Early in 2001 a young labrador mix–maybe a year or two–strayed from her home north of the Twin Cities. No one knows who housebroke her so perfectly or taught her “sit” and “down” and to wait for an “OK” before exiting the door on her walk. No one knows whether her leaving was deliberate or a garbage sniffing gone too far. No one knows what name those people called into the dusk when she didn’t return.
By the time she was brought to the Animal Humane Society she was skinny and dehydrated. Kennel cough left her quiet and subdued enough to lie in her pen looking demure while the other adult dogs barked and howled and leaped against the fencing.
I wasn’t shopping for a dog. Our mischievous woodwork-chewing, chocolate-binging, furniture-marking Rebel had died three years before. My life was nearing its empty-nest phase. One daughter would soon graduate from high school. The other had a year of college left and was living at home, but her plan was to go to Korea after graduation. She had turned 21 the day before and thought it an important enough milestone for an extra day of celebration. “Let’s go to the Humane Society and just look at the dogs,” she suggested. That quiet, demure black one caught us.
Over the last twelve years I have often wished I could tell those people in or near Coon Rapids what became of their sweet girl. She never got to hunt ducks, which I presume they were training her for, but all her instincts were poised on the mallards swimming in our city lakes. I apologized to her many times for my inability to satisfy them. The first time we left her home alone she found a copy of Packinghouse Daughter and not only chewed its edges but ripped the dustjacket right across the photo of my face. We bought her a kennel, and it became not only a place of confinement but her refuge from scolding looks and loud voices. She needed little scolding, however. She never chewed another object that didn’t belong to her. She never stole food off countertops, although she was a determined sidewalk scavenger.
She became the perfect companion for a work-at-home writer. She wasn’t needy, didn’t whine for attention, didn’t follow my heels up and down stairs. She liked her own space–preferably in front of the window on my Tempurpedic mattress, and she was known to move upstairs or down when the humans got too noisy. Someone once called her “catlike,” but I would dispute that. She didn’t cuddle but relished back massages. She communicated her needs with a focused stare. She was an obsessive fetcher. I couldn’t shovel snow without finding a frisbee or a deflated football in every other shovelful.
Mostly she loved to walk. We took three walks a day: before breakfast, early-to-mid afternoon, and either before or after the 10:00 news. She never learned to heel, so she always led the way, and we walked at a good clip. (I never enforced heeling, because I’d just as soon see a dog enjoy some good sniffing.) We became neighborhood fixtures. I suspect I was that woman who gets pulled around and talks to her dog. She drew attention from passersby–just an ordinary black lab, but with charisma. Salespeople stepped out of stores to offer her treats. Once a man who lived on our walking route ran across the street barefoot to hug me and thank me for taking such good care of my dog. She took good care of me. My whole body still longs to walk on that schedule.
She never passed up a meal, not until last week. On Sunday, the cook preparing to open the Thai restaurant on our walk brought out a metal bowl full of chicken and beef and set it down on the sidewalk for her. On Monday she hung around her dish asking for seconds. On Tuesday she stopped eating altogether. Even a piece of chicken couldn’t tempt her. A nasal tumor had pushed one eyesocket forward weeks before and was distending the other. Her breathing had become more and more obstructed. She obviously hurt but still never complained. On Friday, we put her to sleep.
A neighbor had objected to the planned euthanasia, which left me second-guessing the awful decision. She was, after all, still walking, still greeting people and wagging her tail. I asked our vet, Dr. Teresa Hershey, for her advice, and here is part of what she wrote in an email:
“What I like best about dogs is they find joy even in bad situations. It sounds like Leila is doing that- she’s so good-natured. . . .Your neighbor sounds like she loves Leila, but she doesn’t see Leila all of the time like you do. And Leila probably puts on her best face for company.”
I won’t be shopping for another dog soon. Leila, the best, may be the last, although I won’t say never. I’m thinking I can have my wood floors redone. I can come and go at will, on my schedule. I can take a long car trip. My nest is truly empty now, eerily empty.
