Last week, I took a trip to heaven. Or was it hell? It’s hard to tell.
It was rural Kansas, and I was on a mission to track down my long-lost relations. Specifically, to track down my great-great-grandfather John H. Groves, who was born in 1836, fought for the Union in the Civil War, and settled in the little town of Reading, Kansas, in 1878 and proceeded to father a brood of six.
I’m into self-examination, and genealogy seems to me a superb form of it: By looking back at who your family was, you discover who you are.
A couple weeks before the trip, I took my first step, which was to google Reading, Kansas. Zooming in on Google maps, the town looked improbably small, just three streets by eleven streets, that’s it. Population 250, all white except for nine Hispanics. Then the tornado hit two years ago and 100 of those people left town for good. This place on Google maps had no grocery store, no businesses of any kind. This town made Mayberry look like a thriving metropolis.
Looking at Wikipedia, I discovered the town was founded as a train station. They loaded cattle onto trains headed for the Chicago stockyards. Sometimes, they let the cattle out of the cattle cars and into the fields of Reading to graze and water.
Immediately, however, a mystery presented itself. The last Groves in that town, according to Ancestry.com, was Daisy Groves, who never married and died in 1967 at age 86. I wondered why she remained a lifelong bachelorette. Had she been a lesbian? Had she been terribly shy or homely or, God forbid, both? I felt for this young Groves gal. Why had love passed young Daisy by?
Reading is so small, though, that it was hard to make much headway online. Nobody cares enough to put information about Reading on the Internet. So I decided to just drive over there and talk to people. Chat up some strangers. Hey, I’m always up for an adventure.
I flew into Wichita on a Tuesday, picked up my car, and hopped onto the interstate. I had only a day to spare, but I was going to make the most of it.
Driving from Wichita (pop. nearly 400,000) to Emporia (pop. 25,000) was easy, but when the GPS told me to pull off the interstate and drive down a gravel road, I hesitated.
Are you sure? I said aloud.
The computerized babe didn’t flinch, so I took the route she recommended. The road didn’t even have a name, just Road X. I cruised over the gravel at 25 mph, raising a huge cloud of dust behind me. The cross-roads were called Road 220 and Road 240 and suchlike. At a certain point, the babe ordered me to switch over to Road Y. And in between the roads was just vast rolling Kansas farmland.
When I finally pulled into this fabled town, it turned out that Google was wrong, big surprise. After all, how does Google know to drive their street-view van on gravel roads labeled X and Y? None of those roads were listed on street view.
In fact, there were exactly three businesses in town. A restaurant called Miracles, which wasn’t open after 2 pm. A bank about the size of a Pinkberry, and probably with just as much cash on hand. I knew it was a bank because it had a sign on the front that said BANK. And, strangely enough, there was a beauty salon. And no grocery store at all. I had checked on Google beforehand, and when I got to town, I confirmed it: No Whole Foods. Damn. The residents had to drive 14 miles to Osage or Emporia just to get a gallon of milk or an emergency prophylactic.
I got out of my car and wandered into the salon. Not saloon. If it were a saloon in the Old West, I would’ve walked in, the mustachioed stranger with a mean holster and a menacing swagger bellying up to the bar, and the room woulda gone hush.
“Shot o’ whiskey,” I’d have said.
Don’t really drink. I asked for a haircut, heavy off the sides, and clean it up in front.
“I charge five dollars,” he said.
I tried to suppress my surprise, but he made me. While cutting my locks, Rich launched into a well-rehearsed soliloquy about how people overcharge for haircuts in the city. Hey, I wasn’t going to object. But in the end, I did tip him another five.
“I was in Los Angeles for two weeks once,” he said while snipping and trimming. “I don’t even remember the exact city. It was so dangerous on the streets there that I never went out. Couldn’t stand it. Finally, I met Amanda in Emporia and moved back here. We were homeless when we got here. My mother lives five miles from here, but she went insane and I haven’t talked to her in five years. So I pick up this old historic brick building, which was condemned. We couldn’t get insurance, no way, not for a condemned building. But we worked on it bit by bit and turned it into a business, because see, the town of Reading has no city ordinances or codes, none at all. That’s right, you’re sitting in a condemned building.”
I told Rich about my quest, which was to find my long-lost relatives. Did he perhaps know of a woman named Daisy Groves who died in 1967?
“Can’t say I did. I’ve been in and out of this town for years. But I do have some old records that I pulled out of the ruins of the city hall after the tornado two years ago. You can have them, if you want.”
And within minutes, I was leafing through honest-to-goodness official Reading records from the 1800s, or whatever remained of them after the last tornado ripped up city hall, the brick shredded the documents, the rain wet them, and the sun dried them again. It was a sad sight, nearly destroyed historical records.
Soon, Rich’s next hair appointment walked in, a 58-year-old woman accompanying her 90-year-old white-haired grandmother, who was struggling along on a walker.
“Hey, maybe Linda knows,” Rich said. “Linda, this guy is looking for some of his long-lost relatives. Maybe you knew some of them.”
“Well, our family has only been in this town for 60 years,” Linda said, “but I’ll give it a try. What’s the name?”
“Daisy Groves,” I said.
“Oh yeah, they used to be our neighbors at Duck Creek when I was a kid. I knew Daisy.”
Wow. Small towns can be little miracles. Turns out that the reason Daisy never married, strangely enough, was that she was mentally impaired. Not lesbian, not ugly, not shy. She could talk, but she didn’t make sense. Her parents took care of her until the last one died in 1935. At that point, her nephew Cy took over the responsibility, taking care of her for three more decades. He sold the farm with the provision that they could live out their lives on the property they lived on.
Then one day in 1967, when Cy was 81 years old, he laid out on his bed and died. They were way out on Road 270, miles from the nearest neighbor. Daisy didn’t quite understand death, and wandered through the house for days, this 86-year-old woman who didn’t understand how to feed herself. Perhaps she was distraught that Cy wouldn’t wake up. Finally, she made her way out into the yard, fell, and hit her head. She died in the snow of exposure and head trauma.
When the sheriff finally came to the house on May 6, he discovered Daisy dead in the front yard. He broke into the house and discovered Cy’s body, as well. He was so decayed that he was turning black and his tongue was swelling out of his mouth. Daisy, on the other hand, was so recently departed that they were able to display her in an open casket. At the funeral at the Baptist Church, there was a healthy turnout for this simple homebound woman whom many people didn’t even know existed.
If you think about it, it’s a horrific thing. It’s sad that such a tragic thing was forgotten, that it took months of extensive online research, flying into Wichita, driving into Emporia, driving up gravelly Road X, and bravely badgering strangers before I learned the whole tragic story of what happened to great-great-grandparents’ lovely daughter 46 long years ago.
[To be continued]