Friday, August 25, 2023

Travel: Interesting Things In Kansas and Uncle Johnny Turns 100

When Uncle Johnny calls me, he hollers into the phone, wondering how I’m doing, how Paul is recovering from his accident, and, sometimes, when I’m coming to see him. “You’ll come see me when I’m in a box,” he grumbled one time, and I thought that was probably true. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if I found a way to see him before that?

I holler my answers when Johnny asks me questions, and on a good day he hears about 10% of what I’m saying. But we still manage to feel connected and up to date, and that’s what matters.

Johnny is my dad’s youngest brother. Dad lived to be almost 103, Johnny just turned 100, and their mother was almost 104 when she passed. “Sucks to be you,” a young friend told me when I quoted these numbers. But I am ok with the longevity genes I carry, because “Kansas Mommi” and Dad and Johnny made it look like long years of enjoying life, pursuing interests you didn’t have time for when you were fifty, and (Mommi especially) getting by with speaking your mind because people give you a free pass when you’re old. Dad was reading a classic—I think it was War and Peace—shortly before he died, and he wrote countless letters in his final years. Mommi was also a prolific letter-writer, with a mind tack-sharp almost to the end. Johnny had been living alone since his wife, Bertha, passed away maybe six years ago, and he hosted a revolving roster of visiting relatives in his basement. “Johnny’s EconoLodge,” he called it. In the last year, his son and daughter-in-law moved into the basement to stay with him.  Up to age 99, Johnny also had a job spraying his neighbors’ fencerows.

When the family announced a 100th birthday party for Uncle Johnny, I remembered his comment about seeing him in a box and decided to prioritize seeing him alive and well.

So Paul and I, as well as most of my siblings and their spouses, headed for Kansas two weeks ago. We stayed in some friends’ beautiful house and filled our days with a book event, an afternoon tea with a fun bunch of ladies, a visit to a museum, church on Sunday, visiting an Amish family whose daughter lives with our daughter in Thailand, cooking dinners for all of us, and of course the party itself, all in the context of Kansas in August.

At the tea party, I met my friend Miriam’s daughter-in-law, a lovely young lady who told me she grew up in Washington State, in the mountains, no less. She indicated that the transition to Kansas hasn’t been easy.

I tried to imagine it. Living in the Northwest, you expect the horizon to be like a frame around your world, and you get used to driving an hour or so and seeing a completely different landscape. All the physical features—from forests to desert to ocean beaches to high mountains—are wild and huge and breathtaking.

The graph-paper-grid roads, the landscape, and the farmhouses reminded me of Minnesota where I grew up, only Kansas is more so. Roads don’t detour around lakes, and the land is even flatter than central Minnesota. The roads are wide and the fields are wider.

I heard someone use the word “boring.”

“Here, we watch the sky for drama, rather than the landscape,” one of the women said.

That made sense to me. Compared to Oregon’s sedate weather, the Midwest’s tornadoes and hail and thunderstorms are wild drama. If I lived in Kansas, I’m sure I would watch them like all the locals and download a weather-radar app on my phone.

Still, I think I’d find it difficult to look at those flat fields, stretching to the flat horizon, day after day.

However, there’s something I could endlessly watch for sheer entertainment if I lived in Hutchinson, Kansas, and that is the people. Not only does the community offer Uncle Johnny and all his quirks, along with dozens of interesting relatives, it is also home to a unique stripe of Anabaptists who value reading and studying more than any other group of Plain people I’ve had the chance to observe. I decided to make the most of this trait and organized a book signing plus had a boxful of books in the car during Johnny’s party. Happily, that was the right move, and my favorite customer was the Amish woman, probably fifteen years older than me, who bought a stack of books at the event at Rendezvous Coffee and then nimbly climbed into her blue tractor and drove away.

Hundreds of people showed up for Johnny’s party, and the line waiting to greet Johnny stretched around all four sides of the gym. I talked with many different people, finding the most random points of connection. Evelyn and I were penpals when we were teenagers. Emma Grace was the little sister of my playmate Priscilla in Iowa when I was four or five, and now she’s married to my cousin Herman. My cousin Freeman and his wife Margaret came from Oklahoma, and we reminisced about the tea party she hosted at her house and how her son came in with a snake he’d found, which she realized was not a wise move to make if I was her guest. Roy from Montana is my local friend Jane’s brother and he’s married to my cousin Glenn’s daughter. And on and on, with not nearly enough time to connect and observe like I wanted, especially with a bunch of little Amish children kicking a soccer ball or waiting patiently in line. But what I squeezed in was precious and nourishing, deep down.

The Amish generally aren’t big on hugging, but Johnny is an exception. He hugged all of us and let us know how glad he was that we had come. I’m told he learned to hug after his children were pretty much grown up, and his daughter decided The Time Had Come and taught her parents this valuable skill.