Here in Minnesota we expect another winter storm tomorrow, past the midway point of April, before the snow from our early April storm has even finished melting away. The 50 degree day promised at the end of every week’s weather calendar keeps moving ahead, luring us day by day through a cold and dreary spring. This past Monday, my favorite radio show, “Bop Street” on KFAI, played a series of doleful songs about spring. I was listening passively while I finished up preparations for my class that evening, yet I could feel my mood sinking lower and lower. I caught on to the trick when Frank Sinatra’s voice began the dirge-like “Spring Is Here”: “Why doesn’t my heart go dancing? . . . Why doesn’t the breeze delight me? . . . Could it be because nobody loves me?” Thank you, emcee Pete Lee, for making me laugh out loud.
My old dog, Leila, is on her last legs, but they still trod ahead of me at the end of the leash on our thrice-daily walks. She has tumors in snout and neck, yet she still scans every nook and cranny with her good eye and her good nostril. Dogs may be the most optimistic species on earth. Today she stood outside the butcher shop, nose in the crack of the door, tail wagging, waiting for one of the treats she knows is inside. The shop wouldn’t open for another two hours, but I stood there with her until even her tireless patience gave out and she moved on to the birdseed stash outside the Tibetan gift shop.
Cancer has struck our human family, too, fifteen years after its last appearance. My sister is on a six-week chemo holiday, eating to put on weight, feeling her scalp turn fuzzy again without the weekly onslaught of toxins. We wait for the sun to shine on her upcoming round of scans and lab tests.
Monday evening when I pulled into the parking lot at the Loft, where I was about to teach my last class of this session, I heard a faint bird song. When I opened my car door it came clearer and I saw its source: a female cardinal at the top of a tree in the adjoining lot. She wasn’t chirping any of the formulaic patterns we recognize as cardinal sounds; she was singing a full-out melody more reminiscent of the nightingale I heard one midsummer night in Sweden. I carried that tune with me into the classroom and might be hearing it still, were it not for the news that came over the radio on my drive home after class: a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon.
The commentators who study terrorism tell us that the attackers intend to arouse fear just as much as they intend to kill and maim. They want us to remain in a perpetual state of fear, questioning our reliance on our government’s capacity to protect us, uncertain about everything we normally take for granted, afraid even to leave our houses.
I will walk my dog again this afternoon, this evening after dark, again tomorrow, for as long as she’s capable. I’ll be listening for the cardinals, whatever they choose to sing. I worry about the spring birds surviving the coming storm, but I’ve seen on my computer screen how the Decorah eagles, feathers soaked in the freezing rain, hunker down over their hatchlings knowing the sun will come eventually and dry them all out again. We just have to trust a bit longer.
This morning I had the pleasure of hearing a sermon preached by Anna Kendig, who will be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry this coming Saturday. I watched Anna grow up, and I still remember the sermon she gave on behalf of her fellow seniors on a Youth Sunday about ten years ago. It was a “real” sermon, a metaphoric tour de force that used the church’s stained-glass windows to articulate an already mature faith. I’m pleased that Anna found her vocation early. She’s a natural.
Of course her commanding presence in the pulpit set me thinking about all the would-be female ministers who were denied access to it in earlier times. Oddly, I can say that I am a beneficiary of that unjust exclusion. My earliest memories of worship feature at their center a round little woman in a blue suit named Florence Lien, who surely would have been an ordained Lutheran pastor had she not been born too soon. Instead, she became the Sunday School director at First Lutheran Church in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She gathered her underage charges in the smaller, modern chapel, not the dim, imposing, sacred space of the big sanctuary. I can still feel the smooth, blond finish on the pew and the stiffness of the starched dishtowel with a hole cut for my head that I wore as a member of the Cherub Choir. Miss Lien’s words to us laid the foundation of our faith. One story she told us still serves me well: Two girls were dawdling along on their way to school when they suddenly realized they would be late. One girl wanted to kneel on the sidewalk and pray that they arrive on time, but the other had a wiser idea: “We can pray while we run,” she said. It’s the best example I know of how grace and free will can co-exist.
