[Continued from a previous post]
Land is what it’s all about out here in Kansas. Standing in front of my old family homestead from 1890, that’s all that you see when you turn round and round in 360, is land and an endless horizon.
There’s a road that runs in front of the house, and it’s still just gravel, even today, but was just dirt around 1900, when John H. Groves and his family first moved there. When wagons rattled along those roads, horse hooves clacking, huge clouds of dirt must have raised behind them, as they do today behind my rental car. Back then, roads out here didn’t have proper names, and still don’t, it’s still just Road 270. Look across the road and you see another man’s 40 acres behind a fence. Look to the right and left and you see the old 80 acres that John and his sons used to till and work, using ploughs and horses and other machinery maintained by his sons Orlando and Frank Elmer Groves.
At the moment, I was standing there with a ghost. His name was Preston Taylor, Jr., a third cousin of mine that I had met for the first time just that afternoon. He had been surrounded by this kind of vastness all his life. Working as a farm mechanic, he had driven these country roads to the various neighbors for years, making house calls to fix their vehicles.
“We Taylors were one of the few people who came out of the Great Depression better than we went into it,” Preston told me. “We had all our money in a bank, but then the bank failed. At first, it seemed like it was going to be a tragedy. But the bank had some land to pay us back with, so we took that. That land has paid us back for decades. We worked it till 1952, when we had a bad crop. That loss hit my father so hard that from then on, we’ve just rented it out.”
Farms have been central to the greatness that is America. My girlfriend Claire was born and raised on a farm. Her grandfather had owned the farm, then handed it down to her own father, Fred. Claire’s father worked the land diligently, ceaselessly, tirelessly. He grew wheat, soy, and millet, and raised cattle. Claire used to walk the pastures and enjoy watching the quail, hares, deer, and other critters. If you’ve ever seen Claire watch an animal, you know the meaning of the term enjoyment. She loved that farm, that land, and the critters who called it home, and when Fred became too old to work it a couple years ago and they had to sell it, we took one last visit.
We walked the pasture. We stood under the trees. We mooed at the cattle. A quail took flight and we heard that lovely flapping of its wings. We walked the perimeter of that farm, which also consisted of nameless roads like Road X. We visited the pond where Claire and her sisters had played as children dressed in their little bathing suits. Visiting it for the last time, Claire’s heart ached. She said goodbye to the land, because after all, it wasn’t just about the land, it was about the arc of her life.
But they made the best of it, as many American farmers do. One story illustrates this better than most. When Claire was 10, she remembers, a sudden hailstorm hit Plainville. It was raining stones the size of midget golf balls. She remembers being in the garage with her father, who just watched as the hailstorm destroyed his wheat crop. There was nothing he could do but watch the destruction of his entire planting season. After it was all over, Fred hung his head for a while, then just shrugged his shoulders.
“Girls, let’s gather up these hailstones,” he said. “We might as well make some old-fashioned ice cream while we still have the chance.”
Standing in front of the old Groves homestead, with all those stories running through my veins, I felt a kind of reverence.
So many things had happened in that house. It was the house where John H. Groves, born 1836, had lived since about 1900. It was the house that six children had called home. It was the house that Daisy, a mentally impaired little girl, would live in all her life. It was the house where Frank had shot himself in the chest one morning in 1920, despondent about his health. It was the house where Daisy and her caretaker Cy had died so tragically in 1967.
But not all people show sufficient respect. After Daisy and Cy’s death, the house was looted, Preston told me.
“Some rascals took John H. Groves’ Civil War military uniform,” Preston said. “They also took a Victrola. Shame.”
“Can we walk onto the property?” I asked.
I was eager to explore, or, as they call it in Kansas while holding a shotgun, trespass.
“I don’t like to do that kind of thing.”
So we gawked from a distance. This was where John H. Groves’ two sons, Orlando and Frank, had worked their mechanical brilliance, according to Preston.
“I’ve saved some of the brothers’ tools and inventions,” Preston said, “and I’m willing to give you a couple.”
“Yes. You can take them, if you want.”
The gesture made my heart skip a beat. This blood thing was thicker than I had realized.
There was an antique watchmaker’s staking set, which was lovely and came in a handsome wooden box. I later checked its worth online and discovered it lists on eBay for over $1500.
There was an old ferrotype camera, which was fascinating because of my father’s and my own interest in photography. I’ve gone into detail about Dad’s photography in a previous post that has become popular.
And there was a puzzle that the brothers invented themselves.
“The trick is, you have to get this ring over that ring,” he said. “I’ve done it a couple times, but it takes quite a bit of effort to do it, believe me.”
I was searching for connections between the past and the present, and puzzles and magic was a connection. Musical dexterity and mechanical dexterity was another. I was looking for connections, because obviously, if we share some DNA, there must be some. But it all came crashing down when I thought about Preston chucking his whole livelihood because he couldn’t spare the time to take a computer class. Now that seemed ridiculous.
But it seemed disrespectful to think of him as ridiculous. The occasion called for respect. It called for an understanding of the decisions he had made. After all, he hadn’t questioned my decision to spend 23 years of my life performing little trickie tricks, or spend 18 months with a witchy woman just because she had killer highlights in her hair.
So I looked him straight in the eye and listened. He was my long-lost cousin. It was the least he deserved.