history of the area as an adult. It took me longer.
I adjusted slowly to the infant college and the intense teaching schedule, and as I drove to Montezuma Creek or Halchita for classes, I fretted about the cows and horses wintering on the desert, such a contrast to the lush pastures of the Midwest.
The transplanting process occurred so gradually, I’m unclear when it began. Perhaps it started outside of Montezuma Creek on my way to teach class when I experienced for myself the earth as a living being, not just as a concept taught in Sunday School, the scriptures, or science class.
That experience percolated through the years until I sensed nature’s wonder not just on the prairies, but in the desert, canyons, and mountains of the Southwest and even beyond in New York City’s Central Park, the Irish lochs, or Yellowstone.
I also sensed the relationship was reciprocal: That we affected the earth by what we held in our hearts.
Wherever we are, the human heart hungers for the earth. We need her, she needs us, and we need our human family.
In the book, Love Without Reason, LaRayla Gaston talks about creating Lunch on Me, a nonprofit organization which has fed over 500,000 meals to the Los Angeles homeless, but she didn’t set out to solve world hunger.
Instead, calling love a discipline, she set out to love each individual she met in small ways, believing “micro-gestures will change the world.”
My grandmother – and your grandmothers – did micro-gestures naturally, in a phone call, a kind word, a listening ear, a meal. They called it being neighborly.
Those acts of compassion haven’t ceased. I know because I’ve been the recipient of more than I can count, both large and small, even though I didn’t merit them. They were free gifts of grace, and they’ve completed my grafting into San Juan County where my heart now feels at home.
We have choices. We can focus on the darkness, lying awake night after night in the grip of terror, or we can help one another.
I can only speculate on the effect that micro-gestures have on the earth when they’re multiplied a half a million times like LaRayla’s meals.
Perhaps if we each did one small act of kindness each day, regardless of the recipient’s merits, we just might bring the heaven we yearn for to the earth we love.