Remembering Miss Lien got me to thinking about the spinster teachers who conducted my education at Lincoln Elementary School: Cleo Reiter, Agnes Preus (of the Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran Preuses, who, if male, were likely clergy), Bernice Olson, Mary Kampen, Lillian Purdue, and Lois Ann Kriesel (not a lifelong spinster). They were spinsters because the Albert Lea School District, like many others in the 1950s, did not hire married women. I left my second grade teacher, Madeline Feil, out of the list because she became an exception to the rule. She had announced just before Christmas vacation that we would have a different teacher when we returned to school because she was getting married. Yet she reappeared in January, for lack of a ready replacement, calling herself Mrs. Maceman, which the waxy-eared among us heard as Mrs. Basement. The professions were no longer closed to women, but enterprising women were roundly discouraged from becoming the doctors or lawyers or public officials or artists or business executives they might be today. A woman of intellect became a teacher, and many of these spinster teachers instilled their unfulfilled ambitions in their promising female students. I am the grateful beneficiary of the limitations placed on their lives. I had an excellent education.
The exclusion of married women was lifted by the time I started junior high, but still the district enforced an anti-nepotism policy. When teaching couples arrived in town, the husband usually got the job in Albert Lea while the wife waited for opportunities to open in the smaller rural districts nearby. The women employed in the high school tended still to be spinster teachers. I profiled one remarkable woman, career English teacher Sybil Yates, in Packinghouse Daughter. My journalism teacher, Edna Gercken, held the local clergymen’s association at bay when they wanted me removed as editor of the Ah La Ha Sa for arguing against prayer in public schools. Freedom of the press was sacrosanct to Miss Gercken, even if those exercising it were minors. I still evaluate the layout of a newspaper page through Miss Gercken’s eyes. My sophomore World History teacher, Elsie Sebert, was the sharpest of them all, and I feel privileged to have been taught by her. One day she told us that when she was walking along the street uptown, boys who had been students of hers always stopped to greet her. The girls, however, went out of their way to avoid her. “They think it’s contagious,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that some of us are old maids by choice.” I was stunned. No one had ever said aloud what other girls besides me probably longed to hear: That a woman could commit herself to a dream, an ambition, a vocation and let her prospects for marriage be as they may. Our spinster teachers had not simply been passed up in the game of romance. Many had chosen, and our education was richer for their choice, unfair though it was to make them choose.
I have not been much troubled by bad reviews of my publications. They have been few, thankfully, and they have generally not surprised me. I knew that Beyond Good Intentions would disgruntle some readers, because it takes up matters already controversial among adoptive parents. No book review has yet left me feeling personally aggrieved. Errors frustrate me–misquotes, for example, or when my hometown, Albert Lea, MN, is confused with its near neighbor and meatpacking sister, Austin. But to hurt me, a reviewer would have to catch me falling far short of some literary or moral standard I have set for myself.
Yet a certain type of bad review arouses my pity and makes me worry for the condition of reading in the United States. These are written by readers who read every bit of a book on the same level plane, with no eye or ear–or dare I say brain?–for alterations in tone, the use of irony, word play, shifts in perspective or any of the tools a writer uses to enrich and deepen a book’s meaning. Any single string of words is to be read literally, regardless of tone or context. Oh, what these poor readers are missing, and not just in my book. This review of Packinghouse Daughter, posted on the website Goodreads, may be the worst I’ve ever received:
Nov 21, 2012
Karl rated it one star
This book was required reading in a college level introductory creative nonfiction English class. People are selling this book as a look into union life and the “working class” family. What is left for the reader to figure out is the author is a communist. I attribute the 1959 violent strike to union leader Ralph Helstein who was influenced by Saul Alinsky (a Machiavellian style of community organizing), See page 359. [Author: The book is 280 pages long.]
This book is being used as a tool for indoctrination on college campuses to promote the conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie – class envy.