Johnny has also learned to use a cell phone. My cousin John Earl’s wife Janice told me that the week before the party, Johnny had asked her to take him to town. They arranged a time, and Janice arrived to pick him up. Johnny didn’t come to the door, and she couldn’t find him in the house. She looked all around the basement, fearing she’d find him collapsed or worse, but no Johnny.

Finally, she called his cell phone. Johnny answered, hollering, “I’m not interested! I’m almost one hundred years old, and I’m outta the game!”

That’s his standard answer for telemarketers.

So Janice knew he was alive, but she still didn’t know where he was.

Finally he came walking in from a row of trees some distance from the house, where he’d been cleaning up in preparation for company coming. He had forgotten about Janice coming to take him to town.

I hope when I’m 100 years old I can still look outside and see mountains on the horizon, because despite being raised in the Midwest, I like having a frame around the world. Even more, I hope that I’ll keep in touch with my descendants and nieces and nephews, find useful things to do and good books to read, and welcome hundreds of people to my party. I hope I drop useless traditions and pick up new ones that serve me far better. I hope I find life endlessly interesting, whether I live in Kansas or Oregon or the uttermost parts of the world.

Maybe the key to an interesting life is not so much where you live, but how, and among whom.

Here's part of the line waiting to wish Johnny a happy birthday.

At the family dinner after the party, they served lots of delicious food, but all that really mattered to us was Amish peanut butter spread on homemade white bread. We used to eat this delicacy at the communal meals after the Amish church services of our childhood, and there is nothing like it in the whole world.
Dipping the sticky substance onto my plate, I tried to explain to my brother-in-law Chad who grew up Holdeman Mennonite and sadly deprived. "This stuff will make everything in your life all better. If you are stressed about anything, it will all go away when you eat this. It is that amazing."
I don't know if Chad believed me, but we see here that my sister Rebecca and brother Marcus immediately partook of their bread and peanut butter before touching the rest of the meal.
That is how it is with Amish peanut butter.

Roy read to the little kids

Paul and my cousin Truman caught up with their lives.

Chad the brother-in-law's cousin John took us on a tour of the Inman museum. He is really good at what he does, and I absorbed more Mennonite history in two hours than in the past ten years. 
Anna and Marcus, Loraine and Fred, Rebecca, me and Paul, and Margaret and Chad
[the sibs are Marcus, Fred, Rebecca, me, and Margaret. Our oldest brother, Phil, wasn't there.]

This lady came to my book signing in a tractor. The writing is from the coffee shop window. I contacted her daughter about posting this shot. She said, "Oh, that's my sweet mom, and she will be perfectly fine with it! Side note: This 84 year old Amish lady learned how to text since she knew that was her grandchildren’s primary way of communicating. She has a very strong desire to keep learning even in the limits of her Amish faith!"
[See what I mean about Kansas people?]


  1. MaryAnn Zook8/26/2023 5:09 AM

    I love this, but especially the value of seeing your uncle before he's in the box. My husband passed at 44, he loved people, large gatherings and connecting with others was very important. He would have loved connecting with all his friends that came to see him "in the box". This was a great reminder again!

    1. That is what I think about my funeral.. I'd like to TALK to those that come..

  2. On this Saturday morning, oh how I loved your post!

  3. This was delightful. You had me laughing out loud at Johnny's response to the phone call. I can just hear him. I loved your commentary on Kansas people and getting glimpses of my people through your eyes. Random, shocking thought: I do not like Amish peanut butter. Every time I go home and go to a church service, I groan when it's served instead of regular peanut butter.

    1. WHAAAT? You don’t like Amish peanut butter? šŸ¤”šŸ˜³šŸ˜³šŸ˜‹šŸ˜‹

  4. Such a fun recap of a place near and dear to me. It was such fun to briefly connect with you, Dorcas!

  5. No doubt the memories of this trip will be among your most precious. How fun to see your uncle at a birthday party instead of "in a box". I have to say that I have learned to love the prairies of southern Minnesota. I especially love the sky and the light! There is beauty in every landscape and I do miss the ocean (grew up in San Diego), but when we lived in Utah I felt hemmed in by the mountains and disliked the loss of seeing sunrises and sunsets. Here I get to see them in all their glory; and the clouds can be rather exciting!

  6. Hello. I just discovered your blog from one of your wonderful books I'm completely enjoying! - Sunlight through dusty windows. What a treat. Blessings to you and yours, Shannon

  7. When my grandmother was 84, she told my parents that she wanted to go ahead and have her funeral now so she could see everyone while she was still alive. My dad allowed that an 85th birthday party might be less morbid and he threw her a huge one. It was probably the last time she saw most people. She ended up dying 10 years later after years of dementia and her actual funeral was poorly attended.