Monday, April 11, 2011

Looking for Dad's Past

My dad grew up on a farm near Thomas, Oklahoma, one of many farms in the area that the Amish bought from enterprising folks, mostly bachelors, who had snapped them up in the Oklahoma Land Run, lived there the prescribed time, then sold them to a new wave of immigrants.

(That era is full of interesting stories with a memorable detail or two, like my brother's friend Charles who tells how his grandfather came to the area to claim his free quarter-section and brought along his older-single sister, who had a wooden leg, and she claimed the land next to his and lived in a dugout. No one quite knows--did she have horses and farm her own land? Or did she cook and clean for the brother and he farmed for her? The assumption is that the wooden leg meant she would never get married.)

On Monday and Tuesday of my visit to Oklahoma, I explored Dad's old home area for the first time in my life.

And in a very odd twist of fate, I got a series of calls and texts telling me that Dad was sick, he was taken to the doctor, he was in the hospital, and it did not look good.

So I was walking around the old Amish cemetery with my cousin Truman and his wife Laura, trying to follow the river of fascinating information about all my dead relatives, knowing that my dad might soon be joining them on the other side.

And he might never know I had been here. I texted my brother Marcus and asked him to please tell Dad where I was. It felt very important to me.

In among calls from Minnesota I got a frantic call from home. "MOM! Cleo had her kittens! Four of them! On a pile of fabric! In the sewing room!!!"

The dry grass crunched under our feet in the old cemetery, and I was introduced to one relative after another until the information simply flew past me into the endless wind. There was a Weirich woman from Oregon who was someone's first wife, and there was poor "Crippled Malindy" who lived with one of the relatives, and Aunt Lyddie and Uncle Amos, and far, far too many gravestones that included the word "infant."

It was much happier over at Margaret's house. I had known her only online, but she is married to Truman's son so of course I had to look her up. She lives in the house that Uncle Amos and Aunt Lyddie lived in. We had tea and coffee and scones at her kitchen table with Margaret's mother-in-law and sisters-in-law while children dashed in and out and dangled a rubber snake that nearly gave me a heart attack.

Margaret was one of several women I had gotten to know online and then met in person on this trip. A recurring theme in our conversations was the limits of blogging, and all the pieces of your life that cannot be displayed online. It's funny. You read someone's blog and feel like you know them. Logically, you know there is much they can't say, but you don't know what it is until you meet in person and see that yes, this is someone I can trust, and then out it comes.

Fred and Loraine and I had supper at Truman and Laura's, with their children and grandchildren in the house that was already old when it was moved onto the property in 1904. They treated us like royalty and Truman filled my head with facts and statistics and local lore, and gave me papers and pamphlets, including one by an old man who used to help my dad's family with threshing, and when I gave it to Dad later, he was delighted.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Meanwhile I was worried sick about Dad, and the reports didn't sound good. And I got more frantic phone calls from home. "MOM!!" Cleo actually had another kitten, and we didn't see it because it rolled off the pile of fabric she's on, and onto the floor!!"

Another call: "MOM!! Cleo had SIX kittens, and there was another one on the floor that we didn't see, and it still has the placenta attached, and it's alive but it feels cold!!"

I walked the girls through moving Cleo and clan to a basket, providing her with food and water and a litter box nearby, cleaning the poor little kitten, warming it up with a rice bag, and encouraging it to drink.

Loraine didn't think the kitty would make it. In her experience, once they're cold, that's it.

On Tuesday Fred and I went out to the farm where Dad grew up. Dad was never much of a storyteller, but I had a vague set of remembered stories that included wheat fields, a country school with Native American kids, horses, and a dog.

There was the house, now sitting empty, on top of a small rise. Behind it was the windmill and then a small building that Fred guessed to be "the proverbial woodshed" and I figured was the summer kitchen. Further out was an old barn, obviously from Dad's day, and in front of it a large round concrete water tank about three feet high. "1930" was inscribed on the top edge. Dad was 14 then.

Strangely, in the middle of that drought-stricken, abandoned homestead, with no livestock nearby, the tank was full of clear, clean water. And here and there in the sparkling water, stems of water lilies grew up toward the sunshine.

"Maybe there's a natural spring underneath," I ventured. Fred looked dubious.

I took pictures and prayed that I could share this experience with Dad before he died.

We cruised the country roads and Fred showed me where he had stayed the summer he was 20, with our cousin Joni and his family. There was Uncle Clarence's Amos's place, and this great-uncle's and that second cousin's. We passed old farmhouses where the wind blew through the windows, and then we stopped in to see our second cousin Bob Yoder, who was outside working on equipment. Not welding like he normally would, he said. It was too windy out here. I was surprised to see this nice Oklahoman in a red do-rag, but I kept my curiosity to myself and smiled politely while he and Fred chatted and the wild wind blew grit into my teeth.

In the car, I asked Fred. He looked exasperated. "It wasn't a do-rag. It's standard welding clothes, like a leather jacket."


Messages from Marcus indicated that Dad was stable, maybe improving slightly. So was the last kitty, according to texts from the girls.

Fred and I had lunch in Weatherford with Loraine, and then we hung around town and Fred bought gifts for the children and we bought Braum's ice cream, an Okie specialty, and then we went back to Corn and I made a hot dish for supper. Loraine's family came by that evening and I had to keep stepping outside to take calls from Paul, who was changing my tickets so I could fly to Minnesota early the next morning instead of home to Oregon later in the day as planned.

So that is what I did, and that is why I never got the photographs of downtown Corn and its fascinating emptiness that I had planned to shoot at sunrise. Someday I hope to go back, before the town is gone.


  1. Braum's ice cream is how I know I'm in Oklahoma. You obviously can't share every thing in your blogs, but oh!, the memories and pictures your blog evokes in me! Places, family connections, car trips, and communications from family far away! Thank you

  2. Maybe Fred & Loraine could send you some pictures you could post.......?? -PC in VA

  3. My great-grandparents were from Weatherford. My grandparents moved to Wellman, Iowa just before my dad, their fifth child, was born. Margaret sent me pictures of my great-grandparents' headstones in the Zion cemetery.

  4. Nonnie, that is fascinating! What were your great-grandparents' names?

  5. My great-grandparents were Solomon and Salina Detweiler, but Solomon died when my grandfather was 11. My grandparents were Benjamin (Ben) and Anna Detweiler.