The author first hints at being a communist on p.5 with her “boyfriend Len” short for Lenin and then goes into discussing her years of protesting while at the University of Chicago. A second reference to her communist ideology is on p.203,”If ever anyone was ripe for communist influence, at least Marx’s theory of class conflict, it was fourteen-year-old me.”
This type of thinking deposits lifelong class hatred in its practitioners. An entire chapter is devoted to this hatred in, “My Vengeance On The Wienie Moguls.” This should be a warning to people not to embrace the class envy promoted in this book.
The poor guy just doesn’t get self-irony. Does he even see the irony in the name with which he has signed his review?
Give me the readers who, although they may read on that same flat plane, at least own up to their tastes. This post also appeared on Goodreads:
Apr 13, 2009
Dmitri rated it one star
This book was the first assigned for a class on the history of labor. I dropped the class after having to read this. It confirmed my preference of military history to social history.
Tomorrow’s election will, I hope, bring an end to one of the nastiest, most mendacious campaign seasons I’ve ever lived through. The influx of millions of dollars from SuperPacs, self-serving interest groups kept anonymous and accountable to no one, some of them even organized as tax-free non-profits, threatens to undermine our democracy. I’ve been muting their ads on TV, but unless I look away, I still see how slow-motion video distorts the face of Rick Nolan, a candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s eighth district, to make him look monstrous. It’s a sorry substitute for civil discussion of political disagreements.
Yet there is a way to counter the cynicism that wells up within when frustration and anger and fear of worse to come become hard to bear: It’s called door-knocking. I was introduced to door-knocking at age 7, when I went out with my dad to encourage fellow working-class citizens in the southwest part of Albert Lea, MN to vote DFL. (DFL stands for Democratic Farmer-Labor party, the Minnesota affiliate of the national Democratic party. The name represents the 1944 merger of the state Democratic party with the Farmer-Labor party, a progressive populist party that held the governorship and Senate and Congressional seats throughout the 1930s. Proposals to drop the FL arise from time to time, but the historically-minded among us do our best to retain the memory.) I immediately warmed to door-knocking, despite being an introvert. It helped, of course, to have a gregarious door-knocking partner like my dad, who could engage anyone in conversation about anything. I listened to lots of over-the-threshold talk about the relative merits of particular candidates, both “ours” and “theirs.” It was a generally pleasant way to pass the time, although I never seem to forget the woman who peered through the screen door at the Hubert Humphrey leaflet I held up and snarled, “I’d shoot him if I saw him.” It turned out to be an idle threat. She had plenty of chances to follow through, at local parades and at political rallies in city parks.
I’m still door-knocking all these decades later. Sometimes I have to peptalk my introverted self out onto the sidewalks, but I always come away both exhilarated and exhausted. I’ve walked through middle-class city and suburban neighborhoods where the lawn-signs tell you which houses to approach for a get-out-the-vote drive and which to pass by. I’ve door-knocked neighborhoods with doorbells hanging from frayed wires and voters housed in gerrymandered apartments with no accessible doors to knock on. I’ve been both welcomed and met warily, in every neighborhood.
This year I’ve been able to get out only once, this last weekend. My sister, who is sometimes my door-knocking partner, is sidelined by illness this year, and I have not yet persuaded my daughters that disrupting a stranger’s day can be a good time, so I went to the DFL headquarters alone and got assigned a partner, a woman named Julie who, thankfully, speaks a little Spanish. There hasn’t been much call for Swedish since the 1920s, probably. Our assignment looked quick–just one block on one side of the street. But the street was lined with apartment buildings, with an average of three floors and eight apartments per floor. One building was firmly locked, with no doorbell, and no one responded to our loud hammering, but we were welcomed into the others and allowed to go from door to door. Nearly everyone we found at home was an immigrant, either East African or Latino. Immigrant voters make a day of door-knocking a joy. At a duplex tucked in among the apartment buildings, five little kids came running down the stairs and invited us up to talk to their parents. Their mothers, two Somali sisters, came out of the kitchen where they were obviously cooking a meal, and invited us in to the living room. Yes, they were registered to vote, and yes, they knew the location of their polling place. Like many of the other immigrants we encountered, they were eager to vote and thrilled to be voting. They do not take their right to vote lightly. They even thanked us for taking the time to knock on their door. An East African man in one of the apartments asked about a friend in St. Paul who works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. With only one hour at the end of the day to get back to her neighborhood polling place, how could she vote? I told him that by law employers have to allow time for their employees to vote. “She’ll be in line at 7:00 a.m. then,” he said. “She’ll just be late to work, because she’s not going to miss voting!”
I’m glad to find that as jaded as I might get, new Americans will remind me of what matters, of what’s really at stake, and I’ll recover the excitement and pleasure I felt trailing my dad from conversation to conversation, knowing someday I’d be a voter, too.
This morning while I was driving along Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park, MN (hometown of Senator Al Franken, Thomas Friedman, and the Coen Brothers) I made a sad, but not surprising, discovery: The building that housed one of my favorite stores, Latitudes, was standing empty and for rent. Latitudes sold globes and maps from all over the world. Of course I’m regretting now that I didn’t stop in more frequently and make more purchases. I knew, though, that it was only a matter of time before Latitudes would be done in by GPS systems and Google Maps and the like. People are too hurried and harried now for all that unfolding and refolding. All they want is the quickest route from here to there. They don’t want to be distracted by landmarks along the way or encumbered by trivia about where they ARE, where they exist in the larger scope of things.
[LATE-BREAKING NEWS: Latitudes has not gone out of business, but it has moved to a smaller location and beefed up its online sales. Since I had already composed this blog entry, I'm going to post it anyway. I think the trend still holds.]
I am a map-loving, atavistic oddball. I have collected and perused maps since before I ever went anywhere, before I even crossed the Iowa border nine miles south of my childhood house. I keep my maps in the big bottom drawer in the kitchen cupboard, except for the ones I consult frequently. Those lie on a bookcase in the dining room, within reach of the table where I spread them out. I’m not content with the close-up view of point A or the route to point B. I need context, always, in every aspect of my life.
Recently my daughter moved to a new apartment in San Francisco. I found the address easily on Google Maps, clicked on the satellite view, and saw nearby rooftops labeled with the names of the businesses they house. So, I had some sense of her new neighborhood, but I wanted to see it in relation to the rest of the city. I had an errand in a nearby strip mall with a Barnes and Noble store, so I went in and grabbed a sturdy, plastic San Francisco map. When I unfolded it at home, I realized it was a tourist map, with sectional close-ups of the places tourists would likely want to visit. My daughter’s street wasn’t on it, not anywhere. Latitudes carried “real” maps, full maps, and I got one and spread it out on the table. There I could see my daughter’s street in its context, in relation to downtown, her work, her transportation to work, the ocean, the airport, Golden Gate Park, the route she runs every morning. I could imagine a whole life, lived day-by-day in a real place, a whole city, the whole Bay Area, so much more encompassing and satisfying than a quick trip from here to there, or “there” alone.
Google Maps is handy and has its charms. One day, while trying to find out how many houses Mitt Romney owns (4–in the U.S., anyway), I landed on a website that promises aerial and street views of celebrity homes. I found Bob Dylan’s house in Malibu and zoomed in close. It’s a far cry from the Zimmerman family’s stucco foursquare in Hibbing, MN, which my friends and I scouted out on a post-Labor Day trip along the Iron Range. If you type “Iron Range” in Google Map’s search box, it suggests “Iron Range, Hibbing, MN,” which offers you a close-up of what appears to be the Hull-Rust Mine, the world’s largest open-pit iron mine, though there’s no explanatory label or caption. Minnesota’s Official State Highway Map shows you the whole Mesabi Range stretching from Coleraine to Aurora, the Vermilion Range between Tower and Babbitt, the Cuyuna Range north of Aitkin. It even shows you the tiny towns like Makinen and Palo, where Finnish miners blacklisted for union organizing ended up farming in the cutover white pine forest. Google Maps brings up Makinen, a lone junction, isolated out in the woods, entirely out of context.
As for those celebrity houses, I admit to looking at several more. But zooming in on Malibu or Belmont, MA mansions doesn’t show me their relation to South Central Los Angeles or South Boston. I can’t see how wealth is concentrated or what maintains it, nor does my field of vision include the places where people do with far less. I have to seek those out, separately, although in my mind they fit together.
Speaking of context, I must comment on my pleasant Sunday afternoon at Common Good Bookstore in St. Paul, MN (check the corner of Snelling and Grand), an independent bookstore that stays in business because it is not its owner’s (Garrison Keillor’s) primary source of income. I had been invited to introduce a debuting writer, Josh Garrett-Davis, and his new memoir, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains. This book is the sort of memoir I strive to write and long to read. Josh could have written an ordinary memoir, one that focused on his puny (a relative term, not a judgment call) childhood in South Dakota, as the only child of divorced parents. But Josh is a context guy. Instead, he locates himself firmly in Pierre (East River) and Hot Springs (West River), South Dakota, in the 1980s and 90s, then reaches back in both family and public history and across the Great Plains, from east to west and north to south, to create for himself a “personal mythology” that explains who he is, where he has come from, and how that expansive context has shaped his worldview. It’s a rich, intelligent book that makes fascinating associations between one feature of the Great Plains and another. And it opens, even before the title page, with a map.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything public on international adoption. Speaking engagements have subsided, as well, in part because adult adoptees have stepped up to the podium and claimed their right to shape the adoption story, a development I cheer. Today, however, I’m moved to join in.
Driving home yesterday, I heard a report on Minnesota Public Radio that compels a response. The news it conveyed is that international adoption has “plunged” and “plummeted”–more alarming words than simply “declined.” The report attributed this change to the United States’ ratification of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption and offered as evidence countries that have suspended their adoption programs with the U.S. rather than comply with the convention’s complicated rules. This is important subject matter, well worthy of discussion and debate on public radio.
Nevertheless, the report disappointed me. The producers chose to hang the news on a stereotypical storyline: They introduced us to a couple whose expectations of a second child had been thwarted and then set up the old, familiar plot: Will these longing and long-suffering parents ever get their child? The online transcript is headlined “Would-Be Parents Wait as Foreign Adoptions Plunge.” Once again, international adoption has been reduced to a supply-and-demand transaction with obstacles.
What of the children in this changing equation? What of their birth families? What of their birth countries? The report turned its concern next to American adoption agencies. Two Minnesota agencies known for pioneering international adoption, Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service, have had to merge to spare themselves financial loss as adoption plunges and plummets.
The only significant nod to the children in question came from Adam Pertman, director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, who worries about the “many tens of thousands” of children who languish in orphanages around the world. It’s a sad irony, though, that children languishing in orphanages have never been the most desirable objects of international adoption. The key driver has not been concern for languishing orphans but rather desire for healthy babies. I can offer myself as a typical example of that tendency: One of several factors that drew my then-husband and me to South Korea for adoption in the 1980s was the Korean agencies’ practice of housing abandoned babies in foster care rather than orphanages. Korean babies were in great demand because they were healthy and had already learned to bond with a parent substitute. Most of the negative press about international adoption features older orphanage children. The MPR report even mentions the Tennessee mother who shipped her seven-year-old son back to Russia.
I agree that the decline of international adoption is newsworthy, as are the suspensions of inter-country adoption agreements. But the story needs a new frame. Its context should be global child welfare. How are the needs of children being met in the present and former “sending” countries? Is the increasing wealth in China and India, for example, “trickling down” enough to keep poverty from compelling families to abandon their children? Are governments in newly wealthy countries putting resources into programs that support children and families? Is globalization lifting the traditional stigma that has made it impossible for single mothers to raise their children? What are Americans who profess concern for children and families doing to aid families in other countries who struggle to stay intact? Adoption is, after all, not the only solution. An engaging, vital story that needs much more airing is the role adult adoptees have been playing in securing child welfare reforms in their birth countries, particularly South Korea. There are indeed some positive reasons for the decline in international adoption.
Finally, I am disappointed with the conventional way in which MPR ended its report: It’s not the perfect fairy-tale ending, but the waiting parents do end up with a child. She is a two-year-old special needs orphanage child, not the one they expected, but the one, they say, “who was meant to be.” In my Olympics-infused imagination, it’s all too easy to read this ending as missing the gold medal, but happily taking home the silver. Too many adoptees have had to contend with that “second-best” feeling. It’s beyond time to switch the focus from the waiting parents to the child, who should be the subject, not the object, of any news story about international adoption.
How do you take the measure of a place you are visiting for the first time? As a Midwesterner, I watch first for variations in landscape and skyscape. Maybe that’s because I grew up in the oak savanna transition zone between hardwood forest and prairie, where I noted subtle variations even on daily trips. On my big drive to Central Kansas in June, the transition from Flint Hills to Great Plains was abrupt and awe-inspiring. The land went flat; the sky grew huge.
But what of changes in culture, which command closer attention and put you at risk of social gaffes, even alienation? When I pulled into the Celebration Inn in Lyons, KS, right behind my Arizona relatives, I knew that they, too, were out of their comfort zone. As we dragged our luggage up to the door, ready for a great adventure, here’s what greeted us:
Hmmm. The receptionist told us the sign went up after some hunters were caught cleaning pheasants (or did she say deer?) in the hot tub. They must have rented the honeymoon suite, because there was no hot tub in my room, nor in Penny and Mark’s. When our Kansas relatives came to pick us up–our first in-person meeting–we watched for their reaction. They, too, laughed and shook their heads. No, they would never clean game in a motel room, nor would they expect to find the residue of blood and feathers in any room they rented. Lyons, they told us, had a reputation as a wild town, though it had quieted somewhat. It used to be that gangs from Wichita came up to cause trouble. I had to update my TV Western image of cowboys driving cattle across Kansas to accommodate roving urban gangs.
Back home in Minnesota I enjoyed showing my snippet of Kansas culture to friends, with the proviso that our Register relatives were innocent of cleaning game in motel rooms. One of the benefits of travel, of course, is that it makes your attention to your home environment more acute. What would a Kansan visiting Minnesota settle on to take OUR measure? While walking my dog one morning on our usual neighborhood route, I caught a fresh glimpse of this familiar object on the sidewalk in front of the hardware store:
What sort of people insist on serving only elite, gourmet water to their dogs–even in a common, public dish no doubt contaminated with the last drinker’s backwash? The dog owners of my Minneapolis neighborhood, apparently, the same neighborhood that hosts an annual fair of commercial dog products, with canopied booths and games, and calls it “Woofstock.” Our dogs, you might presume, would never touch their lips to a pheasant fallen dead in a cornfield, any more than they would drink ordinary water out of the tap (although I’m pretty sure that’s where the hardware employee responsible for refilling the elite gourmet waterer gets it).
I plead as alien to this notion as I am to cleaning game indoors (yet I do have a childhood memory of picking pin feathers off a chicken in the basement of our house). I grew up in a duck-and pheasant-hunting (and chickenneck-axing) culture where dogs ran free all day and drank out of mud puddles as readily as out of a plastic dish. Yes, my dog loves Woofstock and thinks that any canopied stand that goes up outside–even for the local farmers’ market–is full of treats for her. But here’s my favorite memory of Woofstock: My daughter had bought my dog a nice, marrow-filled bone at the neighborhood butcher shop, and we were sitting on a bench in the bus shelter watching her gnaw at it. A Weimaraner with a young woman in tow pulled up, out of reach of Leila’s bone but within staring distance. The Weimaraner had a little straw bowler hat perched on its head. You tell me: Which dog was happier with its prize? And which dog was out of its cultural comfort zone?
For the past several years, the historians and genealogists in the Register family have puzzled over two questions: Where is Harriet buried? Whatever happened to her husband, John? A delightful June trip to Kansas, where I met third cousins I never knew I had, has solved one mystery and maybe the other.
First, the backstory: On June 13, 1853, Harriet Register and her five children arrived in New York on a ship out of Liverpool called The City of Washington. The 1860 census shows her living in Medina, Ohio, and in the intervening seven years she had borne or acquired four more sons, including a pair of twins (the alliterative Rollo and Leroy) and my great-grandfather, John Everett Register, presumably named for his father. We know from documents found online that Harriet Laws was baptized in Hilgay, Norfolk, in 1818 and that she married John Register at Downham Market in 1838. The 1851 British census lists them as agricultural laborers in Southery, in the Norfolk fens. (So much for my presumption that the name Register means I come from a long line of scribes. John and Harriet each signed their marriage certificate with an X.) By 1870, Harriet had moved to Minnesota with her five sons, the four daughters having reached adulthood and moved on. She identified herself as a farmer–and as a slightly younger “Betsey”– in the U.S. census. Indeed, the Agricultural Census that same year counts her 40 acres, 2 horses, 4 milch cows, 2 working oxen, 4 other cattle, and 3 swine, as well as her production of spring wheat and oats.
The missing piece of this story is, of course, husband John. We could find no evidence that John ever left England, arrived in America, lived in Ohio, or even died somewhere along the way. Unless those four little American-born boys were conceived by the Holy Ghost, someone had to father them. My sister, who doesn’t bother with Ancestry.com or census records, decided that Harriet was running a brothel and taking on any children produced there. Yet a distant relative in England cited family lore that John had left for America a year or so ahead of Harriet and family–presumably after conceiving baby Larman, who became Lyman on this side of the Atlantic.
Complicating our efforts to find John was our loss of Harriet. I have a studio portrait of her in her old age taken in Inman, Kansas, and the census showed her living with son Lyman in McPherson County, Kansas in her later years. Yet someone had posted her burial site on Ancestry.com as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. My first cousin Penny and her husband, Mark, drove all the way up there from Mesa, Arizona, to see her grave, but found only her daughter’s name, Anne Esgate, on the tombstone. Mark kept foraging online and eventually located a gravesite in Bean Cemetery in Little River, Kansas–in McPherson County, naturally. [Oops! See Penny's comment below.]
Mark’s search also turned up a host of relatives still living on and near Lyman’s farm who were willing to entertain visitors. Mark and Penny drove up from Arizona and I drove down from Minnesota. When we pulled into the Celebration Inn in Lyons, Kansas, at the same time, we figured it was a charmed trip. The keeper of the Kansas Register history is Phyllis Swanson, Lyman’s 88-year-old granddaughter and my dad’s second cousin. Her neighbors had warned her about us: What kind of people would drive all that way to see a grave? Gold diggers, probably. We did indeed find gold, Phyllis herself being the most precious nugget. Among the items in Phyllis’s collection of random family memorabilia is a tattered receipt dated 1866 that credits Mrs. Register for payment on a grave in Medina Cemetery and identifies the plot by numbered coordinates. How likely is any of us to hang onto a receipt for nearly 150 years?
Mark phoned the sexton of the Medina Cemetery and he sent a map by email. The early records had burned in a fire, but someone had reconstructed a map of the old section of the cemetery in 1975 by reading tombstones. In the space matching the receipt’s numbered coordinates, it says simply “Register.” An eventual drive to Medina with a can of shaving cream and a squeegee might confirm that John is buried there. Phyllis heard while growing up that John was pinned under a falling tree, a fate that can easily befall someone clearing land with an axe.
We gathered many other gems on the trip, living and dead and inanimate: newfound cousins, an uncanny sense of family, precious old photos and stories. And a new mystery emerged: Among the family photos is an unidentified reprint of a very old portrait of a woman. I asked a colleague in my researchers’ group who works with 19th century material history to help me date it. The workday dress, the hairstyle, the likelihood that it’s an albumen print on paper suggest that it was taken in the 1860s. Could it be Harriet? Here it is, alongside Harriet’s old-age photo. What do you think?